A Rich Man had a Manager
A Rich Man had a Manager
One of the advantages of preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible is that it forces us to address difficult passages. Sometimes a passage is difficult because it confronts us with something we don’t want to hear or because it calls on us to make some drastic or dramatic change in our lives that we don’t want to make. Sometimes these passages are simply difficult to understand. This morning we come to Luke 16 and to what is, hands down, the most difficult of Jesus’ parables. It usually goes by the name of the Parable of the Unjust Steward or the Dishonest Manager. Despite preaching for fifteen years, I’ve managed to avoid it until today. It’s difficult. And to give you a sense of just how difficult it is, I’ve got several Prayer Books here. This parable was, for roughly a millennium and a half, the Gospel for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity. Here it is in the Church of England’s Prayer Book. Here is in the Canadian Prayer Book. It’s even here in the Lutheran Service Book. I expect the Ninth Sunday after Trinity has been the bane of preachers for all fifteen hundred years. In fact, I know it has because I’ve looked at some historical sermons on the Epistle and Gospel for this Sunday and it’s remarkable how often preachers find a way to pass very quickly over the Gospel—or skip it entirely—to get to the Epistle. In 1928 the American Church dealt with this by changing the Gospel. If you look in our Prayer Book (page 222), which follows the same pedigree, they changed the Gospel to the Parable of the Prodigal Son…a much easier and more comforting story. But we’re tackling Luke’s gospel verse by verse and don’t have that “luxury”.
Luke introduces this section of his gospel writing, “He also said to the disciples…” Jesus is still in the same setting he was in in Chapter 15. There the Pharisees confronted him because he was feasting with tax collectors and sinners. And we saw that Jesus responded with stories about lost sheep and lost coins and lost sons, all of which were found, and about how everyone rejoiced and celebrated. The point of the stories, once we string them all together, is to show how the Pharisees had turned God’s plan upside-down. They thought he was coming to condemn and destroy sinners and they were prepared to rejoice in that. Jesus, however, reveals that God’s desire is to redeem sinners and that all his kingdom rejoices when the lost are found. Sinners were repenting, but Jesus rebukes the righteous Pharisees: they need to repent too. They need to get in line with God’s plan or they’ll be like the older brother: invited to feast in the kingdom, but refusing to join—choosing to stay outside and condemning themselves.
Still apparently in the same setting and with the Pharisees still there to hear the rest of what he has to say, Jesus now turns to his disciples and tells another story.
“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” (Luke 16:1-3)
Here’s the background: The manager in Jesus’ story had a good job. Some of the background commentaries note that this sort of job was so good that men were known to sell themselves into slavery in order to land one. Think of Joseph in Egypt managing all of Potiphar’s affairs. The pay and benefits of the job were very good. It was a prestigious job that gave a man high standing in the community. And yet it was a job that required a high level of trust. The rich man was probably away much of the time and relied on his manager not only to handle his estate and his affairs wisely and efficiently, but honestly as well. You can imagine how angry the rich man would be if he discovered that his manager had been dishonest.
That’s exactly what happens here. Jesus describes the manager “wasting” the rich man’s possessions. He doesn’t say exactly how he wasted them, but the word he uses that’s translated “waste” is the same word Jesus used to describe the prodigal son “squandering” his inheritance. Whatever this manager did, the point is that he betrayed the great trust that his master had placed in him. Word gets back to the rich man who comes and makes a personal visit to terminate his dishonest manager.
They didn’t keep records the way we do, so the rich man demands one last thing from his disgraced manager: he demands he turn in an account of his managing. The manager has to compile an inventory and turn over all his credit and debit receipts so that the new manager will know the status of the rich man’s accounts.
We can imagine the disgraced manager leaving that meeting. The inventory was the last thing on his mind. He’s wondering how he’s going to survive. No one will ever hire him as a manager again—not with this black mark on his résumé. He’s used to a cushy job. The only work he’d be able to find would be doing manual labour and he has no desire to get his hands dirty. And he’s not going to beg either; he’s much too proud for that. And then he remembers his master’s demand for a final inventory or account. Here’s his chance to save himself. Look at verses 4-7:
“I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’”
This is where Jesus story start to get difficult. From our perspective, if we take the story at face value it looks as if the dishonest manager is being dishonest again. First he squandered his master’s wealth and now, in order to ingratiate himself with his master’s business partners and debtors, he’s ripping off his master by reducing the debts they owe behind his master’s back. It’s easy to see how and why a dishonest manager might do something like that, but what makes the parable difficult to understand is that after doing this, both the rich man and Jesus portray him in a positive light. “How could they possible do that?” we think. And so preachers tend to avoid this parable and liturgical revisionists quietly drop it from the lectionary.
