Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 18, 2016

Luke 16:1-13 Commentary

Luke 16:1-13 is the oddest of all Jesus’ parables. You can read the whole thing once, twice, three times and the precise meaning of it remains mysteriously elusive. The shank of the problem is that the “hero” of this parable–the figure Jesus holds up as somehow or another having something to teach “the children of light”–is finally an anti-hero. He’s a crook, a swindler, a cheat.

What in the world could Jesus have been thinking?? The parable in Luke 16 follows hard on the heels of a parable we like a whole lot better: the Prodigal Son. But though the prodigal’s actions in that famed story are initially despicable, he ends up looking downright saintly in comparison to this corrupt manager. That has bothered not a few folks over the course of church history. Some have been so scandalized by Jesus’ use of a sinful wheeler-and-dealer that they have staged a number of desperate attempts to rescue Jesus from his own parable. But the attempts to turn this shrewd manager into some kind of decent fellow after all have generally speaking failed.

The straightforward reading of this tale is probably the correct one as it turns out. The manager of a wealthy man’s estate is about to get fired. For some reason–laziness, disorganization, or maybe even corruption–this manager has done a lousy job and this has at long last come to the attention of the boss. So he summons the manager, tells him to prepare one final report to be handed in at his exit interview, and that would then be that. Too lazy and weak for manual labor, too proud to beg, this man has to think fast. Since his boss wants one last presentation of the ledgers before the manager gets canned, the manager decides that now is as good a time as any to cook the books in such a way as to feather his own future nest.

So he calls in a number of the boss’s wealthier clients and cuts their debt-loads in half. When in startled amazement they ask why, the manager winks at them and says, “Don’t ask, but just remember I did you a favor once, all right?” In this way the man curries some goodwill with people who could lend him money, give him a new job, and maybe even house him when soon he finds himself out on his ear.

Startlingly, when the boss gets wind of these shenanigans, he is not angry! He approves. He claps the manager on the shoulder and says in essence, “You’ve done well for yourself!” Indeed, the last word from the boss in this parable is so positive, the reader is left to wonder whether maybe the manager ended up retaining his job after all. This rich man could recognize a fellow wheeler-and-dealer when he saw one, and he liked what he saw! Anyone this shrewd, anyone this clever at working the angles, was just maybe someone worth hanging onto after all.

In the often cut-throat world of business this kind of unsavory story is not uncommon. What is uncommon about this story is what Jesus says about it. You expect Jesus to say something like, “Verily I tell you, cheats such as this will one day find themselves in a place of much weeping and gnashing of teeth!”

But he does not say this at all.

Instead Jesus finishes this little vignette of corruption, takes a breath, and then says to the disciples, “You see! There’s something to that approach. Folks like this are far shrewder at dealing with this world than you children of light are!”

Huh? What’s the point here?

Let’s rule out the obvious: Clearly the point here is not that any form of theft, cheating, swindling, or dishonesty is a good thing. You cannot turn this passage into some legitimation of “business as usual”-type practices.

Nevertheless, something about this shrewd, vaguely corrupt man is being recommended so what is it? The answer begins to come into focus when you go all the way back to Luke 15:1-2 where you discover the setting for not just this parable but the three better-known parables that make up Luke’s fifteenth chapter.

The larger issue has to do with table fellowship. Jesus, as was his pattern, was hanging out and eating with all the wrong people in all the wrong places. The Pharisees muttered into their beards about how scandalous it was to hold a dinner party whose guest list was a “Who’s Who” of local lowlifes. Jesus responds to this complaint with three parables on lost and found. The point in all three is the same: the amount of rejoicing that comes when valuable lost objects are found makes it worthwhile to pay any price both to search for that lost thing or person and to then put on the fatted calf once the search is successful.

The parable of the prodigal son ends with a party. So as you transition into what we now call chapter 16, you can still hear the happy buzz of party chatter, the clink of silverware on china, and joyous music echoing in the air. Luke 15 ended with a vision of God’s kingdom. It is a picture of such fervent joy that we should want to capture something of that joy already now. If, like the Pharisees, we look at the so-called “sinners” around us and see them only as they now appear, then it becomes easier (and maybe even inevitable) to backhand them away as the kinds of folks with whom we don’t care to associate.

Jesus, on the other hand, sees them as potential sources for heavenly delight, and he wants us to see them through that lens, too. He sees them as valuable lost objects, the re-finding of which could bring joy. So Jesus suggests we enjoy their company now in the hopes that we might enjoy one another’s company forever and ever as well. The potential for eschatological joy among such people in the future of God’s coming kingdom is great enough for us even now to do whatever we can to welcome them into the church.

That line of thought from Luke 15 is hanging in the air as chapter 16 opens. So what is it about the shrewd manager’s attitude that Jesus finds useful for also the children of light? It is this: he gave thought to the future and it shaped his actions in the present. Further, he knew that for now monetary resources are one way to secure the kind of future vision you have drawn for yourself. So even though in his case it meant being devious, his desperate desire to see his future materialize helped him to conclude that it would be worth it to take the risks he did in currying favor with his boss’s clients.

