“Masters Degree” by Keith. Proper 20C. September 19, 2010.

Texts Read for Sunday:  1 Timothy 2:1-7 and Luke 16:1-13

A reading from the book of Luke that has come to be known as the parable of the unjust manager or dishonest steward.  Let us hear the word of the Lord…

Read Luke 16: 1-13

I begin with a quote: “None of the parables of Jesus has baffled interpreters quite like the story of the dishonest steward.”[1]  Boltman even compares this parable to a problem child among the parables of Jesus.[2]  It doesn’t ‘flow’ like we think it should.  Some of Jesus’ main teachings in Luke deal with the issues of money, wealth, and possessions.  But in reading this parable, it is almost as if Jesus is contradicting himself.  If you are reading along in Luke, this story comes right on the heals of the parable of the Prodigal son.   Both stories have a subordinate, the son and the steward, who wastes and squanders the goods of their respective superior, the father and the rich man.  But this is where the similarities diverge.  The prodigal realizes the sin against his father, turns his face toward home and plans to ask for forgiveness.   The steward, unlike the son, is not penitent.  As soon as he realizes he has been caught in whatever wasteful or unethical use of his master’s money, he turns to his master’s clientele.  He starts marking down what people owe his master.  “You owe a hundred jugs of oil?  Mark it down to fifty.”  “You owe a hundred containers of wheat?  Let’s change your bill to make it eighty.”  In the prodigal story, the son realized he was in deep trouble and he returns to his father and finds forgiveness.  The steward is in deep trouble, too.  But he just goes in deeper!  At this point as the listener, we expect our storyteller, Jesus, to have the master so angry as to have the steward thrown into prison for the rest of his days.  But the rich man commends him!  We want to fall out of our chairs!  Jesus, what on earth are you talking about?  Parables are supposed to give clear insights into God’s choices for our lives.  We may struggle with the meaning, but why would Jesus make an example for godly living so unsavory, a shyster out for personal gain, someone just out to save his own skin? 

            I think there is a reason that we find this parable right after the story of the Prodigal son.  Luke has a purpose in putting it there.  They are meant to be in direct contrast to one another.  The parable of the Prodigal son presents God’s economy, an economy based upon forgiveness and mutual love and even humiliation of oneself.  The parable of the unjust steward presents an economy of the world that is based on self preservation and reciprocity, a tit-for-tat economy, where relationships exist solely because someone owes someone else something.  There is no question that the steward’s motivations were driven by self-preservation.  If thrown out of his job, he may become a ditch digger or even a beggar.  He has put his master’s debtors in his debt now.  By lowering what they owe, he has created a network of people who owe him.  These farmers or business people who owed his master are now under his debt and under an obligation to reciprocate, even letting him come into their homes.  He knows how these systems work.  He knows how to protect his own security in a world that can quickly change to his disadvantage.

            Friends, this is the same economy that is presented on the nightly news.  It is the story of recessions and expanding GNP, rising and falling stock markets, slumping home sales and foreclosures, of multimillion dollar bonuses given to executives as their companies fall around them.  We all owe something to someone.  For some, it is student loans and credit card bills, for others it may be just the heating bill.  For many people, they know the score card of how much they owe.  And in keeping score, they also know who owes them.  We knew someone from Alaska that always came bearing gifts.  We would invite her and her husband over for dinner and she would bring a gift.  It at first seemed like a small gesture, nothing uncommon actually when someone goes to someone else’s house for dinner.  The gift, though, was usually something very nice, more than just a loaf of bread or bottle of wine to share at the meal.  But after we would send a thank you note for whatever she had given us, a few days later; we would receive a thank you note in the mail.  It was a thank you note for the thank you note.  And attached to that thank you note was usually another gift of some kind.  It almost felt like she was keeping a score card and she always wanted to make sure that she kept the scales slightly tipped in her favor.

            Friends, there is good news in this parable, and it isn’t where we expect it.  In verse 9, Jesus says, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  It draws on the story, use your wealth or money, but in saying ‘make friends’ it is countering the story.  The steward didn’t make a list of friends; he made a list of debtors, of people who owed him favors.  He used an economy of debt for his own self preservation.  But God is inviting us to participate in God’s economy, where we are led by the Holy Spirit to use our wealth to make friends.  Friendship involves commonality, foregiveness and equality, not indebtedness.   One commentator put it this way: “To ‘make friends’ by ‘unrighteous mammon,’ (or wealth) therefore, was the opposite of enslaving people in need.  To ‘make friends’ by giving to those in need had a liberating effect.  It meant to put people on the same footing.”[3]  God’s economy is based upon friendship and forgiveness of debt.  What does God’s economy look like?  First and foremost, we learn about this economy based on what God has done in Christ for us.  Christ wiped free the debt that we owed God.  We can now be in a right relationship with God and each other.  We are now able to forgive as we have been forgiven.  The score card between humanity and God has been wiped clean in Christ. 

            Participating with God in God’s economy looks drastically different than the economy of debt and indebtedness that we are so used to seeing and hearing on the news.  It looks like finding ways to lift people out of the dirt who have never had the ability to walk, giving them a wheelchair and a level of dignity they have never had before.  It looks like building houses for those who have never had a home.  It looks like restoring a waterway so that those who depend upon it for their life and livelihood do not have to fear what may be in the water they drink or the food they eat.  It looks like coming to the table with enough bread and where the cup is overflowing so that everyone goes away satisfied.  It looks a lot like being empowered by the Holy Spirit to love your neighbor as yourself.  And as that love grows, your neighbor also becomes your friend.  And it is a lot better to have a friend knocking at the door than to have someone you are indebted to.

            This good news of God’s economy is followed by a warning as well.  You cannot serve both God and wealth.  (Hold up a dollar bill).  You can not live in a world of indebtedness and forgiveness at the same time.  There are two ways to recognize this dollar.  It is either God’s, a gift to be used to further God’s economy in the world, or it can become a god, a god that we owe and whose power we call upon to indebt others.  Jesus is telling us there is no middle ground.  We cannot serve both.  But in saying that, Jesus knows we have to live in the systems that exist in the world today, that we need to put food on the table, pay the bills, and save for retirement.  Even when we have to negotiate those systems, money looks different when it is a tool of God.  This dollar bill says, “In God we Trust.”  Every time you read that on a bill or a coin, remember the unwritten second part.  “God has entrusted us.”  God had entrusted us with the use of that money. The decision is left to us. 

            This is a hard parable to negotiate.  It is easy to get hung up on the fact that the main character in this story is dishonest and manipulative, and we’d like to distance ourselves from that kind of behavior.  But Jesus uses this story carefully; he uses it precisely because it is outside the conventional morality tale.  But if we get hung up on his behavior, we can easily miss the good news that he is pointing us to.  It is the good news that it is God’s forgiveness that is driving God’s economy and that God is inviting us participate with him in that economy with everyone we meet so that we can call them friend.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.


[1] Charles B. Cousar, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, page 93, Exegetical Perspective

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.com.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=145.  “Sermon Brainwave,” podcast with Profs. Karoline Lewis, David Lose, Matt Skinner, and Rolf Jacobson

[3] Moxnes, Halvor.  (Halvor Moxnes, The Economy of the Kingdom:Social Conflict and Economic Relations in Luke’s Gospel; Philadelphia:Fortress Press, 1988, pp. 142–43).  As quoted from “Texts for Preaching, Year C”  

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