The parable found in Luke 16:1-13, often entitled by interpreters as “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager,” has confounded and challenged interpreters, hearers, and readers for, perhaps, centuries. In the categories of parables, it’s what theologian and Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan categorizes as a “challenge parable,” which are meant to lead us to “probe and question, ponder and wonder, discuss and debate….about the absolutes [we may hold] of our religious faith…presumptions, and prejudices of our social, political, and economic traditions” (Crossan, John Dominic, The Power of Parable).
This Lukan parable remind us that “we cannot take the parables of Jesus as mere lessons and examples of morality (González, Justo L., Belief, 191). Rather, they are meant to foster ongoing questioning, to help us, in the words of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, to “live the questions and love the questions,” to make us “walk humbly with our God,” as the prophet Micah preaches (Crossan, The Power of Parable). In other words, as Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes puts it, “Don’t think you know it all. Faith doesn’t require figuring things out. Write it in pencil, and keep wondering, keep asking, keep listening” (Unfolding Light, 9/16/22). Based on the Way of Jesus, I have learned that whenever I am perplexed about the meaning of a scriptural text or about a decision I am facing to ask myself, “Where is love growing?” And, wherever it is growing, to follow that path.
A challenge for many readers is found in verse 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.” And even more challenging is Luke’s using the example of the manager’s shrewd dishonesty to for Jesus teaching his disciples in verse 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.” Dishonesty commended by Jesus, the Son of the Most High, God’s Word made Flesh, the Messiah?!
The dishonest dealings of the manager with his rich master’s wealth pushes against an assumption we may have that scoundrels can only serve as examples of what not to do. Yet, Jesus uses it as an example of the kind of shrewdness – astute, clever, sharp judgment – “children of light” are called to exercise in seeking God’s realm and God’s righteousness.
The manager, knowing his job is about to end, takes urgent action to secure his future. In that context of an economic system of slavery his security depended upon relationships for there was no financial security available to him (Rev. Kendra Mohn, Working Preacher for 9/18/22). So, he goes to his master’s debtors – likely tenant farmers – and reduces their debt in order to win in their favor, in order to secure a welcome into their homes which he knows he will soon need.
Could Jesus, in using an example from the reality of that time, be calling his disciples to keep the same sense of astute urgency to secure their lives within the Realm of God? Could he be teaching them to remain vigilant in faithfulness to making more real each in each moment, for everyone, in all their relationships – with stranger, friend, foe, family – God’s realm of love, forgiveness, peace, and justice?
Considering the whole passage again, this parable and the sayings that are about stewardship, a proper use of and relationship with money, with the sum of the passage’s teachings found in verse 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.”
The word “serve” in verse 13 in the original Greek literally means “be enslaved to” (Lewis, Caroline, Working Preacher: Sermon Brainwave podcast, for 9/18/22). Whatever we serve becomes our master. If the object of our serving, our worship, is something other than God, it becomes an idol to which we find ourselves in bondage to something that can never really help, sustain, heal, or save us from our present disturbances in a sustainable way. So, we keep going back for more relief, only to find our idols only provide quick fixes and leave us in greater and greater want and dis-ease.
Church reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) said that wealth – money and possessions – is the most common idol on earth. Wealth-as-idol can be detrimental to both those who have it and so also have the power to gain more and to those who lack it and so lack the power to gain more wealth, or even any at all. The Hebrew prophet Amos gives an example of the power of wealth to enslave the thinking and actions of humanity: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring ruin to the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the sabbath be over so we can sell grain again and get busy making money again? We’ll tip our scales in our favor, we’ll exploit the poor and powerless to increase our wealth even more. We’ll chew them up and spit them out when they’ve ceased to be an asset.”
Recent news reported about the chartered airplanes of migrants who had recently crossed into Texas from Mexico seeking asylum from hopeless and dangerous situations in their homelands of Venezuela and Central America. Articles in The Washington Post (9/15/22 and 9/17/22) reported that the asylum seekers, having survived an arduous and dangerous months or years long journey were met by persons in San Antonio who asked them if they wanted a job, then gave them some papers and took them to an airplane bound for Martha’s Vineyard. Of course, we cannot know all the motives of those orchestrating this transport or of those funding it, but some questions Jesus would have us ask, it seems to me, in making such decisions are, “Is the welfare of the whole a priority? Are we exploiting or leading to the exploitation of anyone? Is the building up of human relationships valued above all else? Are we serving to grow faith, hope and love, or to diminish them?”
