Wise Guy, Eh?

There are so many different ways to look at this parable. What does it say to us about how to wisely use all that God has given us?

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Luke 16:1-13

Have you ever heard of the 501st Legion?  This is a non-profit group that …

“… is dedicated to celebrating STAR WARS™ …using costumes that portray the villainous, morally ambiguous, or non-partisan characters from the STAR WARS™ universe. The Legion promotes interest in STAR WARS and … contributes to the local community through costumed charity and volunteer work…”[1]  I discovered them on a web page about unusual philanthropy groups. I’m telling you about them today because they are bad guys doing good.  Kind of like the manager in today’s scripture reading from Luke 16.

[2]

New Testament Professor Audrey West wrote in Christian Century about today’s scripture. She tells about a veterinary school professor who gave a final exam with a story. The main character—a chicken, a horse, or a family’s beloved dog—was suddenly stricken with an undetermined illness. A long list of symptoms and the results of a couple of lab tests were followed by two questions:

What is the cause of this animal’s distress? and What is your treatment plan?

That is, How do you interpret the data? and What does it mean?

The students gave a wide variety of answers, and most of them got a good grade, but still, they wanted to know: What is the right answer?

The professor refused to give one. He said, “As long as you provided a diagnosis that made sense of the symptoms and a fitting rationale for your treatment plan, you received an A.”

Most students were unhappy with that response. They were determined to prove to the teacher and to each other that their own response was the correct one. They’d meet during office hours and argue their rationales, … With each conversation, the students gained new understandings, and expanded their diagnostic capabilities.

This was the professor’s intent.  To spark discussion.  Audrey West wonders whether this also might be Jesus’ intent with the parable he tells in today’s text.[3]

Today’s text is a curious story. It’s about a manager or steward whose boss, a rich man, finds out that the manager is squandering his property. So the boss confronts the manager and demands an audit.  The manager knows he’s getting fired, so he decides to make sure he’s got friends who can help him. He reduces the debts of the people who owe the boss. Surprisingly, the boss isn’t mad. Instead the boss commends the manager for his creativity and shrewdness.

Is the boss really praising the manager for cooking the books? It is quite tempting to find an explanation that makes us feel ok about this parable, but there really doesn’t seem to be an explanation that answers all our questions. 

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One explanation is that the manager is able to reduce the debtors’ invoices because he had been overcharging them. If that’s the case, then it makes sense that the boss would praise the manager for doing this because it helps them all. I like this explanation because it’s correcting a wrong and making things right.  But if it were the honorable thing to do, why does the manager tell the debtors to act quickly, as if he’s trying to keep these actions secret?

A similar suggestion is that the manager gets a commission and the amounts he’s removing are his commissions.  But again, if this were the case, would it need to be done quickly and secretively?

Commentators John and James Carroll say that “this approach to the parable sanitizes it, and robs it of the very moral offense that allows it to interest and challenge the hearer.”[5] It’s tempting to try to make this parable say what we want it to say.  But if we try too hard to make peace with this parable, do we miss out on the opportunity for deeper thinking?

Why is Jesus telling this parable?  He has just finished telling the three parables about lost things – a lost coin, a lost sheep, and a lost son.  After each of those stories, Jesus says there is great rejoicing in heaven whenever anyone repents – whenever anyone changes their mind and turns to God.

So where is God in this story?  Is God in this story? Some propose that he is the master, but if that’s so, would God praise the manager for what he’s doing?  Maybe, if this an example of God’s unconditional love and grace that forgives us, and through Jesus sees us as if we’d never sinned. 

What if the debt that the manager was managing was not actually money but sin, making it the same as the debt that Jesus paid for us?  Is the manager in the story doing what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer?  Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

But maybe the master is not God. Maybe the master is actually the villain of the story. Theologian Stephanie Buchanan Crowder offers an interpretation from that perspective.  She suggests that the manager has simply learned to make use of a corrupt system in the same ways that he has seen the master work. That would mean that there is a system of economic exploitation in place, and the manager is simply using it to benefit himself and the master’s debtors.  They have all had to learn how to work the system in order to survive.

Crowder gives a modern-day example – retirees who are living on social security, but are unable to survive on that income alone because it hasn’t kept pace with rising costs, so they take on jobs for which they get paid under the table. That way they don’t jeopardize their social security, or have to pay taxes they can’t afford.[6] Is the outcome all that matters?  Does the end justify the means?