What all of this teaches us is that sometimes it’s dangerous to take biblical stories at what appears to be face value. The world has changed a lot over the last two thousand years. Things we take for granted weren’t what people in the first century took for granted and vice versa. The parable suddenly snaps into much sharper focus when we dig up the background. What we need to know is that the manager, maybe with a nod and a wink from the rich man, was charging interest. This wasn’t interest that the rich man ever saw. It was interest that the manager was using to enrich himself. This was common practice and everyone expected it, which is why the manager’s job was so desirable. That said, charging interest was still against the law. The torah—the Old Testament law—forbade the charging of interest. Deuteronomy 23:20 says, “You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” Leviticus 25:36-37 reads, “Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit.” With the help of the rabbis, however, businessmen had found a loophole. You couldn’t charge interest in the open. You couldn’t loan someone 10 denarii and write them a receipt for 10 denarii that also demanded an additional denarii each month or a penalty for late payment. That was against the law. But what you could do is loan someone 10 denarii and write them a receipt for 20. They only borrowed ten. You knew and they knew that the other 10 denarii were interest, but since the receipt simply indicated a debt of 20 denarii there was nothing anyone could do about it.
That’s what this man has been doing with his master’s debtors and he’s been pocketing the money himself. And so he gets an idea. All of these debtors were expecting to pay back their loans with interests. Imagine how happy they’ll be if all they have to pay back is the actual loan amount! So he calls them in one by one and has them rewrite their receipts, but cuts out the interest he’d been charging. One man had been prepared to pay back a hundred measures of oil when he’d only borrowed fifty. The manager has him rewrite his receipt for the fifty borrowed. He does the same with a man who had borrowed eighty measures of wheat, but was prepared to pay back a full one hundred. Over and over he does this with each of his master’s debtors. Imagine how happy they are to have their debts cut so dramatically.
When he left the meeting with his master he was out of work and knew that no one would hire him. Word would get around about his dishonesty. But now he’s countered that. He isn’t really being honest—he’s still motivated by self-preservation—but others might think that he’s turned over a new leaf and that he’s going to start doing business honestly. Ultimately his goal is to ingratiate himself into their hospitality. In verse 4 he thinks to himself that if he does this, these people will “receive” him into their houses. In Greek he uses this same word when he tells each of his master’s debtors to “take”—literally to “receive”—their bills. He’s expecting some quid pro quo, some tit for tat. As they receive their reduced bills, with any luck he’ll receive their gratitude and hospitality.
In verse 8, Jesus describes the rich man’s reaction:
The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.
The manager’s actions were motivated by a selfish desire to preserve his status, but even his master can’t fault what he did. Not only was it a smart and prudent move to make, but it was the honest thing to do and in the end, even if the rich man wasn’t in on the scheme, it reflects well on him.
That’s the parable itself. Knowing the background behind first century management and lending practises helps us sort out the difficulties of the story itself. But understanding what the manager was up to is only half the reason this parable is so difficult. We still have to ask what Jesus’ point was in telling it. Jesus gets at this in the second half of verse 8 through the end of verse 9:
The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
The dishonest manager was engaging in the sorts of business practises that worldly people engage in. They lie and they cheat and then when they get caught and trouble comes, like the dishonest manager, they scramble to fix things in hopes of avoiding their own doom. And Jesus compares these shrewd or prudent “sons of this world” with the “sons of light”. This is where the story becomes difficult again. Who are the “sons of light”? I’ve read some pretty good commentaries that argue that the sons of light are Jesus’ followers. Jesus been preaching that judgement is coming and here he’s saying that they’d better use their worldly goods to find some way to escape it or find a way through it. The problem is that if the sons of light are Jesus’ disciples too many parts of the story don’t add up. It’s a good idea, but it comes from a common way of approaching the gospels that ignores the real historical setting in which Jesus was living and preaching and, instead, spiritualises or tries to universalise his message as if he we could be preaching to anyone anywhere.
What I hope you’ve seen as we’ve been making our way through Luke is that Jesus didn’t just drop into history at a random date to start the Church. Jesus came at a strategic point in history and, more specifically, he came as the culmination and fulfilment of Israel’s history. Israel’s mission was to carry the Lord’s blessing to the nations, but she failed. And so Jesus came, not just as the Messiah—not just as the long-expected king in the line of David. He also came as Daniel’s “Son of Man”—he came as Israel’s representative. He took up her mission and where she had failed, he succeeded. Where the Lord’s letter of redemption and restoration has stalled out in Israel’s post office, Jesus delivered it to the entire world.
So at the core of Jesus’ ministry was the proclamation that in him the kingdom had arrived and that in him God is now king. And for these three years he spent proclaiming that message and travelling throughout Galilee and Judea, what he was really doing was calling Israel to follow him. He was picking up where she had failed, but she could still take part in his mission if she would only cast aside her wrong ideas about God and his plan and follow Jesus as he manifested his lordship to the world, by seeking out the lost and by conquering sin and death as he died on the cross and rose from the grave.
