Puzzling Parable - Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost (September 18, 2022)
Scripture Readings: Amos 8:4–7 | Psalm 113 | 1 Timothy 2:1–7 | Luke 16:1–13
“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:13).
What in the world are we supposed to do with the parable in our Gospel reading this morning?
Few of the sayings of Jesus can trip us up quite like this one: a parable about a dishonest manager… praised by his master for acting shrewdly while trying to save himself.
It seems like such a bizarre, and out of place example… an image completely at odds with the way of life Christ calls His disciples to follow… the way of faith and faithfulness… trust and trustworthiness. No wonder so many of us simply shake our heads and skip over this passage.
But this strange story from Jesus is also a part of His Good News for us and for our world. So rather than passing it by, let’s take a closer look and listen to the voice of our loving Master, and seek to understand what He is giving to us.
Part of the problem, I think, is that we’re not all that used to parables… at least, we’re not used to hearing them the way that Jesus uses them. In the Gospels, these short but powerful stories and word-pictures have a very particular purpose: they’re not “timeless truths”, or “sage advice”, but glimpses of what the Living God is up to… glimpses into the mission of Jesus Christ, calling for our response. Though we might be able to glean all sorts of other wisdom and insights from Christ’s parables, first and foremost, they are imaginative invitations to understand God’s Kingdom in a new light. If we misunderstand this purpose, we’ll likely miss out on what they mean.
With all this in mind, lets quickly go over the story again:
A dishonest manager get’s ‘busted’, and his master gives him notice of termination: “Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer” (Luke 16:2).
The ex-manager then panics, and jumps into ‘self-preservation’ mode. His primary concern? How am I ever going to survive once this job is taken away? He’s suddenly feeling vulnerable, and starts weighing his options.
He quickly settles on a strategy to set himself up well in the uncertain days to come: still in possession of his master’s business records, he drastically cuts the debts of those who owe his master money… hoping to make some friends who will remember his unjust generosity, and offer him hospitality and welcome him into their homes. His master then hears all about the scheme, and admires his ex-managers shrewdness. That is, his forward-thinking practical judgment about how to respond to the crisis… even if it was a crisis of his own making.
What’s the point… the purpose of this parable? Remember, it’s not a roadmap for best business practices… or just
general guidelines for life… Christ’s parables are about God’s Kingdom, and how we as God’s people respond to it.
So what does Christ say? Luke 16:8-9, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
Use our money to make friends… so when it’s all gone, we too will be welcomed. OK… but what in the world does this have to do with the Kingdom of God? How does all this connect with what Jesus was, and still is, up to?
It seems that in this case, Christ is offering a warning… by contrasting the dishonest but decisive wisdom of the world which looks ahead, sees trouble, and acts quickly… with the apparent cluelessness of the children of light, who don’t recognize the coming crisis and risk losing everything we have been given. Part of the point is to urge God’s people to quickly get our priorities straight… to use what we have right now, and which will not last forever, to work for what is everlasting.
But although this parable uses the images of money and wealth, it’s about way more than that… encompassing everything that God’s people have been entrusted with. That is, it’s about what it means to be a faithful servant of our Heavenly Master, who will not ignore the dishonest, and unjust practices of His servants.
Our First Reading today from the prophet Amos should be ringing in our ears now… where the Lord warned His people Israel that their wickedness and greed would not go unnoticed or unanswered. Starting at verse 2 of Amos Chapter 8, this is what God says to His people:
“Then the Lord said to me,
‘The end has come upon my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by.
The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord God;
“the dead bodies shall be many,
cast out in every place. Be silent!”
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.’”
According to Amos, Israel, God’s covenant people, had turned from His holy ways and become corrupt… trampling the needy, oppressing the poor… and chasing after dishonest wealth. They were no longer serving the Lord, but serving money… following their own desires… they had failed to faithfully manage their Master’s affairs, and were now being called to account.
