Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, became one of us to turn us to the way of God in the world, a way which is diametrically opposed to the way of the world; we cannot live in both ways.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 25, year C; text: Luke 16:1-13
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Well, that’s a strange one, and no mistake. That might be the oddest and most confusing parable Jesus tells.
Before we can talk about this parable, though, we need to remember a little bit about Jesus.
We can just stay with what Luke says, to keep it simple, since he’s the Gospel the lectionary for this year is using, and the one who relates to us today’s parable by Jesus.
Luke from the beginning tells us that Jesus is the Son of God, the anointed one of God. Jesus is filled with the power of Holy Spirit from before his birth, and certainly during his life and ministry. And he has come to save us.
And from the very beginning of this story, we are told his coming was intended to overturn the way of the world in favor of the way of God. The proud will be scattered and the lowly lifted up. The hungry will be filled and the rich sent away empty. This Son of God came with a radical overturning of the way this world works, and invited all to join him.
In fact, for Luke, that’s central. As much as Jesus is God-with-us, filled with the Spirit, turning the world upside down to reflect God’s true values, so much so are we called to share that role, also filled with the Spirit.
Let’s also then remember some other key things about Jesus’ ministry in Luke so far. He has healed many, even of demon possession. He has forgiven people of their sins as if he had God’s authority. He has spent time with people whose sinful lives were public knowledge and scandal, and even sought them out. He’s declared that God’s blessing and new life, this overturning which leads to the salvation of the world, is for all people, both Jews and Gentiles.
So that’s where we stand now as we hear this story Jesus tells. We understand that Jesus is God’s definitive message to us, God’s very presence among us, and he is declaring a way of life that is completely opposite the way of the world.
And he’s inviting people to follow him in that way, completely. It is a way where we win by losing. A way of love over hate. A way of giving, not taking. A way that doesn’t count wealth by money but by trust in God. A way of grace instead of judgment. A way where enemies are loved not feared. A way where dying leads to life.
And now we’re ready for Jesus’ brilliant parable that is very confusing unless we understand that context.
One more piece of context to remember: Luke has placed this parable immediately after chapter 15, the three great parables of grace, the parables of the lost being found. And the last image we have from chapter 15 before we hear this story is the elder brother and the father standing eye-to-eye, but not seeing in that way at all.
And then Luke relates this parable of Jesus.
It tells of a dishonest manager who works the system to make sure when he’s fired he still lands on his feet. And what seems to confuse everyone who reads or hears this parable is that there are no redeemable characters in it, and there is this incredibly strange commendation at the end: the cheating manager is commended for his shrewdness, by his master, and by Jesus’ comment which follows.
But listen to what Jesus actually says: He says, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
Do you see? No? Then look at the parable once more: The manager is cheating his owner and is caught. He has to give an accounting. He’s scared – too proud to beg and too lazy to dig ditches – so he cooks up a plan. He connives with people who owe his master money and re-writes their debts. All so that when he’s fired, these grateful people will welcome him into their homes.
And his master commends him for his cleverness. But that’s not really all that odd.
Commending someone for their cleverness doesn’t mean you approve of what they did. Consider any movie or book you’ve experienced and enjoyed where the hero of the book is the classic archetype of a rogue thief or charming criminal. Of course we don’t condone their thievery or whatever crimes they commit. But when the person is clever, and works the system, and has a little panache, we at least have a bit of admiration for their skill and focus, if the story’s told well.
That’s what’s happening here. The master is impressed: he thought he had this guy on the ropes, and he figured a way out. It doesn’t mean what the manager did was right.
But there’s still Jesus’ commendation to consider. Why is he telling this story at all?
The answer is in what we’ve already said about the way of God he has come to lead us into. From the Pharisees to the confused and half-committed disciples, Jesus constantly is running into people who are attracted to what he’s saying but aren’t ready to commit to it whole-heartedly.
So earlier he tells parables of seeds that start to grow but fall away because of cares and concerns of the world. He tells of servants who fail to be at their work when the master returns. He tells of people who want to follow him but keep turning back to their affairs.
