Sermon for September 22nd, 2013. The text for this week was the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, found in Luke 16:1-13. May God bless you and keep you.
The parable we just read from the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the Dishonest Manager, is not a pastor favorite. Phyllis Tickle refers to it as “the most difficult parable of them all.” I mentioned to a pastor buddy of mine that I was preaching on this passage, and he confessed to me that he had never preached on it. So why does this parable have preachers quaking in their boots? Let’s take a look and see:
It starts with a rich guy, who has a manager taking care of his investments. Sort of like a business’s chief operating officer, everything runs through him. And the rich man has discovered that the manager has squandered away the estate’s resources. He confronts him about it, and tells him he’s going to be fired.
Now the manager realizes that he’s about to lose his job, and without it he’ll be out on the street, either digging or begging. So he starts calling up his boss’s clients, and offers to cut them good deals. He writes down their debt so they don’t owe so much, basically giving away his master’s property. He’s hoping that he can make some friends with his dishonest wealth, friends who will take him in when he finds himself thrown out on his rear. It’s actually a pretty familiar story for those of us who follow politics. It’s amazing how much industry lobbies will pay the congresspeople they used to lobby when they retire from their seats.
But when the rich man catches him, instead of being angry with the manager for stealing from him, he commends the manager for his shrewdness. This is the part that preachers struggle with. It’s like a company rewarding its employees for poor performance. Or a rental car company giving a bonus for bringing their car to a demolition derby. It doesn’t fit at all with what we think God is about. It seems like the rich man is rewarding the manager for cheating him.
But our question isn’t really with the behavior of the dishonest steward. His actions make sense. And even though he’s a little bit sleazy, we can understand him. The questions revolve around the actions of the rich man. Why doesn’t he punish his manager? Why does he commend him for his shrewdness? And most significantly, what does it mean for us if this is the way God acts? Or if this is the way God wants us to act?
It’s a little bit like the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Both stories involve a man who squanders away resources—the prodigal squanders his father’s, and the manager squanders his master’s. Each of them comes up with a plan to mitigate the disaster that he faces. In both stories, the man says it aloud to himself. And both stories conclude with the powerful figure shockingly disregarding the appropriate punishments and offering blessings instead.
If we’re right in reading the Prodigal’s father as representing God, is God represented in the rich man as well? Could it really be, that if we were to squander God’s resources making friends and developing relationships, that God would commend us, and call us shrewd?
I’m going to make a leap here, but I don’t think its that big of a leap. The church’s current situation is not all that different from the dishonest manager’s. Sixty years ago the church was at the height of its political, social, and cultural significance. In the 1950’s church attendance was at an all time high. A Gallup poll reported that 75% of Protestants said that they’d been to church in the last week. Now, the number is a little over 40%, though some pollsters think that actual attendance is closer to 20%. And while the church was once one of society’s most powerful moral influences, many now describe the church as judgmental and hateful, and consider it hypocritical and morally bankrupt.
In other words, much like the steward, the church is losing its privileged place in society. We can no longer expect to get by the way we used to. And although it’s tempting to think that we’ve earned a better place in society, or we deserve a better place, the truth is that what we have was never ours in the first place. God has entrusted us with it, left us to manage it. And so like the steward, we need to do something shrewd. We need to use what power and influence we have left to make some new friends.
So instead of trying to recover a past that isn’t coming back, let’s make a future for ourselves, giving away what we were entrusted with to build up something new. Instead of praying that the church receive funds, let’s start praying for the church to give it away. Instead of hoping that the church gets what it needs, let’s go out as a church to fill the needs of others. Let’s squander our money on people who need it, people who can’t give back. Let’s reach out to the folks who have nothing to offer us. Instead of trying to protect our place in society, let’s go out and protect those who have no place in our society. Let’s stop being afraid of dying and start being afraid of the more dire fate that is slowly creeping up on us: that our living might have no effect on anyone else.
If we really believe that this is God’s church, and not our church, let’s stop trying to keep it for ourselves, the way we like it, the way we think it should be, and start using it to store up treasure in heaven: blessing others, offering grace and peace.
You might be thinking that that sounds a little like giving up. Choosing selfless giving over self-preservation does not seem like the path to salvation. In fact, it is a little like giving up. It is like Christ, who gave himself up on the cross that we might have life. Our Lord took the life that he’d been given, and instead of trying to protect it, instead of trying to preserve it, instead of trying to save it, he gave it away. He gave it up, so that we might know salvation. He squandered his precious life, and in so doing gave life to all of us. And he said, “Take up your cross, and follow me.”
Following Jesus is no easy thing, especially since we know where the journey ends. But it begins, like every journey, with a first step. The first step for us as a church is listening. If we’re going to make friends with our squandered wealth, we need to know what people need. So we need to go out and listen to people. Not the kind of listening that we usually do, waiting for our turn to talk, thinking of what to say next, what we need at the store. Real listening, with no goals or needs or sneaky motivations. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say, except to let the other person know that you’re listening. Listen the way Jesus listens to you. Try to understand what it is they are yearning for, what it is that they need. Listen and look for ways that you can bless them, opportunities for you to change their lives, for ways the church can fill their needs, can write down their debts. Listen for the places where God is calling you to help, and listen to the struggles needs of the people you interact with, because so often they are the same thing.
And listen to Jesus Christ, our Lord, who gave his very life for us, and who said that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
 John Donahue, “Balancing the Books | America Magazine,” September 17, 2001, http://americamagazine.org/content/the-word/balancing-books.
 Lydia Saad, “Churchgoing Among U.S. Catholics Slides to Tie Protestants,” www.gallup.com, April 9, 2009, http://www.gallup.com/poll/117382/church-going-among-catholics-slides-tie-protestants.aspx.