Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 18, 2022
Luke 16:1-13 Commentary
This set of verses is a difficult one to bring clarity to while preaching. Forget the fact that there are any number of interpretative directions you can take when sharing this parable: for every way this story can be understood, a fair amount of detail will need to be explained in order for the interpretation to make sense (and which I won’t be providing here). Even with the background of his significant work with the parables, Klyne Snodgrass describes this one as one of the most difficult and full of interpretative “dead ends.” All that to say, if you don’t think I’m on the right track here, you can probably find someone who explains it better.
It seems to me that Jesus is communicating truths on multiple levels, but all mixed together. This is especially true if you add verses 14-16 to the ones chosen to be in the lectionary. Unfortunately, we weren’t present as Jesus talked, so we can’t trace who his eyes looked to as he said each part; but there are some clues that we can take from the textual context.
First, verse 1 makes clear that the parable is being told to the disciples. This helps us make sense of some things. For instance, since Jesus is speaking to those who are already following him, we can make the case that this parable is about more than what’s on the surface—it’s not a parable about business ethics but about something more fundamental. This is a bit of a relief, since the shrewd manager is praised for unethical action that we know Scripture (and Jesus) judges elsewhere!
Instead, this parable is an example of Jesus teaching by way of analogy.
The dishonest manager has the end of his job looming over his head, and he needs to find a way to secure his future. He takes action in his present situation with his future end in mind. As Justo González describes it, the praise the manager receives from his master proves how the shrewd manager is “rewarded in the new order for the use he made of what he had in the old order.”
“Old order” and “new order,” that’s eschatological language that matches Jesus’ commentary in the second half of verse 8 (“children of this age” and “children of light”). Verse 8 also states the comparison at the root of the analogy lesson: the children of this age—which includes the shrewd manager—embody a truth that the children of light (Jesus’ disciples) have not yet grasped: what we do now is meant to be done in light of the future. In fact, it is good to “cheat the present” for the riches of the future.
Of course, we know that when Jesus is speaking about true riches, especially in the gospel of Luke, Jesus means the things that make us rich towards God. Analogous to the dishonest manager as he considered where his future was headed as he took action in the present, followers of Jesus are meant to weigh current decisions with their future in mind. If they want to “fill their heavenly bed with feathers” they need to do it now, and in ways that are rich towards God.
Here’s where our second contextual clue helps us add further clarity to the truth Jesus is espousing. We are still in the same setting as the three parables of celebrating being lost and found in Luke 15. Working such salvation is the richest of God’s riches: a shepherd, a woman, and a father who call for a party because the lost are found… God wishes us to welcome those whom he finds and re-gathers. Among tax collectors, Gentiles, disciples, and Pharisees, Jesus told stories that invited them to celebrate the lost being saved from themselves by someone who does not count the potential cost of the search and rescue mission and then decides they aren’t worth it. In other words, for each person, God always has the hopeful future in view.
This setting may help us make sense of the otherwise difficult sentence found in verse 9. Klyne Snodgrass offers this paraphrase: Jesus says, “Put yourself in a good position through the use of your money, which can lead you astray, so that when the age is over God will receive you into his eternal dwelling.” In alignment with what we read throughout the Scriptures, greed and the love of money can easily corrupt us; Jesus reminds us of this truth, but is also making the point that in this current age, this “mammon” (a catchall phrase for our property, money, etc.) is also a gift from God meant to be used.
Unspoken but implied is a truth that Jesus makes clear with his disciples elsewhere: in kingdom economics we share and provide for one another in the spirit of generosity, welcoming and celebrating those who were once on the boundaries of acceptability but whom God has brought in… the hungry who get fed, the naked who are clothed, the prisoners who are visited, the thirsty who are given a drink, the Gentiles and sinners who become part of the community of the righteous. With the future community and kingdom in mind, we live the reality of the kingdom now through our present actions.
Jesus says, “Use what you have from this age (worldly wealth) in such a way that those whose eternal home is in heaven (God’s people, angels, God himself) will be glad to welcome you into the neighbourhood.”
At the heart of the analogy is the fact that we disciples do not understand or utilize the “wealth” available to us in the ways that people of this age have learned to capitalize for their own gain. (See the Illustration Idea below for how this still happens today.) We aren’t meant to copy their methods, but to wonder about our own potential for creativity and righteous cleverness.
We’re stuck for a variety of reasons… we don’t trust ourselves to avoid the temptations of wealth… we have become so personally-heavenly-minded that we become no earthly good to anyone else… we are not people who can sit long enough with the Holy Spirit to even scratch the surface of making sense of complicated Scripture passages. Jesus gets at some of this when he says that those who can be trusted with a little can be trusted with a lot (and vice versa)—those who are able to be creatively resourceful with the little they have—for the common good—show that they are not selfishly tied to their possessions, but are able to live with the hopeful future in mind.
Whatever approach is taken for the parable, one aspect cannot be denied: the reciprocity ethic that the manager follows. In verse 4, he formulates his plan so as to receive “welcome” when he is in need in the near future. Then, in verses 6 and 7, when he tells the borrowers to “take” their bills and change them, he uses the exact same word as the one translated as “welcome” (dexomai), underscoring the nature of the exchange in “services.”
Just about a year ago (October 2021), the Pandora Papers were leaked, revealing the ways that some of the richest people in the world ‘game the system’ through offshore accounts to protect and amass their wealth and avoid paying taxes (both legally and illegally). Much of their tax avoidance is described as “operating within the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.” In other words, shrewd and clever—even if not totally ethical and definitely not righteous. Some wealthy people, like our shrewd manager, know who to turn to in order to ensure their future: lawyers, tax accountants, and money managers that can help them exploit loopholes.
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