I am far from have a thorough understanding the great challenges of the immigration crisis in the US and nations around the world and its toll on everyone involved – those seeking asylum, the nations receiving them, and those entrusted with policymaking. This latest US news illumined today’s scripture passages even more for me, to consider how wealth and power as idols lead to the disregard of the humanity, the divine dignity, of those at the bottom of our economic structure. How are we to respond as “children of light”?
When something other than God becomes the source of our worship – that is, a false god or idol – it reveals that we have forgotten the truth of who we are and whose we are. In our finitude, we humans are prone to forgetfulness. We need only revisit the story of our faith ancestors the Israelites to see this. They too forgot, over and over, that they belonged to a God of love, our creator, who makes an everlasting covenant with us to be our God – loving, caring, sustaining us momently – and for us to be God’s people, precious in God’s sight (Isaiah 43).
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, a program of addiction recovery based on Christian spiritualty, say that deep within every single person is the “fundamental idea of God [, which] may be obscured by calamity, by [pride], by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there” (p. 55). Fear is often the culprit of what obscures our awareness of God-with-us and leads to our forgetting that we are children of a loving God. We fear God may not really see, hear, know, understand. We wonder if God really is looking out for us, those we love, the world. What if God is not caring? What if God is not really here?
In the passage, Jesus speaks about being faithful – a good steward – with the wealth we’ve been given, whether a little or a lot. Katrina Lima, a resident of Martha’s Vineyard, dropped everything when she received a call with the news of the arrival of migrants and their great need. From an immigrant family herself and fluent in Spanish, she was asked to serve as an interpreter in service to the security and wellbeing of the asylum seekers. She helped in any way she could. What stands out to me in The Washington Post article about her is the image of a simple folding chair. Lima placed that chair next to her and invited any asylum seeker to have a seat, to share their story, while she listened with the ears of her hearts, offer the healing power of being truly heard. Lima was faithful in these seemingly little things – using her Spanish to assist; a folding chair and the invitation, “Have a seat. Tell me your story.” Little things that offered comfort, relief, a sense of security and belonging to those in the chaos of homelessness and trauma.
A member of the Episcopal church on Martha’s Vineyard, having learned of the arrival of the planes filled with asylum seekers, contacted her pastor who was out of state at the time. She asked him the same question the dishonest manager in today’s parable asked. Facing insecurity, needing a plan for survival, the manager asked himself, “What will I do?” And then he got busy with his shrewdness, his cleverness, to secure himself. Facing the need for survival of the many, many of our southern neighbors suddenly there on Martha’s Vineyard, the church member asked her pastor, “What do we do?” Then the congregation took action as earnestly as the manager in the parable, but not out of self-serving. With astute urgency they got busy to feed, clothe and shelter these asylum seekers who had such desperate need. When asked by a reporter what they were doing, the church member replied, “We’re doing what churches are supposed to do and taking care of people as they show up” (The Washington Post, 9/17/22).
Friends, as followers of Christ, of the Way of Jesus, we have wealth of eternal proportions that in the eyes of the world may seem little and inconsequential. We don’t all share the same level of material wealth and of time. And we each possess different abilities and passions. But let us hear in our scripture today that whatever we have is enough when we offer it in service to growing God’s realm here on earth. Being faithful with our little or with our abundance of God’s gifts can change the world, one person, one heart at a time.
Humanity. Not Insanity. is a local non-profit organization formed by a group of Woodward High School classmates, class of 1978, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Their agenda is not religious, it’s not political, but simply to bring together people of different races backgrounds, neighborhoods to form friendships and become conversation partners about issues of race. They believe by doing so, “the world will be eased of a little tension and the positive ripple will grow to a brighter future for all” (https://www.humanitynotinsanity.com/).