Jesus is preaching to Israel here. He’s giving commentary on her history and calling her to repentance. And that means that the rich man in the story is the Lord. He is rich. He created the cosmos and he created humanity so that he could share his riches of love and grace with us. And when we rebelled and rejected him, he called Abraham to carry his message of grace to the nations. Abraham and then Israel, the nation descended from him, were called to be the Lord’s managers in this world. But just as the manager in the parable squandered his master’s riches, Israel squandered the Lord’s riches of grace. And now judgement is coming. The manager in the story saw judgement coming and had the sense to act decisively and to do something even though it meant giving up his riches. But in contrast, as Israel faces the Lord’s judgement for squandering his riches, most of the people are going about their lives as if they’ve got nothing to worry about. The Sadducees are firm in their denial of any need to change the status quo. Of all the people in Israel, the Pharisees knew that something had to change and that the people had to turn to God. But the solution of the Pharisees was to turn the light they had been given into darkness. Instead of using the law God had given Israel as a means of carrying light into the darkness, the Pharisees kept the light to themselves and condemned everyone left in the dark. Instead of seeking out the lost, they condemned them. The law wasn’t enough; they had to add to it, making it burdensome, not unlike the dishonest manager who had padded his debtor’s bills with heavy interest loads.
So in the parable, Jesus is warning Israel. It’s not just that judgement is coming, but to escape judgment, you’ve got to act and you’ve got to act now. You’ve got to repent and you’ve got to repent now. And that means letting go and potentially giving up all the things they held dear. We’ve seen Jesus pointing this direction throughout his ministry. A new age and a new kingdom is coming in which blood ties with Abraham won’t matter—what will matter is allegiance to Jesus the King. He is Israel himself and true Israelites, true sons and daughters of Abraham, will be those who find their identity in him. They’ve also got to let go of the land, because this new kingdom isn’t about a place—again, it’s about Jesus himself. And they’ve got to let go of the temple. In this new kingdom the Lord’s presence is no longer found in temples of stone, but in hearts of flesh—in the hearts of those who are in Jesus.
Jesus says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Like the manager in the story, be ready to give up the things of the kingdom that is passing away that you might be welcomed into the kingdom that is being inaugurated by Jesus. This was Jesus’ word of warning to his disciples, to the Pharisees, and to the people of Israel.
And again, we need to remember the real history that surrounds and weaves its way through the New Testament. Jesus wasn’t warning the Jews of some far off spiritual day of reckoning; he was warning of imminent destruction coming in a very tangible and earthly way—before this generation passes away, he said. Interestingly enough, the Jerusalem Church escaped when the judgement Jesus warned about came to Jerusalem. Josephus in his Jewish War and Eusebius in his History of the Church both tell us that the Christians received a divine warning and fled to Pella, in what it now northern Jordan. They took the decisive action Jesus talks about in the parable, they left everything behind, and they were spared when the Romans destroyed the city and the temple.
Brothers and sisters, the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise of judgement in the First Century serves as a warning to us that his promise of final judgement will also be fulfilled. And so we now need to ask if we’ve been good and honest stewards of God’s grace. Have we been good and honest stewards of the Good News? Have we lived it? Have we proclaimed it? Or have we kept it to ourselves? Have we become self-righteous and used our kingdom status to condemn the lost rather than to seek them out? Have we added heavy burdens to the Good News? The heart of the Good News is that Jesus is Lord, but like the dishonest manager, are we trying to get our cut too—lining our pockets or feeding our spiritual pride? Or are we preaching the unfettered Good News that Jesus is Lord and that at the cross and at the grave he conquered sin and death.
And to what do we hold too closely? Is our priority in life the wealth that Jesus talks about in the story? Whether rich or poor, we have a powerful tendency to hold on to money and possessions for security. But brothers and sisters, money and possessions are part of the kingdom that is passing away. Even the dishonest manager understood that. All his profit would do him no good when judgement came, and so he let it go that he might find a way to survive in what was for him a new age. The same goes for us. Are we clinging to the things of this fading kingdom—to things that will not last or that will be of no value in the kingdom of God—or are we using them as tools to further God’s kingdom and God’s plans and to ensure that we have a place in his kingdom?
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, as we prayed in the Collect, look upon the desires of your servants. Look upon our desires Lord, and cleanse our hearts. Teach us to trust in you and in the simple message of Good News that Jesus has given us. Let us never add any heavy burdens to that simple proclamation. And let us truly trust in Jesus. Give us the faith to let go of every other desire and source of security that we might take hold of him with both hands and find a sure home in his eternal kingdom. We ask this in his name. Amen.