By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 22, 2019
Luke 16:1–13 (ESV)
1 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2 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.’ 3 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. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 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.’ 8 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. 9 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. 10 “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
Today I admit that I do not know everything about scripture. There are portions of scripture that I really struggle with. There are portions of scripture I tend to avoid, because I simply do not understand what is going on. Or at times I think I know what is going on, but it does not fit into the perspective I have of faith. Today we read one of those passages. We have a parable of Jesus that Luke finds necessary to include, yet the wording and situation seems to fly in the face of the values that we hold as Friends.
There really is not an easy way to teach the beliefs of Friends, because we tend to always promote a minority voice of some sort. Friends historically have tried to see an area of ministry and focused into that area nearly exclusively, until they feel they have done all they could to bring about lasting change. Early in the Friends movement this often revolved around prison reform, for the simple fact that they spent a great deal of time in prison due to their refusal to fight for the various factions of a war, because they refused to take an oath in court, and oddly enough they refused to remove their hats to those who had higher social status within their society. They spent time in prison, and they had a first-hand view of the conditions those accused had to face while they awaited trials. Prisons were reformed in England because of the work of Friends and prisons in America were much more humane than their European counterparts because of the influence of Friends on our continent.
We were also greatly troubled by human enslavement. It is true that many early Quakers did own slaves it is an unfortunate reality of world history that the British Colonies participated in that activity, and we as Friends originated under that empire. Although we participated, we were very quick to turn from those ideas because it conflicted with our theological ideas. If all human beings are equal according to our beliefs, how could we treat any human being as something less than human? We as Friends did not believe that native Americans were less human than the European colonists this is seen in how we interacted with them. This is highlighted by Edward Hicks painting The Peaceable Kingdom, which depicts William Penn signing a treaty with the Native Peoples around the area of Philadelphia. A treaty that peaceably allowed European settlements by purchasing the land from the Native Tribe, instead of forcefully removing the native people as other colonists did. If we recognize the humanity in the natives of America, how could we deem those of other ancestry as less than human? So even before the Revolutionary War the Religious Society of Friends condemned slavery within their communities and began to work for the abolition of slavery within our boarders. Many Friends during this time felt so strongly about this that they would refuse to consume any product that benefited from the use of exploited labor. They would wear wool instead of cotton, and the fabrics that they used would often be undyed because the dyes used in clothing at that time were obtained using slavery. And something that often surprises many, the fact that many Friends oppose the consumption of alcoholic beverages is largely due to opposition to slavery than the social ills brought on by alcoholism.
I could continue to go through our history, but the reason I bring this up is because we have often been ministry minded people, not theologically minded. We focus on making sure our actions match what we say we believe more than making sure we fully and clearly communicate our beliefs in a systematic format. When I say that something in scripture seems to oppose our beliefs, I mean that the words seemingly oppose a testimony of practice.
One of the easiest ways to explain the basics of Friends testimonies is the acronym SPICE. We all like a bit of spice in life, especially during the fall when there is pumpkin spice everything. This acronym means simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality. I really enjoy this acronym because it is easy to remember, and it covers basically all our core testimonies. I try my best to not only teach these testimonies but to live them out in my daily life. There is nothing from these testimonies that is unsupported by scripture and I find it to be fully integrated within the command of Christ to love God with everything we are and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
The problem I have is that Jesus taught a parable the basically praises someone that lacks integrity. Right away, my mind seemingly shuts down because how could Jesus teach something that is so foreign to my understanding of the Christian life? This week I have spent a great deal of time considering this, and to be honest it has been fun.
Most commentaries would point out that Jesus was employing a literary form of Jewish folklore that celebrates the tricksters. If we were to look back through the history of the Jewish people, the patriarchs of faith often employed tricking other for greater gain. Jacob was probably the greatest of them all. In the story of Jacob and his twin brother Esau we learn that Jacob the younger brother tricks his older brother Esau out of his inheritance with a bowl of soup. He then later tricks his father into giving him the family blessing by putting fur on his arms to resemble Esau. Jacob also tricked his uncle out of many sheep working out a contract with him that all the sheep white sheep would go to the uncle while all the spotted sheep would go to Jacob. And he put something in the water that would cause the wool of the sheep to become discolored.
Jacob was a trickster but often his behavior was returned to him. He was working for his uncle in order to earn his uncles favor so that he could marry one of his daughters. The uncle realized that Jacob was tricking him so when the time came for the marriage to occur, his uncle tricked Jacob and caused him to marry a different daughter, thus tricking Jacob into fourteen years of service instead of seven. Without this trickster we would not have Israel because Jacob through the two wives and two handmaidens fathered the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The Jewish people seem to love a good story of a clever trick, and one rabbi that was quoted within my commentaries told a story of how a man was charged with theft and was about to be executed for his crime. This man was a very quick-witted person and as he spoke to the governor, he said it was a pity that he was going to die without sharing a wonderful secret to someone. This interested the governor and this man was brought before the king, and the man told the king that his father told him a secret to cause pomegranates to grow and bear fruit overnight. Of course, it was a secret that they would like to know so they asked him how to do such a feat. The thief dug a hole and stood there. Eventually they tired of him and asked him why he would not continue, so he responded, “This seed must only be put in the ground by a man who has never stolen or taken anything which did not belong to him. I being a thief cannot do it.” The king looked around at everyone around him, and each one had to stand aside because of various reasons one because he did something as a child, another because he might have made a mistake in the accounting that could be considered wrong. Each person in the room realized that if this secret could work they were not going to be able to place the seed in the ground because they were not without sin. The king finally came to himself and even he was disqualified because he kept a necklace of his father’s. The thief looked at them and responded, “You are all mighty and powerful and want nothing and yet you cannot plant the seed, whilst I who have stolen a little because I was starving am to be hanged.” The king was so amused by the thief’s ruse that he granted him a pardon.