In the light of these warnings from Amos, as well as the warnings of many of Israel’s prophets, the New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright makes this claim about the meaning of our parable: “If we were faced with a first-century Jewish story we’d never seen before, about a master and a steward, we should know at once what it was most likely about. The master is God; the steward is Israel. Israel is supposed to be God’s property-manager, the light of God’s world, responsible to God and set over his possessions. But Israel—as we’ve seen in so much of this gospel—has failed in the task, and is under threat of imminent dismissal.” And again, in another place he writes “Jesus regularly charges his contemporaries with infidelity to their commission: called to be the light of the world, they have kept the light for themselves, and have turned it into darkness.”
In other words, Israel had mismanaged what had been entrusted to them: the opportunity to share God’s light and life and holy love with the world, and with each other. But as they had lost this sense of their mission… like the dishonest manager, and Jesus now warned that the time would soon come when they would have this honoured role taken away.
Almost two thousand years after these words of warning were first spoken… are we Christians paying attention? Have we been any better at managing our Master’s affairs?
This passage speaks to all God’s people… to Israel, to the first disciples… and to the Church today… to all who would follow Jesus Christ into the way of life. In it, Christ warns that how we handle what has been given to us really does matter… not only our money, but our whole lives as God’s children, and our precious opportunities to share the Good News of Christ’s Kingdom: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” (Luke 16:10-12).
The sad truth is, the Church today is not all that better off than Israel was in the days of the prophet Amos. We too have often turned away from the Living God, and chased after our own desires… our own interests… our own sense of security, and power.
And like the dishonest manager, when our own way of life feels threatened, we too can quickly jump into self-preservation mode… more concerned with our own survival and comfort than with being faithful to our Master, and what He’s entrusted to our care.
Like Israel in Jesus’ day, we Christians will also be called to account for what we have done with what we’ve been given. And we too will face the just judgment of our Master.
But the Good News is, Jesus did not just come to pronounce judgement on God’s people… He came to be judged along with us … to take our failures and sins upon Himself at the cross… and more than that, to make a way for us all to face God’s just judgement and yet find grace and life… cancelling our debts by His own blood to rescue and reconcile us to the Living God forever.
As we heard in our Second Reading from St. Paul’s letter to Timothy: “This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For
there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
who gave himself a ransom for all…” (1 Timothy 2:3-6)
Unlike the dishonest manager, who desperately tried to buy his survival by cheating his master, Jesus Christ came to fulfill His Father’s will to rescue us rebels, and lead us all into the truth.
All through His life, and especially at the cross, Jesus was the one true and faithful servant of God, surrendering everything in order that, through Him, all of us could become God’s friends and be welcomed into His eternal home. This is what Jesus came to do… this is the Kingdom He came to bring about: turning dishonest stewards and corrupt caretakers into faithful children of light… drawing Israel and all nations together into God’s family.
If this is the glimpse of God’s Kingdom that this parable offers to us, how are we called to respond to it? How does this parable still speak to us today?
We’ve already noted that this parable is a warning… that we too can have what we have been entrusted with taken away… especially if we persist in squandering what belongs to our Master.
It also serves as a reminder that God’s Kingdom does not call us to amass money or possessions for our own self-protection or survival, even when we can see times of great challenge and change on the horizon. Our primary calling as the Church is not simply to survive, but to be faithful with all that we have in order to share God’s generous welcome with each other, but just as importantly, with those who have not yet come to know the One who has cancelled their debts at the cross. N.T. Wright puts it beautifully: “The master loves the world outside, and wants stewards who will seek its salvation, not merely their own.”
This parable also reminds us of our calling: to act decisively and be faithful with what little we have… our money, yes… but also our time, our abilities, and our opportunities to share God’s love with everyone around us… fostering communities where all can experience God’s welcome. This isn’t easy, especially when we are feeling vulnerable and uncertain. But it is precisely when things are toughest that we need to cling to the core work of God’s Kingdom. Again, Wright says it well: “The church passes through turbulent times, and frequently needs to reassess what matters and what doesn’t.”
So, how will you and I, and all of us here at St. Luke’s use all that we have been given? How is Christ calling us to be faithful servants of God’s Kingdom? What can we do to help others come to know the truth of what Jesus has done to save us all? How can we help them, and each other experience God’s welcome today? Amen.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 194.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year C (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2000), 106.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year C (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2000), 107.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 195.
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School