Scripture Lesson: Luke 16:1-15 – The Parable of the Dishonest Manager (full text at the of the post)
The parable of the “dishonest steward” or the “dishonest manager” (depending on which version of the Bible you’re reading) from the Gospel of Luke is a difficult passage. It’s open to a number of interpretations, and it leaves us with a lot of questions – questions like: what did the manager do to get himself fired? Or, why does Jesus praise the dishonest manager’s actions – which were clearly immoral if not illegal?
Let’s back up for a minute and take in the larger story here in Luke. This parable comes immediately after the parable of the Prodigal Son, which comes immediately after the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin (which were the scripture lessons for last week). Last week Jesus was talking to the Pharisees and answering their question as to how a man of God like himself could eat with “tax collectors and sinners”. Jesus answered them by saying God seeks the lost, and heaven rejoices when someone repents, and the people of God also rejoice when the lost are found.
Then verse 1 of Luke 16 begins, “then Jesus said to his disciples…” So in today’s story, Jesus has turned away from the Pharisees and is talking to the disciples. However he still has the Pharisees in mind, and the Pharisees are still listening in. So the parable of the dishonest manager is Pharisee-related. We’ll keep this in mind as we look at the parable.
First, what does the dishonest manager do for a living? In the Greek he is called an oikonomon – a word we get the English word economy from (oikos + nomos = ‘house’ + ‘law’). It literally means ‘the law of the house’ or ‘the rule of the house’. So he’s in charge of managing the rich man’s household, the rich man’s assets. It’s his job is to preserve his master’s money, and increase it. This could have meant doing anything from taking crops to market, to investing excess cash with bankers… there’s any number of things the manager might have done to increase his master’s net worth.
However this particular manager failed at his job. Jesus doesn’t say exactly what he did or didn’t do. He might have stolen, he may have failed to invest, he may have been lazy and missed opportunities. Scripture doesn’t say. What is clear though, is that the manager is guilty – because he himself does not deny the charges. In some way or another he has taken advantage of his position to line his own pockets rather than increasing his master’s wealth.
So the master says to the dishonest manager, “show me your books”. And the manager says to himself, “I’m in trouble! What am I going to do? I’m not strong enough to dig, I’m too proud to beg, and I’m going to be starving in a minute if I don’t think of something quick. I know! I’ll change the accounts, so after I’m fired the master’s debtors will owe me!”
So he calls in his master’s debtors. And he asks one, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he says, ‘A hundred jugs of oil.’ The dishonest manager says, ‘make it fifty.’ And he asks another one, ‘how much do you owe?’ And he says, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ And the manager says ‘make it eighty.’
What he’s doing is buying favors. He’s adding one more crime on top of the other crimes he’s committed… only this time he’s conspiring with his master’s debtors, making them partners in his crime, putting them in his debt. So when he loses his job he will have friends – or at the very least co-conspirators – who will help him out.
And at the end of the story the master praises this dishonest manager for acting shrewdly… and in an unexpected twist, Jesus agrees! He says, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than the children of the light.”
But wait a minute now. Is Jesus praising theft and deception? Is he saying there are times when a person needs to ignore the law that says, “thou shalt not steal?” Is he approving of situational ethics?
This story has been interpreted that way from time to time but it’s an incorrect interpretation. So what is Jesus getting at?
Let me offer one interpretation of this parable. It’s not the only possible interpretation, but it’s one that seems to me to be relevant to us today.
In the parable, the rich man represents God. He is the landowner, the one who owns everything, and has a right to everything, because it is his and he made it. The rich man has a manager, whose job it is to take whatever belongs to God and increase it. This brings to mind another parable, the parable of the talents, where one servant is given 10 talents and goes out and makes 10 more, and another servant has 5 talents goes out and makes 5 more. This servant is expected to go and take what God has given him and make more.
Instead the manager has been squandering God’s property. He has not invested his talents, and he’s been getting in the way of other servants who have been trying to invest their talents. He may even stealing some of their talents. At the very least he’s been using his position to benefit himself and not the master.
What better way to describe the Pharisees? They were, in Jesus’ day, God’s managers. They were put in charge of God’s household: the temple, the synagogues, the worship, the leadership of God’s people. And they use their position not to increase God’s kingdom but to increase their own wealth.
All the offerings that were brought to the Temple, all the skills and spiritual gifts of the people, were hijacked by these dishonest managers. And the worship of the people sometimes is redirected from God to the Pharisees in the form of hero-worship. Scripture says the Pharisees were very popular – they got the best seats in the house, everybody spoke well of them, they looked good on the outside. (Jesus had other things to say about their insides!)
The Pharisees kind of remind me of certain well-known preachers in our own time, who are always in the news, well known, traveling in the circles of power, proclaiming the word of God but somehow missing the point in their own lifestyles. They get rich preaching the gospel and they tell us that we as Jesus’ followers should also be aiming for our ‘best life now’ in this life.
The Pharisees know what they’re doing, at least on some level. They know Jesus is the Messiah, because only the Messiah could do the miracles Jesus does. But they refuse to admit Jesus is the Messiah. They’ve already cut a deal with God’s debtors, just like the dishonest steward.
They have lowered the price of salvation.
Anyone who reads Scripture knows that we owe God our lives, all that we are, all that we have.
