September 18, 2016
This has to be one of the most confusing parables that Jesus told! Every time I read it, it leaves me asking “Really!” I am not alone in this. The Wednesday morning Clergy Group that I meet with had the same reaction.
It seems out of place coming from Jesus, who came to preach “good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18). Elsewhere in the Gospel according to Luke, we read words such as:
· “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20).
· ... do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it… But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:29, 31).
· “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
Then we read these words from todays lesson: “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” (Luke 16:8).
Is this the same Jesus who told the rich young ruler “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)?
It almost looks as though Jesus was praising the dishonesty of the shrewd manager. It almost seems like someone accidently hit the “delete” button and left out a sentence or two.
I look forward to the day when I can see Jesus face to face and ask Him what he meant by all this. That does not mean, of course, that I won’t keep working in the meantime to figure it out!
Let’s start with some things that we can certainly agree with.
First, let’s point out that Jesus is talking here to his disciples. (Luke 16:1). He is talking to the people who have been following Him, who heard Jesus speak His message of giving up everything to follow Jesus, and who knew that Jesus practiced what He preached. This was not a message of evangelism directed to first-time listeners but a message of faithfulness directed to those who already were following Him.
We also find a notion that we are accountable for how we have used the gifts God has entrusted to us. In the parable, the rich man tells the manager to “Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.” (Luke 16:2).
There also is a clear notion that our money can get in the way of our relationship with God. Jesus says it very clearly in verse 13: “You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Luke 16:13).
But what are we to make of Jesus appearing to commend the dishonest manager who acted so shrewdly?
At one level, it seems that Jesus is telling us that we need to be very wise in dealing with our money. Stewardship matters. We have been given many gifts, and Jesus reminds us that “from everyone who has been given much, much more will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48). Certainly, in the parable of the talents, Jesus commends those servants who have invested widely and multiplied the funds entrusted to them; but to the servant who buried his funds and had no return on investment, Jesus offered pretty harsh judgment. For the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.” (Luke 12:26).
As a pastor, I dread the days that I have to talk about money. It’s so much easier to talk about loving your neighbor and about the Good Shepherd who seeks out His lost sheep. But when the preacher begins to talk about money, there is a feeling that he has crossed the line from preaching into meddling.
But Jesus doesn’t shy away from the topic. He knows the human heart, and he knows that the things we possess all too often possess us. That’s why He tells the rich young ruler in Chapter 18 that he lacked one thing—that he needed to sell everything he has and give the proceeds to the poor. Then he will have treasure in heaven. (Luke 18:22).
But Jesus still expects us, whether in our money matters or in our spiritual matters, to use our heads, to be smart about what we are doing. The word that we read as “shrewd” also can be translated as “clever.” Jesus wants us to keep on our toes in our business affairs. After all, we are not working for our own profit; we are engaged in the work of the kingdom of God!
At this point, let me put in a short commercial for the workshop that we will offer following this service. The Rev. Stephen Clark is the president of the Virginia United Methodist Foundation. He will offer to us some suggestions about how we can be smarter about our money—about how we can find ways both to protect our own financial security while we are living and to offer gifts to God’s kingdom when we are gone. He will be giving suggestions about how we can be wise stewards of the gifts God has given us—using Jesus’s word, Steve will be telling us how we can be “shrewd” in ways that can help Cunningham Church but also provide for our own needs.
But as important as it is for us to be smart in our giving, I think that if we leave today’s parable at this level, we are missing the most important point that Jesus has to say in this story.
I believe that Jesus was using this extreme example of the ways that people aggressively watch out for their financial security to say something about the extreme measures we should be taking to watch out for our spiritual security.
I think Jesus is warning us against the temptation to grow soft and lazy in our spiritual journey. He is warning us against the notion that the spiritual journey is a way to coast through life; rather, He is inviting us to keep on guard.
Jesus is calling us to wake up, to stand on our tiptoes, keeping our eyes open, aggressively looking for ways to proclaim the kingdom of God.
Jesus is calling us away from business as usual; He is calling us to move on to something different, to a radical way of discipleship. He is calling us to let God transform our lives so that the things that used to be so important to us fade away as we leave them behind. He is calling us to a radical conversion when He tells us “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33). Jesus is telling us that when we make the kingdom of God the most important thing in our lives, we will spare no energy, spare no area in our lives, to find that which matters most to us.
There was a time that I thought religion should be respectable and comfortable, that it was about being nice; that it was about confessing our sins, saying the right prayers, and living the right way so that we can go to heaven when we die. Make no mistake--Christianity does proclaim those things. But if that is the only way we see our religious journey, then we are missing the best that Christianity has to offer.
When an expert in the law asked Jesus “what must I do to inherit eternal life,” Jesus turned the question around and asked the expert what is written in the law, the expert replied “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” These are action words describing an extreme way of living and loving. In today’s parable, Jesus makes it clear that we are to live and love with all our minds as well as all our hearts.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a Service of Celebration on the assignment of Sharma Lewis as the resident bishop of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church. I had read her biography before; I knew that she had a reputation for evangelism. But I had no idea of the energy, enthusiasm, and passion that she puts into her work. She called on all of us to come alive in the power of the Holy Spirit. She echoes the call to begin on our knees, as her predecessor Bishop Cho urged us to do. But she then follows that with a call to work, to preach, to proclaim, to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If the Virginia Conference can adopt her passion and enthusiasm for the Gospel, I promise you that the Virginia Conference will look very different from the church that it is today. No more business as usual!
That is the message that I find in this parable today. Let’s not be content with business as usual in our spiritual journey.
The translation by Eugene Peterson puts verses 8 and 9 of today’s lesson this way:
The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”
I want to live my life as one who is shrewdly spiritual. Will you join me?