This is one of the most challenging passages in the Bible to dwell on. It appears that not only is everyone involved in this parable underhanded and a cheat, more interested in the ends than in the means, but also that Jesus is praising such sneaky behavior: “You children of light could learn a few tips from the children of this age.” A few years ago at a ministerial conference, a group of twenty or so pastors gathered to study this text, which was coming up in the lectionary. After more than an hour of discussion, none of us felt really enlightened by a narrative in which dishonesty appears to be the order of the day.
And yet: When we consider the reading from Luke’s Gospel together with the other readings for today, a clearer picture comes into focus. What do we hear from the prophet Amos? Hear this, you who trample on the needy… The Lord has sworn… Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
In the psalm: He raises the poor with the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes.
In First Timothy: Jesus, himself human… gave himself as a ransom for all. And in Luke: No one can serve two masters.
The common denominator here seems to be one that emerges so often in Luke, the reversal of the existing order. And in light of that denominator, Jesus’ praise might well be not for the dishonest practices but for the common good that is born of those practices.
Luke’s Jesus seems to delight in turning things, expectations, values, the universe, upside down. In this parable, the wealthy boss is lowered in status, and the poor debtors are elevated. The kingdom of God, Luke’s Jesus tells us, reverses the status of rich and poor.
And the dishonest manager, a slave to his master, does manage to transform a situation of victimhood into one that helps both himself and others. By reducing other people’s debts, he creates relationships based on sharing, on give and take, on leveling the playing field. He demonstrates that he is no longer serving the idol of wealth and greed. By turning that idolatry upside down, in his own small way he is righting the world so that it more closely resembles the Kingdom of God.
His stated motive is to make sure that people will still welcome him into their homes now that he has lost his job, and, with it, the perks of his position: room and board, his status in the village as a money manager for the local boss, the equivalent of a company car – a company donkey, perhaps.
But his actions, even unintentionally, end up underlining Jesus’ unmistakable message to those who hear this parable: You cannot serve two masters. For years, this loyal servant has done whatever it takes to get the job done. He’s turned a bind eye to the outrageous interest rates, to the way his boss is taking advantage of people who are desperate enough to get into debt.
And now, it hits close to home. Just like that, his life has been turned upside down. No more, he decides. No more will I serve wealth.
Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty. Cut twenty bushels off your debt. Imagine them going home with a spring in their step and an unexpected lightness in their hearts. I don’t owe a hundred jugs of olive oil anymore. It’s only fifty. The manager told me I could pay fifty.
The world is a brighter place for these debtors because someone else made it better. The manager’s actions put relationships above wealth. When I come begging at their doors, I want them to think kindly of me. So I will act kindly toward them.
The manager has turned a small portion of the world God side up. He has brought the Kingdom of God close at hand for these debtors. And he’s done that by putting relationship first, by serving God rather than serving wealth.
Doug Lynam, who was once a Benedictine monk and is now a financial manager, has this to say in a recent issue of Guideposts. “Money is a tool that we can use to put our values in action. If we have our values straight, then money can increase our capacity for love, it can increase our values for service, and it allows God’s love to flourish abundantly in our lives in the world around us.” Maybe Jesus’ hard truth, that no one can serve two masters, is inviting us to reorient our own views, as Doug advises.
The point that Jesus makes here is one that he makes throughout Luke’s gospel – an invitation to view all that we have and all that we are with a goal of bringing about the Kingdom of God. The upending of what is usual, turning it not upside-down but God-side-up. And so we are invited to upend our relationship to money.
And when we do that, when you and I go from struggling with the tension of serving two masters to the joy of serving just one master, then the wisdom that Jesus shares begins to make sense. 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 audacity of the manager in reducing the debts that people owe to his master is shockingly radical. The Kingdom of God has broken in for the manager and the debtors, and they get a beautiful foretaste of God’s eternal kingdom.
In one adaptation of the classic A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Future hears Ebenezer Scrooge beg to be shown someone who is expressing some emotion over his death. He sees a poor young man return home to be greeted by his wife and baby. He’s dead, the man says. Scrooge is dead. His wife is confused. To whom will our debt be transferred? I don’t know, the husband answers. But that will take time. And by then – we will have the money we owe. His wife’s face lights up. They’re not ruined. They will not be evicted. Who ever thought, she says, that a death could bring so much happiness?
It’s frighteningly easy to idolize money – that is, to place it above all else in our lives. Our culture praises and even worships those who possess great wealth. We celebrate those who work long hours to make more money and gain promotions so they can make more money – these are the people we call “successful.” And what happens when you and I worship money, or anything else? That which we worship, enslaves us.
In a moment, maybe even on impulse, the manager in today’s parable decides he will no longer be a slave to wealth. Reduce your debts, he says. Let’s serve each other instead of money. And then what happens? The kingdom of God breaks in. The world is turned God side up.
Who would have thought a death could bring so much happiness?
Jesus gives us a challenging parable, one in which he appears to praise the maverick actions of the dishonest manager. But what Jesus sees, what he invites you and me to see, is what happens when we no longer worship money, when we no longer put wealth first, when people become more important than possessions. In just a few short chapters in the Gospel of Luke, he will, as First Timothy says, give his life as a ransom. He will put love above all else. And his death will set us free, liberating us from sin, liberating us from the impossibility of serving both the world and the Word.
When you and I worship money, equating wealth with success, we are subverting God’s ideal order, which invites us to worship God so that through God we may love one another. When you and I, like the dishonest manager, put one another first, we are worshiping God. And we too will then be putting the world right side up. Amen.