The Pharisees say to the people, “naaah, you don’t have to give up your life. Just live up to this rule and this rule and this rule and you’ll be fine. Oh, and be sure you tithe… 10% of everything, all the way down to your spices.” (Or if you lived 1000 years ago it would have been “here, buy some indulgences…”)
The Pharisees don’t make it easy to be considered righteous, but they do seem to make it possible. The Pharisees conspire with people who want to look religious. The Pharisees says to God’s debtors “what do you owe God?” and they make what we owe God somehow less than everything.
The thing is, it’s all a lie. The Pharisees are going down, like that dishonest manager is going down, and we don’t want to go down with them.
So why does Jesus say, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of the light”?
Jesus is not commending the dishonest manager. He’s saying where it comes to setting goals and accomplishing them, or just to sheer tenacity and daring, the dishonest steward puts God’s people to shame.
If only we could be as creative about advancing God’s kingdom! If we would look after God’s interests as intensely as this steward looks after his own interests. That’s what Jesus is getting at.
The passage ends with Jesus commenting on the use of money. This parable is not all about money, but it’s where the story ends. Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
Jesus is saying, just like the crooked manager made friends for himself using money, we can do the same for God. We can give of our money in ways that benefit God’s kingdom, in ways that will help bring more people to faith.
Money is dirty stuff, Jesus says. None of it is clean. And if we think about it we can see that’s true. We have no idea where the dollar bills in our wallets have come from, what’s been done with them before we had them. Money, in some way or another, involves oppression, hardship, or people putting themselves in danger (or putting others in danger). Look at the risks people take who work in gold and silver mines. Look at the economic policies made by nations that impoverish the people of other nations. Look at tax money, which is essentially legalized theft. Money is dirty, and the way people get it is dirty.
In verse 15, a few verses after our passage ends, Jesus calls money an “abomination in the sight of God”. And the Bible dictionary amplifies this to say “extremely hated, detestable, connected with idolatry, connected with the worship of the Antichrist”.)
So we want to keep from getting attached to the stuff! We want to be careful to keep money in its place. Money is a tool, not a master, and we need to use it, Jesus says, to buy for ourselves friends who will welcome us into the kingdom when we get there.
What an interesting thing to say! And what a thought that is! The “great cloud of witnesses” who watch us as we run our race on this earth can be increased by means of how we spend our money. What a thought! “When it is gone, they will welcome you into the eternal homes,” Jesus says.
And he adds, “If you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with the true riches?” What we do in this life with our money is not just practice. It’s a building of spiritual skills and spiritual abilities that will benefit us in the Kingdom.
Jesus goes on, “And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” He speaks of our inheritance in the Kingdom – which will be truly ours, never to be lost or taken away.
And then Jesus says, “you cannot serve both God and wealth.” Why? Because God and money are competing powers. God is of the eternal kingdom; money is of this world only. And we either worship God or we worship the idols of this world.
Now the Pharisees have been listening in on all this, even though Jesus is no longer speaking directly to them. And when Jesus says it’s impossible to serve both God and wealth… they laughed at him.
The Pharisees poked fun at the Son of God, knowing full well that he was the Messiah. Which gives us an idea of just how much they loved their money.
And you know – modern-day Pharisees do the same thing. It’s one of the ways you can tell who God’s servants are and who the fakers are. If you tell a Pharisee it’s impossible to serve both God and money they will either laugh at you or start making excuses. Beware the leaven of the Pharisees, Jesus often warned his disciples. And he says one last thing to the Pharisees: “what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”
So does this mean as Christians we’re supposed to give all our money to the church? No! It means that all we have belongs to God because God created it. And we are called to be wise and honest managers of what God has given us.
So for the take-away for today I have five things:
- Pray for your pastors and your spiritual leaders, that we don’t fall into Phariseeism. It is always a temptation. Pray that God keeps us honest, and that our love for God and for God’s people keeps on growing.
- We need to live our lives in such a way that we are faithful to our Master in using what he gives us. Honor God in the way we use our money. Honor God in the way we develop our talents and employ our skills. Remember that we are only stewards in this life. We need to work as if we were going to have to give an accounting someday.Having said that, there are two dangers I would warn about. The first is looking around at our fellow church members and thinking “I don’t have much to give. All these people are more gifted than I am. They have more than I have, and they can do more than I can do.” Don’t believe that for a minute. No matter who we are, and no matter what our abilities, God has given each one of us gifts to share in God’s name with people who need them. That includes everybody.
The second danger is the tendency of some of us to run ourselves ragged for God. This is not a wise use of God’s gifts. Keeping the Sabbath – a day of rest once a week – is important. And choosing prayerfully where to invest our time in God’s kingdom, and letting other things go, is important.
- The parable of the dishonest steward talks about being shrewd in our choices, being wise. Think about what God is calling us to do. How can we use the gifts we have most efficiently, for the best impact? Sometimes we don’t know, but God knows. And so we pray, and talk about it with trusted friends.
- Where it comes to money, we need to invest wisely. Have you ever noticed, the longer we’re church members, the more mailing lists we get on for donations? And it’s too easy just to give $5.00 to everybody just to make ourselves feel better. A wise steward thinks about how and where an investment will grow, and takes into consideration what the Master has asked us to do. It takes time and thought and prayer to decide where and how to give our money.
- And finally we need to support and encourage each other in our faithfulness to God. Ask each other: “what is God leading you to do?” And keep asking that question, and keep on helping each other to be good stewards of what God has given.
So Jesus says when we are faithful with the little wealth we have in this life, we will be rewarded with far greater wealth, which will be truly ours, in God’s kingdom. That’s our goal. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Anglican Church (Pittsburgh) on 9/18/16
Luke 16: 1-15. 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.”
[Postscript: 14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. 15 So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”]