This may be the point (at least in part): The church likewise has a strong vision of the future called the kingdom of God. What’s more, that future vision should include the potential joy that will rock the cosmos in celebration when more, and not fewer, people end up attending God’s big party. That vision of the future should influence us mightily in also the present moment.

Needless to say, Jesus’ challenge is a large and difficult one. The church often lacks such a consistently clear focus on God’s kingdom. If that bright vision of our future really did inform and animate our present moment in the church, maybe lots of things would change.

Maybe. But even if this is part of the point Jesus was making, couldn’t he have made it with a less scandalous, less confusing parable? Did he need to hold up a sneaky crook to help issue this kingdom challenge? Surely another version of the parable about the widow’s mite or some such more homey tale could have delivered this parabolic freight just as effectively.

Possibly. But maybe Jesus has something more subtle in mind by holding up an anti-hero as his parable’s protagonist. Maybe this is an act of irony that pulls the rug out from underneath our feet even as it makes Jesus’ larger point all over again. Because what are we doing when we pull up our noses at this shrewd manager? Then again, what have commentators in the past been doing in all their furious attempts to make this manager a good guy after all? Either way or both ways aren’t we essentially saying that there are some greasy people in this world whom sanctified believers have no business pondering? Aren’t we trying to re-establish some daylight between ourselves as nice Christians and those secular types “out there” in whose company we would rather not be at all? And if so, aren’t we stepping back from Jesus to nestle up to the Pharisees as we saw them in Luke 15:1-2 when this string of parables began?

A few verses beyond this strange little parable is the better-known story about the rich man and Lazarus. Near the end of that parable the rich man asks father Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to shake his remaining brothers out of their wealth-induced stupor. Abraham replies that the rich man’s brothers already have Bibles–they’ve already got written down for them everything they need to know to live the right way. They already know what they need to know.

Thanks to gospel writers like Luke, we do, too. Are we listening?

Textual Points

Although most English translations have the word “money” in back-to-back verses (14 and 15), in the Greek the first instance is “Mammon” (MAMON in Greek) and the second is the semi-rare word (used just 3 times in the entire NT) of PHILARGUROS, which is literally a combination of the word “love”/PHILOS and the word for “silver”/ARGUROS. It may be curious to note that the Pharisees were fond of silver and as far as that goes, they no doubt did not think a lot of it. Yet Jesus uses the word “mammon” which carried with it the connotation of being a personified force. So taken together, verses 14 and 15 may be saying that while the Pharisees regarded money as a worldly good that they could use for their own advantage, God sees this as a potential idol, as something more akin to the Golden Calf than an innocuous matter of dollars and cents and balance sheets and bank ledgers.

Illustration Idea

The second installment of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy of movies tells two stories simultaneously. While viewers watch the moral and familial demise of the mafia don Michael Corleone in the mid-1950s, they see intertwined with this flashbacks from the early twentieth century when Michael’s father, the original Godfather Vito Corleone, steadily rose from a penniless Italian immigrant to a powerful, respected, and feared figure. The key moment when young Vito’s life turned the corner from poverty to (ill-gotten) riches is curious.

Vito and two friends had begun to do well for themselves in thievery and stealing things like designer dresses–so well, in fact, as to attract the attention of the local mafia boss, Don Fanucci, who was known as “the Black Hand.” Don Fanucci approaches Vito and says, “I hear you and your two friends were recently involved in some shenanigans which netted you $600 each.” The don then demands some protection money, telling Vito that he needs to wet his beak a bit to the tune of $200 from each of the three men. The subtext of this “request” was clear: “Pay up or else!”

Upon hearing of this development, Vito’s friends immediately and fearfully decide to pay up. But Vito has a different idea. He tells his two friends to pay him $50 each. Vito, in turn, will give the don this money plus his own $50 and Vito will do it in such a way that Fanucci will accept the $150 instead of the $600 he had initially demanded. When his friends ask Vito how he’s going to pull this off, Vito tells them “Never mind that, but just remember I did you a favor once.” Vito then tells his friends that they are to go to Fanucci the next day, tell him that they respect him and that through Vito they will pay the don whatever he wants. The next day both men go and tell the don just that. Later Vito meets privately with Don Fanucci but pays him only the $100 he had collected from his two friends. When the don demands to know where the other $500 is, Vito smirks and says he needs some time seeing as he was rather short of money at the moment.

Don Fanucci then comes to believe that Vito has shaken down his own two friends. Based on what the two other men had told Fanucci earlier, the old don assumes Vito had already received $200 from each friend but is now pocketing most of it even as he courageously winks at the don, who becomes an insider to Vito’s little fake scheme. Surprisingly, the Black Hand turns velvet. He smiles approvingly, openly admiring Vito’s courage. “You’ve done well for yourself,” he says. He then accepts the $100 as sufficient, offers to let Vito work for him, and even adds that if he can do anything for Vito, to let him know! Fanucci respected Vito as a fellow wheeler-and-dealer, a fellow sneak and cheat who knew how to work other people to his own advantage.

Sounds kinda familiar, at least if you’ve read Luke 16 recently . . .


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