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How do you read this parable?  Is there a hero or villain? Is the manager to be commended for his quick thinking?    Are we even asking the right questions?

Writer and pastor Layton Williams says that this parable shows us “a familiar worldly hierarchy: The rich man has the most power and oversees the manager, who in turn has power over those in debt to the rich man. However, when the manager finds himself suddenly at risk of losing his job, the very people who can help him are those with the least amount of worldly power. And the manager’s selfish actions to help himself—reducing the debts—end up helping everyone. It looks like quid pro quo: If you help me, then I’ll help you. But within the larger context of Jesus’ teachings and ministry, it becomes an invitation to connection and interdependence.”[8]

In other words, is everyone only looking for themselves, or is Jesus showing us that working together makes for better solutions?

Commentators point out that Luke and/or Jesus knew this was a tough parable to understand, and that’s why there are four interpretive statements at the end.  The first one…

V. 8: The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

This sounds like an argument from lesser to greater: If this dishonest steward acts shrewdly to ensure his own survival, how much more should we act wisely in our own stewardship of the lives and resources that God has given us.[9]

V. 9: Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

In other words, use what you have to help people. Use it for good instead of evil or selfishness. To “welcome into eternal homes” could be a way of talking about things that last forever, like love and peace and faith.  When we use what we have to help others, we are turning material goods into eternal benefits.

V. 10-12: 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? 

Maybe this one is easier? No matter whether we have a lot or a little, our behavior is likely to be consistent.  

What are the true riches?  If everything we have and everything we are comes from God, then none of it is truly ours.  The true riches are the things that we keep for eternity, like God’s love and grace.  Our relationship with God.

V. 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.

So, in other words, use your wealth, whether that’s money, possessions, or talents, to serve God.

How do we do that?  I suppose it depends on the situation. So let’s consider some situations.

Alfred Nobel.  He invented dynamite and built a fortune from that and other inventions.  One day he picked up a newspaper and found his own obituary.  In reading it, he was dismayed that the article called him the “dynamite king” and recounted his business success, but mentioned none of his passion for world peace.  From that day on, Nobel began working on the disposition of his estate, including instructions for establishing the Nobel Peace Prize to be given to the person or persons who had done the most for the cause of world peace.[10]

Nobel didn’t stop making dynamite, though. He believed bigger weapons would become a deterrent for war, and therefore in the end promote peace. 

What about Robin Hood?  He may or may not be based on a real person and some commentators compare the manager in today’s parable to Robin Hood because they both stole from the rich and gave to the poor.  He was helping people.  Did that make it ok?

Maybe this parable bothers us it because it isn’t as straightforward as some others, and it doesn’t seem fair.

Sometimes life isn’t fair and we don’t always like the way the world is. One woman turned her challenges with tallness into an international nonprofit foundation.  Her name is Kae Sumner Einfeldt. In 1938, she got fed up with all the ways that the world doesn’t make things big enough for tall people, so she started Tall Clubs International.  Her groups help get businesses and manufacturers to consider the needs of tall people, and they give scholarships to tall students.[11]  What a great way to turn tallness into goodness.

There are so many different ways to look at this parable. Did one of these explanations make sense to you? Or do you have another explanation that you like better?

What does it say to us about how to wisely use all that God has given us? Which of these perspectives call us to think and live differently?

Maybe the whole point is for us to keep talking about it.  I hope you will.

Thanks, God.


[1] https://www.501st.com/mission.php

[2] Photo by Kristine Wook on Unsplash

[3] Audrey West, “Turning Understanding On its Head,” https://mailchi.mp/christiancentury/sc-free-2022-09-12?e=ad12e8afdd

[4] Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

[5] John T. Carroll, James R. Carroll, Preaching the Hard Sayings of Jesus, (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), p.111.

[6] Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, True to Our Native Land, pp. 175-176.

[7] Photo by Javier García on Unsplash

[8] Layton Williams, Upper Room. The Upper Room Disciplines 2022: A Book of Daily Devotions (p. 449). Upper Room Books. Kindle Edition.

[9] Carroll and Carroll, p. 113.

[10] Carroll and Carroll, pp. 116-117.

[11] https://tallclubfoundation.org/

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