Thanks to those serving on Knox’s Racial Justice Ministry for helping join in the work of dismantling structural racism by introducing the Knox community to Humanity. Not Insanity. and inviting us to HNI’s second annual community gathering that took place on 9/17/22. HNI offers an example of being faithful with the little things: A beautiful Cincinnati park venue, burgers on the grill, giant Jenga, cornhole, music, even a dance contest!, lawn chairs, conversation, and showing up – little things that are making a difference for the welfare of Cincinnati citizens, neighborhoods and humanity.
Consider other “little” we have been given by God with which to make a big difference.
I participate in a virtual prayer and meditation group. At the end of our time we hold space to share prayer requests for one another to pray for during the week. Believing that love heals everything, and that where there is violence and hatred, there is an absence of love, one gentleman asked for prayers that Russian President Vladimir Putin would know how loved he is by God.
Let us give thanks for all the ways the Knox Body of Christ serves from the wealth of God’s good gifts, little and large: You offered the hospitality of Christ at our annual Knox Rocks the Block Party on 9/11/22; you serve with and for our friends at Third Church as tutors, meal-makers and deliverers, mentors and helping to maintain the church grounds; you lead bible studies, book groups and prayer practice groups to help us go deeper with God; you pack food for the most vulnerable and hungry children in our city; you offer friendship and care for the homeless with Found House: IHN; you write prayer notecards to Knox members and friends; you help lead our corporate worship by keeping our worship spaces ready and clean, by reading scripture, welcoming our worshipers, making music; you pray in your unique way for others and for all of God’s world. In what other ways have you been faithful in little things, to help grow God’s love?
In closing, I share a story about someone with great wealth and power who served in a simple way to touch the life of someone who in the eyes of the world had very little. This is story about the late Queen Elizabeth II, one of many shared on social media in the wake of her recent death. The Rev. Robert Cunningham posted his experience on Twitter of being on a tour of the United Kingdom Parliament led by a man who knew its history well. When Cunningham asked the man for the “craziest story he could share,” he told this story:
Every legislative session begins with a visit from the Queen, and it’s a very regal tradition. She wears her crown and robe and processes down a hallway lined with the Queen’s Guards who literally strike the stone walls with their swords to make sparks fly as she walks by.
The hallway ends at the House of Lords, where the Queen enters to take her seat on the throne and essentially commissions the legislators to enact the will of the people. Several years ago, they were forced to break tradition a bit to accommodate the Queen in her older age. There is a grand staircase leading to the hallway, and it became too much for her to climb. So they decided to start using the elevator to get her up.
Well, the first year they did this a mistake was made. The lift operator accidentally pushed the button for the wrong floor. Rather than the entrance to parliament, he presses the button for the maintenance floor. The lift goes up, the doors open, and Alice from the cleaning crew with her head down pushes her cleaning cart into the elevator as she has done countless times. Only this time,
she has pinned the Queen of England against the wall of the small lift. The doors close behind her, Alice is stuck in the lift with the Queen and her Guard, and she lets out an expletive not fitting the presence of royalty. Then an awkward silence, no one knowing what to do.
The silence was broken by the Queen’s uncontrollable laughter, and then the most remarkable invitation. Rather than opening the doors to let Alice off, the Queen asks the lift operator to take them down to the proper floor. The doors open and to everyone’s shock out walks her Majesty the Queen and Alice the maintenance worker. Then the Queen in her regalia along with Alice in her maintenance uniform process side by side down the royal hallway.
But it gets even better. Once a year for the rest of Alice’s life, she was invited to Buckingham Palace for high tea with her newfound friend, Queen Elizabeth. The End.
Though, it’s not the end of course. Stories like this – about faithfulness with the little things – sharing laughter over the ludicrous, breaking decorum and crossing social boundaries to share the joys of life, extend hospitality, make a friend, give the world around you a big surprise of grace – live on and on, changing minds, touching hearts, growing love.
“You cannot serve God and wealth,” Jesus said. We cannot be “enslaved to” both the Realm of God and the ways of the world
Closing: let us not forget…Jesus’ yoke…keeing God as our Master the giving our whole devotion