Means to an End – C Pentecost 17 – Sept 19 2010

Luke 16:1-13

This morning we find a dishonest manager being commended for his shrewd acts.  Did Luke just record this parable and slip it in to see if we were awake?  Is God laughing at us as we try to figure this out?  Of course not, but are we to believe that God wants us to act as the dishonest manager?

Applauding the bad guy is not a new thing.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid called on audiences to cheer for the bad guys, rather than the posse sent to capture them.  Remember Smokey and the Bandit?  The Bandit and the Snowman made a cross-continent trip hauling beer and fending off the no-good sheriff to be successful.  Wait a second – no good sheriff?  It is funny how our support can be manipulated by a story line.

So when we read the story of the dishonest manager today, are we to believe that we are to be commended for being dishonest?  Is God really commending the dishonest manager for cheating, lying and stealing?  Can’t be.

When finding out his manager had forgiven some debts, how could the rich man have responded?  First, he could be upset and try to collect on the full debts looking greedy and selfish, although he had every right to do so.  Or he could forgive the debts as the manager had done and look generous.

In most parables we are able to match the characters of the parables with God, us and the world.  Although the parable is turning our understandings upside down as many of Jesus’ parables did, the rich man must be God, the manager is us and the world is represented by the debtors.  How does this help with some understanding of the parable?

If the rich man is God, then what is the property that the manager would have squandered?  Treasures of heaven, or treasures of the kingdom of heaven?  Some treasures would be love, peace, forgiveness, redemption, salvation, and God’s goodness?  So if the manager was squandering such property, maybe he wasn’t sharing the property as he should have in the first place.  If we challenge the idea that the rich man was trying to hold on to his property, it would make sense that the manager was commended for reducing the debts of the debtors later on.

I was thinking that in order to squander something you have to act as if it was your own.  For instance, in the case of the prodigal son, the son squandered away his inheritance, but it was his own, not his father’s.  It seems as if the manager was squandering, he was treating the property as if it was his own – misusing it and wasting it on worthless things.

But when the manager begins to forgive the debts of others to the rich man, the manager was no longer treating the property as his own.  Now he was treating the property as his master’s – he was forgiving the debts to his master in the hopes that the debtors may welcome him into their homes.  If we were to treat what we have as not our own, that we are only entrusted with what we have, would that change how we use it?  If the property we have is not ours, but is entrusted to us, would it change how we look at it?  If the land we farm is not ours, but is entrusted to us to care for, would we change how we use it?  If the gifts we have, our skills, talents, attributes are not ours, but are entrusted to us to use, would we change how we use them?  Do we squander what has been given to us when we think that it is ours and we earned it?  Or do we use them in the interest of those who gave them to us?

As the manager acted with what he was entrusted with now to store up a welcome later, can we act with what we are entrusted to store up a welcome later?  It seems as if this is the case in Jesus’ explanation in verses 9-13.  Jesus does say in verse 9, “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.”  When Jesus says dishonest wealth, I think that he is referring to wealth that is not our own, so that if we make friends by means of wealth that is not our own, when it is gone, we may be welcomed into the eternal homes.

It is important to remember the placement of this parable.  In the next verse, Luke tells us that the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, ridiculed Jesus.  To the Pharisees, life was black and white, you shall follow all the laws and there was no acceptable reason to not follow the laws.  After all, the Pharisees profited from the Israelites sinfulness – sinfulness such as the working on the Sabbath, the touching of unclean foreigners, the dining with sinners.  And so here is Jesus challenging the law with the gospel.  Jesus said, “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath”.  Jesus sent to tell John that, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”  He also said, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners”.  This declaration and carrying out of the gospel stood to get in the way of the Pharisees’ money making schemes, for the Pharisees would have profited from people committing these “sins”.  So when Jesus presents this difficult parable of the dishonest manager, what preconceived notions about the law must we challenge?

Dishonesty is never commendable – yet the manager does good by it and is commended.

The assumption the manager is a bad person – yet he helps the indebted.

I think one of the biggest notions is when Jesus talks about “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light.”  He is telling us to deal as those around us deal – for if they can deal with dishonest wealth and receive reward, then surely we are to deal with honest wealth, that is the gifts we have been given, maybe not shrewdly, but certainly assertively so that others may receive the reward.

As in many of Jesus’ parables, He reminds us that the law is not the end, but rather a means to an end.  If we were to read this parable through the eyes of a Pharisee, with black and white, right and wrong, the dishonest manager would have been fired, the rich man would have been enraged with the manager’s shrewd acts and the debtors would certainly not have been forgiven.  For the law, being dishonest is an end – that’s it, the manager was dishonest and that’s that.  For the gospel, being dishonest is a means to an end.  In this case the debts are forgiven because of dishonesty, and the manager made for himself a welcome.  Both the debtors and the manager are positively affected.  But moreover, the rich man is also positively affected – for rather than being seen as cruel, selfish, and greedy he is seen as being generous by the community that he is in.  The dishonesty was unlawful, but because what was achieved in the end, the act is forgivable, even commendable.

One final thought to leave you with.  If the rich man is in fact seen as generous, rather than greedy and selfish, because of his manager, God is also reflected in our forgiveness.  If we were the manager, forgiving those around us, those we forgive would consider God as generous, maybe even loving.  And so it is, as we hear in the Lord’s prayer that forgiveness of others is important for forgiveness of ourselves.  As the manager forgave others, he too received forgiveness, and the master is seen in good light.  Holding onto the debts that others owe us does not reflect the true spirit of God.  Forgiving, not dishonesty, is the means to the eternal homes.

And may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guide your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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