Are You Kidding, Jesus?
(Revised version of a September 20, 1992 sermon)
July 2, 2000
Luke 16:1-13 The Rev. Carol DiBiasio-Snyder
Introduction to the Scripture:
We've been telling you that many
of the parables have lost their punch over time in the telling and
retelling. The one you are about to hear is not very well known, so I
think it retains some of the original shock. And so, I will give you no
further introduction than that! Let us now listen for the word of
So, interesting story, isn't it? It is a crazy story for Jesus to tell, unbelievable! Let me recap just in case you missed it.
The parable concerns a manager, or a steward, let's call him Chuck, and his rich master, let's call him Fred. Chuck, that's the steward, is hired to manage Fred's large household; overseeing domestic concerns including supervising servants, collecting rents and keeping accounts. Evidently Chuck does not do a very good job and squanders Fred's money. When Fred gets wind of this, he is angry, and calls Chuck in to tell him to hand in his accounts because his services are no longer desired.
Considering his bleak future -- he says he is not strong enough for manual labor and is too proud to beg -- Chuck quickly concocts a scheme to secure his future. He lines up Fred's debtors and reduces their bills, some as much as 50%! He knows that, should he need a favor in the future, these people will be obligated to help him.
In the shocking ending of this parable, Fred commends the dishonest manager because he has acted shrewdly! Not only does Jesus leave us hanging there, apparently praising Chuck, a man whose conduct is characterized by incompetence in the beginning and flagrant dishonesty for personal gain in the end, not only does Jesus leave us with that thought, but he goes on to tell us, "Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they will welcome you into the eternal home."
Are you kidding, Jesus? Holding up an incompetent, dishonest, self-serving person as someone to emulate does not seem to fit with the rest of his teaching. If you don't understand this parable, you are not alone. It has tied scholars into knots and puzzled Christians for centuries. During the first four centuries the early church made few references to it, probably because they found it perplexing, and I bet few, if any of us remember any sermons preached on it.
Apparently even Luke was baffled by it too. I can picture him working on gathering together his writings, carefully arranging the stories, events, and teachings of Jesus. Looking over this parable he must have wrestled with how to make some sense out of it for his readers. So he gathered a few other teachings of Jesus' about money and put them as a sort of appendix to the story. Those sayings are much easier to understand than the parable:
- The person who is faithful in small matters will be faithful in much.
- The person who is dishonest in small matters will be dishonest in much.
- You cannot serve two masters at once, they will compete for your loyalty and you will eventually hate one and love the other.
- So you cannot have both God and money as most important in your life, it just will not work, you have to choose.
These statements are pretty clear and understandable. Mostly they are logical, common sense teachings. I don't like the one about money and God, I like to think that somehow I can balance my love for both, but besides that, they fit with what we know of Jesus.
But not the parable! What do you think it means that we are to follow the example of a scoundrel? Many theories have been offered in the struggle to make sense of Jesus' words.
Some say that we are looking at an example of Jesus' humor. They say he is speaking ironically here as if to say, "Oh sure, make friends with dirty money, use worldly wealth to win friends! Then, when your money runs out (and you know it will) those friends will welcome you into your eternal home! Oh sure." Or as some might say today, "Money can win you eternal friends . . . NOT!" In using irony and humor, Jesus is pointing out the hazards of thinking money will get you what you need.
Well, the point may fit with Jesus' general teachings, but I'm not convinced it fits with this parable. The parable still seems to hold up Chuck, that rogue, as a model for us.
Others interpret the parable based on saying that Chuck was commendable because he sacrificed short-term gain for long-term benefits. They say there are several alternatives to understanding his action of reducing the debts. Perhaps he took it on the chin and discounted the debts by the amount of his commission. Or maybe he was really a good guy, after all. Perhaps he reduced the debts by the amount of interest his master was charging. Charging interest was forbidden in the Jewish law. Chuck was really a righteous man. But these ideas just do not square with the characterization of the manager as wasteful and motivated purely out of self-interest, and so I am still left wondering why I should be like him.
The idea of Chuck being an example gives us pause, yet it is his unlikeliness that is at the core of this parable. This parable is difficult to interpret because it is disturbing and unsettling and that is just what Jesus wants it to be.
What a shock it is for us that Jesus makes the dishonest manager the hero and then compounds the surprise by telling us to use unrighteous money to make friends. We really expect him to tell us to stay away from that filthy lucre, lest we get our hands and souls dirty.
Some commentators -- and here's where I think things begin to make sense -- think that Jesus was actually being pretty clear here, making at least two points. First, the dishonest and self-serving nature of the manager is not what we are to follow, but Jesus uses this unlikely character to get us to sit up and take notice. What is commendable about Chuck is that he is clever, resourceful, shrewd. He has practical, hard-headed, acute perception. Can you hear Jesus saying, "Sure this man was a rascal, but a clever rascal. He makes plans for the future, he rises to meet a crisis, he uses what he can to do what he must. How I wish my disciples would use this kind of cleverness and use it for better ends!" Jesus offers a materialistic view of discipleship. This idea is echoed in another teaching, "Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." (Matthew 10:16)
But Jesus doesn't stop there. He tells us to use unrighteous wealth. "Unrighteous wealth." He lets us know that he thinks money is pretty dangerous, money is unrighteous. That is a bitter pill, we know Jesus thinks this, but we don't like facing this truth, we want so badly to believe that it has no power over us, no authority of its own.
Yet, Jesus says that even those worldly folks who work with money all the time know better than to think of it in neutral terms. Chuck knew it had power. We all know it too. Look at the power of money in this election year. Could a poor person ever run for President?
What motivates us to go to work each day? Or sure, there are non-monetary rewards for some of us, but often it is the power of money that gets us out of bed in the morning and off to work on time. Money does have power. We want more of it. We sometimes compromise our values to get it.
So wouldn't you expect Jesus to say, "Stay away from it?" But he doesn't. You see, Jesus is shrewd too, Jesus understands the way of the world. Jesus knew that money could be used as a weapon to bully people and keep them in line, he knew it could be used to buy prestige and honor, to enlist the allegiance of others, to corrupt people. He also knew it could be used for great good.
In this parable Jesus says to us, rather than run from money, we are to take it -- evil bent and all -- and use it for God's purposes. Why should those who do not follow God have all the access to the power of money? Why shouldn't those who seek to do God's will in this world use it for good purposes? Surely we must be careful not to get drawn in to misuse of it, we have to be plain about its unrighteous nature. We are to be absolutely clear about the venomous nature of money. We are to touch it with our eyes wide open. Rather than reject it, we are to conquer it and use it for good purposes, greater goals.
In this curious parable, Jesus calls us to take a lesson from the world and get out there and do something powerful with our money! Without the power of money we could not be helping the victims of poverty and natural disasters around the world. Without the power of money we could not be providing a home at Casa Cara for the chronically mentally ill. Without the power of money we could not be sheltering battered women and children at the Christine Ann Center. Without the power of money, the Food Pantry, the Salvation Army and Father Carr could not be reaching out to the poor of this city. Without the power of money Habitat could not be building homes to eliminate inadequate housing. Without the power of money people could not come to this church to grow in their faith, find friends in their loneliness, counseling in their crises, and fellowship in their lives. Without the power of money God's work cannot go on in our world: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, righting wrongs, bringing justice and peace.
Jesus challenges us today, go ahead, get into the power of money! Why should those without a conscience have all the power? Use your resources for positive gain! Keep your eyes open, serve only one master: God. Remember money is dangerous stuff, with an evil bent, but, go ahead, capture it! Use it! Let's really make a difference in this world! Amen.