By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 18, 2022
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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.”
There are many times I will sit down with scripture and wonder why a passage is even in there. Today we have read one of those passages. I struggle with this parable. I usually love the words that Jesus speaks, but this one gets my mind twisted in knots.
As a Quaker, or a Friend, integrity is important to me. It is one of the pillars of our faith, that stretches across our various branches. It is common to have these pillars to be taught as SPICE. Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. When I read the words of Jesus and the seeming praise of someone that is acting without integrity, I get concerned. I pull back from this passage and I demand some sort of answer that I can use to justify its inclusion in scripture that will satisfy my own religious ideologies.
I have read and studied this passage several times, and I have yet to come up with an interpretation that I find satisfaction with. I have read through commentaries and quite frankly even they seem to be grasping at straws when it comes to understanding this parable, because unlike other parables the answers do not seem clear.
I struggle with this. And as I sat this week in study and in prayer, I have concluded that the teaching of this parable just might be that we must struggle at times with our faith. When I was a freshman in college my little sister passed away at the age of ten. Next month she will have been gone from this earth for twenty-five years. I do not understand why something like that happens. Why it is even allowed to happen. It is not fair, and it is an injustice to every perception of goodness. How can a good God allow something like that to happen?
I do not have a good answer. I really wish I did. I wish I could speak some word over it and all the pain and uncertainty could be swept away. But that is not life. Life is filled with struggles. When our first parents were tempted to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil they introduced struggle into our lives. Prior to that the only knowledge that Adam and Eve had was the knowledge from God, when they ate from that tree another factor was added to the mix. They suddenly had to discern what was good and what was evil. They had to make these decisions for themselves, and for each other, and eventually for their children. God told them that from that point on they would have to struggle, they would have to toil, they would till the earth to grow food and thistles and thorns would come as well. We struggle because we do not have perfect knowledge, and because we do not have perfect knowledge, we must do the best that we can with what we have.
Jesus looks at his disciples right after he tells them the parable of the prodigal son. The parable where one son goes off to a faraway country and squanders his wealth and comes back home to beg for a place at the servants’ table, only to have his father throw him a party. In that story we often focus on the son that went away, but it is a tale about two sons. One went away and the other stayed and did everything right. He served his father with honor and respect, and his father seemingly never even noticed him. At least that is what he thought. “These many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” That older son said to his father.
This son has a point. His younger brother went off to the foreign land and wasted all he had bringing dishonor to the father’s name. While the older brother did what was right. It is not fair, that the father would throw a party for the return of the sinner, before honoring the righteous.
Jesus looks at his disciples after he sets them up with this story. He has them considering the fairness of life. They are considering grace and righteousness. They are wondering why Jesus is honoring the sinner that returned and not the one that never left. And then he tells them another story. “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 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.’”
To begin we need to understand something about the culture. We often look at the term manager or steward and we consider it from our point of view. We assume that this man was hired to be in this position, and that very well could be, but not always. I want to remind you of the story of Joseph and his brothers. The brothers were jealous of the favor that Joseph had with their father so they plotted against him. Initially they were going to kill him, but instead they sold the boy into slavery. And eventually Joseph found himself in service of a prominent official’s household. Joseph served his master well, and eventually his master placed him over his household. Joseph the slave was made the steward of the rich man’s estate. This is likely the type of steward that Jesus is speaking of. A man that had been enslaved, but had found enough favor with the master of the estate that he had been given an administrative role over the other slaves.
Slavery has always been part of human history. