Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 16:1-13

The Holy Gospel according to Luke.
Glory to you, O Lord.

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; 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. 

“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? 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.” 

The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ. 

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Did anyone else hear the Gospel as it was being read and say to themselves, “Uh, what?” For me this is probably the hardest of Jesus’ parables to understand. The end of it makes sense to me about loving God more than money but the beginning? The part about the dishonest manager? This is one of those times when I wish I would have looked at what the readings for the day were before I agreed to lead worship! There is a reason why there isn’t a youth message today!

So, in the Gospel story, word is brought to the rich man the the manager was squandering his property. He probably received this report from the farmers who somehow found out that what the manager was charging them wasn’t as much as the rich man was receiving. The manager was likely skimming as much as he could but got a little too greedy. Now he’s caught and the rich men isn’t happy. Then, the rich man tells him to “give an accounting.” Even though he isn’t actually charged with anything but a vague squandering, the rich man tells him he’s through once he’s finished with his working for him. 

This is where I find the dynamics of this all strange. The manager isn’t charged with cheating or stealing, but squandering. Maybe he wasn’t charging enough for the rich man’s liking? And then he’s supposed to give an accounting of his own management so the rich man apparently trusts him to be honest. Then, once the manager goes out and cuts the debts of everyone, this further squandering  the rich man’s holdings, he gets commended for his actions by the rich man. Very confusing. 

Reading through a bunch of commentaries wasn’t as helpful as I would have liked in getting a grasp of this parable.  I should have sat in on the the men’s Bible study on Thursday to hear what their thoughts were. Then I watched a video by a man named Brian McLaren and it helped me make better sense of it. So, I’m going to be paraphrasing some of what I learned from him.

The people of Jesus time who he was speaking too would have understood the parable much better than we because they were living in the economic system it happens in, some were poor and some were rich, there weren’t many in the middle and those that were were just one problem away from becoming poor.

In the economic system of the day, Rome reigned supreme. They controlled everything and exploited whatever it was they thought they need, from land, to money, to people. The Romans liked to live large and for that, they needed a steady income of money. The easiest way to get money was to tax the people of the lands they occupied.

Now the land of Palestine was basically divided in half by Samaria. The wealthy people tended to live south of Samaria in Jerusalem and other prosperous cities. The poorer people lived in the north near Galilee and Nazareth, the area Jesus was from.

Rome would exact a tax on the farmers in the north at a high rate, more than many could afford. With no real options available to them, the rich people from the south would offer to help them out of the goodness of their hearts. “Boy, do we have a deal for you,” they would say. “I’ll cover your taxes so you won’t go to debtor’s prison and in exchange, You sign over the deed to your land to me. Don’t worry, you can continue to live there and be a share cropper. I’ll just take a portion of what you grow as rent.” What a deal! The farmers had no real choice but to turn over their land to the rich men, but they wouldn’t be happy about it. Then they would have to pay whatever the rich man demanded in order to stay on the land in their houses.

This would have been very similar to the coal mining towns of Kentucky, West Virginia, and probably also Ohio in the last century. The miners lived on company land and shopped in company stores. The high prices for rent and goods meant they couldn’t save any money to escape with because, as Tennessee Ernie Ford sang, “I owe my soul to the company store.”

Now the rich men weren’t about to make the long trip from the south to the north, especially with the farmers upset with them, so they would hire managers to keep track of what they were owed and to go collect it from them. These managers would often inflate how much the farmers owed the rich men and then they would pocket the difference. Not a bad gig if you didn’t mind taking advantage of others.

So the manager in our story is in this position. It doesn’t say he’s skimming from the farmers rent, but it doesn’t say he isn’t, either. Either way, charges are brought against him and he’s about to be fired from his position. Luckily for him, he’s given change to come up with an idea. 

He knows he won’t be able to rely on the rich man for help, he’s firing him after all and he knows the rich man has little care or use for people beneath him socially and financially. They are just objects to use and exploit and then forget about. 

The manager knows he is unable to do manual labor well enough to support himself. All those years setting behind a desk have done their magic on him and he no strong and his skin is too soft.

He’s still a too little proud to go and beg with the old, blind, and lame that rely on it. What is he to do?

His plan is use what little control he still has left and make friends with the farmers by reducing their debts to the rich man. It’s possible he was only forgiving them the part he was skimming or maybe he was forgiving part of what they really owed the rich man, which would have been extravagantly high in its own right.

In making and following through with this plan, the manager has had a paradigm shift in his thinking about money. Before, he was just interested in gaining money, willing to exploit people he had some power over to do so. Now, he is interested in building relationships, willing to exploit money he has some control over to do so. That is a big shift. It is a shrewd shift.

Jesus goes on to say that one can’t serve God and money. Other translations that one can’t love God and Mammon. As Christians we want to serve God over money, or least we should, but we often don’t do a very good job of it. 

My wife, Paula, and I decided even before we were married that we wanted to give a tithe, a full 10% our income, back to God, and we’ve done pretty well with that. In fact, just this past week Paula started receiving a small raise and we started talking about how much that would add to our tithe and where we should place it. Most of our tithe comes here, but some also goes to  Lutheran Memorial Camp, Jeremiah’s letter, Victory Project (a ministry for youth downtown), and to support several missionaries, both in and outside the US, among other ministries. So, on that front I think were doing a decent job of using our wealth to serve God.

On the other hand, we keep an eye on our somewhat modest retirement investments and instead of completely trusting that God will meet our needs, we fret over them, complaining that what we now have is less than we did have and that it often feels like we’re throwing money away. We enjoy our electronic devices and cheap clothes and doodads, knowing that they are likely made in an oversees sweatshop by people how have no options, but we care very little about them and do even less for them.

It’s hard, very hard to love God completely and to turn our back on the siren call of money. It’s harder, in fact, than having a camel go through the eye of a needle.

It is important to note at some point here that Jesus is not talking against money itself. Money is extremely useful in the Kingdom of God. Without someone using it for a good purpose, we wouldn’t have this building or anything in it. We wouldn’t be able to stream the service or serve communion. We wouldn’t be able to serve the hungry people downtown at First Lutheran. Money is important, we just need to remember to keep it in its place in God’s scheme of things. I think that we would rather die flat broke with many people mourning our passing than with huge sums in the bank and having many people wishing us godspeed because we never used a penny to help others in need.

This is not meant to be a stewardship sermon. It’s not supposed to be about tithing or making you feel uncomfortable about how much you give to the church or its related ministries.

Actually, maybe it is supposed to make us feel a little uncomfortable about how we think about and use money. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and at some point have love money more than God and all of us will do so again. Praise be to God that money has no control over or hold on God. When he looks at us he sees us through the eyes of a loving parent with no thought to how much we have or don’t have. Whether we are rich or poor we are invited to come and feast together at his table with no regard for what it cost him. May we in turn love, follow him, and serve our neighbors with no regard to what it costs us.

Amen, come Lord Jesus.