Then he tells this parable, about a man who never turns back from his vision, his way of life, his code. The manager knows what his priorities are and he constantly works for them. He will be comfortable and happy, that’s his goal. So he cheats his owner, and when caught, cheats him some more to make sure someone else will care for him. He knows how the game is played and he plays it fully, no holds barred.
And Jesus says, “why can’t the children of light be that shrewd?”
Do you see? He’s saying that the people of the world know where their bread is buttered and they do everything they can to make sure they get their butter. From Wall Street to Main Street, if you are living by the rules of the world, by the rules of making money, by the rules of winner take all, you follow those rules faithfully.
But Jesus keeps finding people who seek the way of God, but not fully. They still want to keep one foot in the way of the world. They divide their focus. The world never does, Jesus reminds us.
Jesus keeps encountering elder brothers who are staring into the face of pure grace, pure forgiveness, the face of a father who says, “Everything I have is yours, and I am always with you,” and still want to play by the rules of “Those who do the right thing should be blessed and those who do not should suffer.”
Jesus is saying to the disciples, to the elder brothers, to us, “Follow me and live. But take a cue from the world: commit your everything to this. You can’t be partially in my way and partially in the way of the world.”
He throws in a little ironic statement in verse 9 to make this point: “Make friends for yourselves by dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes,” Jesus says. In other words, live by the world’s ways if you want. But good luck if you expect the world to save you. They’re not going to be able to give you eternal homes, that’s for sure.
Remember Jesus’ previous parable, as proof: the younger son found no welcome from the friends he made with his wealth once it ran out. He only found welcome in the arms of his astonishingly loving father who loved him without condition or hesitation.
You cannot serve both God and wealth. That’s Jesus’ last word today, and his main point.
And it is about money, in part. The rest of this chapter tells that.
From another confrontation with the Pharisees, again over money, to the story of the rich man and the poor one who sat at his door with the dogs eating scraps which concludes this chapter, Jesus points out that God’s way is not the world’s way of seeking security and wealth.
Trying to follow Christ but still trying to make ourselves secure by the way of the world – by gaining more wealth, by gaining more status, by having all sorts of rules about who’s in and who’s out, by caring more about institutions than people, by trying to limit where the Triune God can and cannot move – all of this is a vain hope.
Only when we lose everything, all sense of our status, all our sense that we’ve earned anything, all our belief that we have some rightness to bring to this party, only when we lose everything can we see the face of the Father looking at us in love saying, “all that is mine is yours, and I am always with you.”
If we are going to try and live by the way of the world, and cling to the things we think make us secure, be they material or emotional or spiritual things, and then also try to live by the way of Christ, we will find we cannot do both.
You cannot go both east and west in the same walk. And you cannot serve two masters.
This is not easy for us. It never has been. Pretty much every follower of Jesus has had to face this struggle, we see that even in his first followers.
But in the end, we know where we need to be. We need to be with the One who seeks us forever, no matter how lost we are. The one who himself died that he might take up his life again and offer it to the world. The one whose love will always welcome us home.
The clarity of purpose we seek as his followers is that we see as he sees, we live as he lives. Risking all, not worrying about anything, but trusting always that we are in God’s hands. Loving all, not trying to put limits on it, but trusting always that it is the truth that we are so loved by God. Offering this new way to the world as our mission, and inviting all to follow Christ into this life as well. So that the world might actually be saved.
In the end, our Prayer of the Day has it right, though: we can only ask God to make this so among us.
It’s part of that paradox of losing means winning that we can’t secure ourselves in this way of God, either. But we can pray, as we did, that God “turn our minds to your wisdom and our hearts to the grace revealed in your Son.” We can pray that the Triune God so fill us with the Spirit that we, children of light that we are, can be as shrewd about living in the way of Christ as the people of the world are in living by the rules of the world.
Because God has come to be with us, to show us the way of life, and to walk alongside us in that way. Why would we ever want to go a different direction?
In the name of Jesus. Amen