Today’s gospel lesson is one that preachers often avoid. The parable of the dishonest manager from today’s gospel is not an easy one to interpret or apply to our own lives. It helps to see the story as kind of a trickster story, a story about how a clever character turned around a bad situation, maybe even a story of redemption. So, Jesus tells the story, not to praise dishonesty, but to to affirm wisdom and initiative. To me it has two main themes, our relationship to wealth and our relationship to God.
First let’s look at what Jesus says about wealth. In verse 9 Jesus says, ‘Make for yourselves friends by means of dishonest wealth so that then it is gone they may welcome you into eternal homes.” When I read that, I thought “What the heck does that mean? Well, Jesus is not advocating dishonesty. Rather, he is saying that material things are to 1be used wisely, for the right ends. Money is a means not an end. It is to be a servant, not the master. If we honor and value God above all else, then money is used to express that priority, that is, to serve God. Once of the chief ways we serve God is to use what we have been given to help others, to share our blessings. Of course, we cannot buy our way into heaven, but we can tell our values by what we spend our money on. Just look at your checkbook, or your credit card bill, and it will probably reflect your values.
Harry Emerson Fosdick developed a formula years ago for how to tell right from wrong. He suggested that we test our potential actions against these six criteria.
1. The Common Sense Test-“Are you simply being foolish?” How would you judge someone else if they did the same thing?
2. The Sportsmanship Test-“Are you playing fair?” How would you feel is someone else did the same thing to you?” If it is not right for everyone, it is probably not right for anyone.
3. The Best Self Test-“Are you trying to be the best you can be?” Will it help you become a better person?”
4. The Publicity Test-“If everyone knew what you were doing, would you still do it?
5. The Most Admired Person Test- “Would the person you most admire do it?” If you told that person about it, would you feel proud or ashamed?
6. The Foresight Test-“What can possibly go wrong?” Could you live with those consequences?
Practical, sane advice from one of America’s great preachers. Jesus was telling us how to be righteous. This is a parable, a teaching story and a story about how to make amends when you mess up
The story in Luke is about a guy who was cheating both his boss and his boss’s customers. When he got into trouble for cheating the boss and was fired, he went to the customers and made a “deal” so that he could make things right with the boss and earn the gratitude of the customers.
Now parables are generally uncomplicated stories with one message, but this one has several and they are not as clearly understood. In this parable, most scholars agree that the boss is God. Many say that the dishonest manager is humanity. Others say that the manager is Jesus who negotiates with God and humanity to mediate the relationship between needy humans and God. I like the interpretation of Jesus being the mediator who straightens out our relationship with God by sacrificing himself on our behalf.
Now usually in the parable genre one important point gets made. Not so here. The first message is about wealth. Money and stuff are not as important as people. We are to use our resources to do God’s work. Scripture says we cannot serve two masters. And Jesus states that at the end of the passage.
Bu to me the most important point is relational, the maintenance of the relationship between the guy and his boss and the creation of the relationship with the customers/other human beings. In this case, Jesus wasn’t praising the man’s dishonesty. He was about to be fired. He wasn’t “strong enough to dig” and was ashamed of himself. So, the man negotiated a deal. He could have done nothing. He could have said, “Ok. I messed up.” Let the boss figure it out. It’s like saying, “If God wanted me to lose weight, God will keep me from craving ice cream. Or like the guy who said, “If God doesn’t want me to stop at Dunkin Donuts, there won’t be a place in the parking lot when I drive by.” Once I prayed that prayer and as providence would have it, there was a parking place, my sixth time around the block.
The platitude, “God helps them who help themselves” is not in the Bible but it very well could be. Prayer is important, but so is action. The man had a problem and he faced it and thus he became the hero rather than the loser in the story.
The parable ends with the real point of it all. God is our Master. If we believe that Jesus is Lord and that God keeps his promises, why do we allow ourselves to be defeated by adversity? When Jesus talks about the children of this world, it is a code for those who live without faith in God. They don’t believe that their lives are guided by God. They don’t trust that God will guide the future. They think it is all up to them, that life is basically unfair an that nothing will change that. But the faithful, the children of light, believe that God holds the future. They do not give up or complain that life is unfair. They believe that the future is in God’s hands and keep on working, keep on believing and keep on living life to the full, even in times of crisis. When God is above all, then we will use our money, our time, our possessions, our opportunities to express that devotion, especially in how we treat others. At the same time Jesus said, “Whoever is faithful in little is faithful in much.” Small sacrificial acts lead to larger sacrificial acts. The practice of sacrificial living will pay off in the long term. Jesus is teaching that it is not now how much we can get out of this life; it is how much we can give to this life. He is saying that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t serve God and wealth at the same time. Whether we like it or not there will come a time of reckoning when we have to to give an accounting of ourselves and our lives to the Master.
But the blessed thing about our Master is that he gave his life for us. Jesus was the ultimate sacrificial giver. He paid the price to atone for our weakness and sin, our attachments to wealth and things and our disregard for relational integrity. His generosity to humanity provided our salvation. And I would be remiss if I did not invite you to give your heart to Jesus this morning. Invite him into your heart and re-establish your relationship with God.
Please pray with me.
O God, ours is a troubled world. This is hardly news to you, we know. Since even before the beginning of all things, you have been there, loving, nurturing, overseeing your creation. Give us strength and reassurance as we think about your constant love and provision in the past. For you have been our help in ages past and we know you are our hope for years to come.
Our world is torn apart by violence, by racism, by climate change, by fear. Help us to work together for the good of all the world to take care of the earth and all its people, starting with our own families. Help us to be responsible in the use of our resources and in our relationships. Help us to deeply understand and heed the teachings of Jesus for we know the closer we are to him, the closer we are to you. Amen.