While I am sure people enjoy a good story of quick wit and clever ploys, I do not think this is exactly what Jesus is promoting, because that he would be promoting sin, although he is encouraging us to be clever and to use the brains that God gave us. As I continued to read and study, I was drawn to the word measures. While I read this, I found that this one word that we have translated to English as measure is two different forms of measurement one is a bath of oil and the other is a cor of wheat. This dishonest manager goes to these debtors and he discusses each of their debts. He goes because he said to himself that he was too weak to do heavy labor and too ashamed to beg. So, he wanted to use his position to gain favor within the community, hoping that by doing so he could rely on them for support.
As I investigated these two different measurements, I realized that the quantities were interesting. A bath is an ancient way of measuring liquid, one bath is equivalent to approximately 6 gallons. This man’s debt was six hundred gallons of olive oil. Usually when I read this parable, I often read this debt like the debts that I have on my credit cards. I must admit that at times I have lived beyond my means and I have debts. So, when I look at this parable I often think of these debts in terms of consumption. And in that way this guy is canceling debts and causing his master a loss of capital. How can the master praise his terrible steward for that? I looked up what the value of that debt would have been today and found that six hundred gallons of oil would be equivalent to just over two metric tons of oil which is how the commodity market states the prices. Today that price is around $4632, so the debt this man owed was around $9681.
I then began to look at the second unit of measurement mentioned the cor. A cor is equivalent to six and a half bushels of wheat. I grew up on a wheat farm, so I began doing research into the average yields for wheat in Israel and compared it to the yields in Kansas. In the past ten years Kansas yields around forty-two bushels of wheat per acre and Israel is about thirty-seven. I know that yields today are much greater than they were two thousand years ago, but I mention this because there is not much difference between the yields here and there. If the yields today are nearly the same, then we can assume that the yields and real value of those crops would also similar. Today a bushel of wheat is worth $4.84 per bushel so one cor of wheat is worth $31.58, this man’s debt of 100 cor, which is around 652 bushels, or $3158.
These are not insignificant debts. But what was interesting to me was when I began to consider other aspects of these two agricultural products. Basically, I did a lot of math while I studied this passage, so even pastors sometimes must use math outside of school. As I was looking up all this information, I noticed that both debts had something similar, they were both 100 units of measure. In my mind that sounded important and I remembered that during our nation’s history there was a time where our government encouraged the settlement of land by offering people 160 acres of land in the homestead act. This act and that land that was offered was the reason that my family settled in the area they settled. That offer of land gave them an opportunity to make a life for themselves. Today that amount of land is not enough to raise a family on but when that law was written 160 acres was a kingdom to many. People left their home and moved west. People left other countries and moved west with the hopes of being able to provide a better life for their children. I thought about what the yield per acre might be for these various crops in relation to the units mentioned. Thirty-seven bushels per acre is around 5.6 cors per acre. And then I noticed something interesting the debt for the man who owed wheat was around 1/5th of the average yield. You might not think much of this but when I was still on the farm there were a couple of ways a farmer could rent land. One way was to simply pay rent with cash. The other method of renting land was splitting the cost and return. This second method would divide everything into thirds the farmer who did the work received 2/3rds of the returns and the landowner received 1/3 and the cost of production was also split in the same way. When I considered the value of the debt being 100 cors of wheat and how in the history of our nation a family could start their farm with 160 acres, I thought maybe this might be rent, especially when the yield of an acre of land could so easily be divided into fifths.
I then looked at the average yield for olive oil. I found that olive oil is something that is more difficult to predict because the amount of oil that can be extracted from olives can vary greatly, to the degree that you might be able to have greater yield in fruit from one year to the next and the yield of oil can actually be less. So, I googled the averages and found some good information. Israel today has 81,000 acres of land devoted to the production of olives, and the average yield of oil from those acres is around 15,000 tons that is 5.4 tons of oil per acre. To me that sounds amazing, because one acre of olive trees today would provide $22692. If you applied the same 1/5th rule to the olives as you did the wheat the value would per acre would be $4526. And the man’s debt in the parable would be equivalent to $9681 which is around the value of 1/5 of the yield of two acres of land.
The conclusion I gleaned from this is that this dishonest manager reduced the rent that was owed by the farmers. The tenants were able to keep more of the profits of their labor while the landowner still enjoyed a decent return as well. And because this was largely an agricultural and subsistence economy no one is really suffering a real loss of food. But the relationships between all involved are greatly changed.
Each farmer had their rents reduced they are happy, and because they are happy their respect for the landowner is greater so in the future, they will be more likely to do what the owner needs them to do. The manager might have lost his job, but he is the person that negotiated the contracts so when he does finally leave his post, they will be more likely to assist him. Or possibly they might demand to deal only with him so the landowner might reconsider the value of this dishonest manager. So, when I look at this parable, I see a lot more than I did before. I see life. I see my life and yours, I see the interaction between governments and citizens and those that represent us. I see people trying to make a living and people hoping for a better life.
Jesus tells us a parable of interaction, of relationship. And as we enter this time of open worship, I urge you to think about how we live our lives and how we interact with those around us. Are we using what we have available to us to love God and our neighbor?