Text: Luke 16:1-13
If you are not sure what to make of this Parable of the Unjust Steward or as it is sometimes called the Shrewd Manager, take some comfort. I’m not sure Luke knew what to do with it either. It may very well be one of the most, if not the most, confusing parables of Jesus. One of the first things to note about this narrative is that it serves as a bridge between two other stories: the story of the Prodigal Son and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Like the prodigal in the preceding story, the dishonest manager has “squandered” what was entrusted to him. And, like the story that follows, this parable begins with the phrase, “There was a rich man.”
As one commentator noted: “Although the dishonest manager does not repent like the prodigal, or act virtuously like Lazarus, he nonetheless does something with the rich man’s wealth that reverses the existing order of things. In Luke, reversals of status are at the heart of what happens when Jesus and the Kingdom of God appear. The proud are ‘scattered.’ The powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted; the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty.” If we can say nothing else about this confusing parable, Luke uses it to further his theme of upside down thinking.
As I have studied this text, it seems to me that there are at least four ways to think about it. One is that Jesus was actually praising the shrewd manager for being a sort of Robin Hood character—beating the system. In a system that often disadvantaged the poor and created more hardship on those with less, it is possible that Jesus was commending the shrewd manager for advocating for the less advantaged. It’s unlikely that that’s what is really going on in the story but it is plausible. Another way to read this text is to say that Jesus is simply being sarcastic—go ahead, be dishonest, do whatever it takes to soften the landing here, but that’s not how it works in kingdom living. A third way to read this text is to see it as tongue in cheek—Jesus’ attempt to show how ridiculous we can be in justifying our dishonest actions. But a fourth way to read this parable is to say that although the story is somewhat confusing, the headline is that how we view wealth makes a difference in what kind of person we become and how we live in the world.
Think for a minute about the images of wealth in the United States. What do you see? What images come to mind? A picture of Bill Gates or Tiger Woods or Oprah Winfrey? If you are sitting in the balcony to my right, maybe the image in your mind is that of Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus? Or maybe it’s the house your friend lives in or the car he got when he turned 16. (I wish we had the time to stop right here and for all of us to listen to what you would identify as your images of wealth. We need more time in this community to listen to your voices.) If you are a person who enjoys a fine meal, maybe your image of wealth is that hamburger that I saw the other night on a cooking show that had 18kt. gold flakes on it and cost a mere $350. Okay, maybe those are not your images of wealth. But what about Christmas in the US—all of those presents and parades and demonstrations of having and giving that we are inundated with beginning at Thanksgiving and lasting through December? Or the extravagance of multi-million dollar homes and fancy cars and designer clothes that most often define success and wealth in the US?
I know. Those of us sitting here are above such thinking. True wealth, we say, is in good health, loyal friends and family ties. Those are the true images of wealth. And yes, they are. But I think that in this somewhat odd parable that Jesus tells in Luke, he is actually talking about wealth as it relates to money. It’s too easy to say otherwise.
As Bible reading people, when we think about wealth in terms of money, our thoughts can turn somewhat negative. It’s understandable that this happens. After all, Jesus’ take on money and wealth was not very positive. And he talked a lot about money. We hear those words ringing in our ears, “Blessed are you who are poor…” not blessed are you who are rich. We remember that vivid image in the story that Jesus told his listeners that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. And then there is that passage in James that says, “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes…You have hoarded wealth in the last days.” It’s no wonder we don’t want to talk about money in church. It is true that Jesus had a lot to say about money and wealth and much of what he said is tough to swallow.
I began lectionary group this week with the question: “How do you view wealth?” Listen to some of their responses. Wealth is dangerous. Wealth has tremendous power to deform people. I think of wealth as unearned. Wealth can be an obstacle to God. Wealth has the power to control and seduce. And my favorite: wealth is a risky mistress. Some in the group noted that it’s not how much wealth you have but what you do with it that matters, going with the argument that money itself is not bad, it’s what one does with it that really matters. I appreciate that line of thinking. And it has its place in any discussion on wealth and money.
But back to Luke. This bizarre text in Luke’s gospel has me wondering if our faith (if Jesus) is inviting us into a different way of thinking about and viewing wealth and money? It seems to me that Jesus is saying there are two worlds and two ways to view wealth and money. There is the world we live in, a world of individual wealth, and Jesus’ kingdom world, a world of collective wealth. An individual world of wealth distorts, because it causes us to focus on our difference and our separation. By valuing individual wealth so highly, we encourage people to create more and more, to make more and more, to have more and more. And in order to have more and more, I have to have more and more than my neighbor. If I define my wealth, at least in part, by what I have that others do not, fundamentally I am set up for separation. And separation is the antithesis of the teachings of Jesus.
But there is another way: the kingdom way of collective wealth. If I think of what I have, or what I make or what I create as ours, if I begin from a place of shared fortune or misfortune, I may still decide I want more, but I inherently see sharing as part of having.
In her book, Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism Ani Tenzin Palmo tells this story:
While I was in England, I had some friends who were English Sufis. Their sheik was in Morocco. These friends had a son who was about 3 years old. One day they had given him a box of sweets and suggested he offer one to me. His immediate reaction was, “No, they’re mine!” His father said, “Yes, of course they are yours. That’s why you can share them with others.” The little boy thought about that, then he smiled. He opened up the box and not only gave one to me, but offered them to everybody in the room, with a big smile. That was right. They were his, therefore he could offer them to others!
Reflecting on this story Palmo explains that in Buddhism, giving is one of the Six Perfections, or six qualities to living an enlightened life. “Perfecting the quality of giving,” she writes though, “requires a social context. Living in isolation, one might put out crumbs for the birds to develop the quality of giving, but beyond that, what? Buddhism teaches that we need other people around if we are to develop the quality of giving and generosity. How can we learn to give if we have no one to give to? Giving is placed first because it is something that we can all do right now. We don’t have to be ethically perfect, we don’t have to be great meditators, we don’t have to develop great patience and avoid anger in all circumstances. We can be extremely flawed, extremely problematic people, but still be generous [with our wealth and money].” “Giving” she concludes “opens up the heart, which is another reason why it is placed first [on the road to enlightenment].”
How do you/we view wealth and specifically money? Is it for amassing, or for sharing? Is it for keeping, or for giving? Is it for me, or for us? I am very aware that these are false dichotomies and forced extremes. But, as I’ve shared before, the very nature of parables is to tip us off balance, and push us to see and think differently. Maybe the most important part of this confounding parable is the end, where Jesus says you cannot serve both God and wealth. As we try and relate to these words, maybe the hopeful and necessary question for us becomes: “How far will we go in sharing our box of sweets with others?”