Luke 16:1-13 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. 2 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.' 3 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. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' 5 So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' 6 He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' 7 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.' 8 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. 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. 10 "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. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 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."
“Clean Up Your Mess”
First things first: a parable is not a fable.
You remember what a fable is, right? If you read any of Aesop’s Fables as a child, you know that a fable is a little story that teaches you the right way to behave. Whether it’s the story of the tortoise and the hare, or sour grapes, the one thing that’s always true with a fable is that you know exactly what the moral of the story is…and if you don’t, the writer always states the moral of the story at the end.
Not so with parables. Jesus is telling us a story to make a point – just like a fable – but often the moral is not exactly obvious. Sometimes we have to think hard to get Jesus’ point. So it is with this parable. It raises a lot more questions than it answers.
Why do you think Jesus would do this? Is He deliberately being vague and confusing? Or perhaps He wants us to think very hard about what is being said, to struggle to understand, so that once we figure it out for ourselves, we really own that hard-won bit of knowledge. Some parables feel like the whack of a 2x4 on the side of the head.
And so it may be for this parable, that of the dishonest servant.
What’s happening in the story? Let’s put it in modern-day terms. The Chief Operating Officer of the company hasn’t been managing the company too well, spending the company’s resources on the wrong things, not paying attention to the Accounts Receivable. You know the sort of things I’m talking about. The Chairman of the Board gets wind of the mismanagement and calls the COO in. “I’ve been hearing disturbing things about the way you’ve been running things. I’m going to call the auditors in, and if things are as bad as I hear, you’re fired.”
You can picture Donald Trump in the role of the Chairman of the Board, can’t you?
So the COO, in a tizzy, says to himself, “I’m in a world of trouble here. If the Chairman fires me, I can’t get another job. How could I show my face at the club if I took a lesser paying job?”
He gets an idea: he calls up the company’s debtors and cuts them a deal: he’ll discount what they owe if they keep him in mind and take care of him if things go south.
By the way, the phrase “cutting a deal” has ancient Biblical roots: the Hebrew phrase “kerath berith” means to make a contract, specifically, to cut a covenant. So cutting a deal is not just something we know from “The Apprentice.” It was well-known in Jesus’ day.
So he cuts these deals with the debtors, hoping that they’ll think kindly of him, that they’ll give him a soft landing, if the boss fires him. He thinks he’s cleaned up his mess.
Jesus tells the story, and then seemingly praises the COO for his shrewdness.
This is the point in the story where I start scratching my head. Is Jesus saying that cheating the boss for our own benefit is a good thing? That doesn’t sound like the Jesus I think I know. What is this about? It’s a 2x4 moment.
I go back to my original statement. This is a parable. A parable is not a fable. The moral isn’t quite so obvious. Let’s look at the larger picture of this parable, and see if we can figure out what’s going on here.
If we remember last week’s gospel, we heard two stories of lost and found. They were pretty straightforward, and Pastor Jeunee’s message – “Don’t get lost” talked about the ways that it’s easy for us to get lost, and how important it is for us to keep together with Christ if we want to be alright. These were also stories that talked about what is really valuable. That’s a hint.
So, too, in our gospel passage, Jesus’ explanation of the parable gives us a hint that the stories are related. It’s about what’s really valuable, and how we are to treat it.
"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. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
Jesus is reminding us of what is important when he talks about the true riches, the riches of heaven, the riches of being a faithful follower of Christ. He is reminding us of the importance of caring for what we have been given. In that age, and in our own, people tend to get overly focused on “the stuff”, whether it’s the right kind of car, or the right brand of jeans, or the number of bedrooms in our houses. We become so focused on the stuff of this world that we are distracted from the truly valuable: loving and caring for one another, even the least among us, being honorable in our dealings, working hard.
It’s easy to get distracted, so we get this 2x4 to get our attention. We get a story that seems the antithesis of what Jesus has taught us. But it isn’t really. In the end, Jesus explains it to us, in simple words that we all can understand: "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." But there are lessons to be learned from the world. How do we apply them to what is truly valuable?
We have a choice. We can cut a deal to cover ourselves for the bad times in this world. We can make sure we have a soft landing by cheating the boss. We can clean up our worldly messes in ways that are worldly ways. That’s certainly the smart thing to do when we measure ourselves in terms of success in the world isn’t it? How about another option: can we cut a deal that is a deal which recognizes the truly valuable? Can we clean up our messes in ways that Jesus would appreciate? Maybe it means that we can forgive those who have treated us badly. Maybe it means we can reach out a hand of fellowship to those with whom we have had a disagreement. Maybe it means we can offer help to those who need it, without expecting a sweetheart deal in return.
When I starting preaching this morning, I told you that first things first, a parable is not a fable. Now it’s time for last things last. Last things, last, parables are prisms, they aren’t a flat piece of glass. They may have more than one meaning, depending on your angle of view. I’ve laid out what this parable means to me, how I’ve tried to figure out what Jesus is saying to me through it. But parables are able to speak in many ways to us. We see what Jesus is saying to us as we need to hear it, mediated by that prism of grace. So I’m encouraging you to take this scripture passage home, put it under your pillow, think about it, pray about it. Let the light of God’s grace shine through that prism, illuminate those words for you. Hear what the Lord is saying to you, so you can learn all you really need to know from Jesus.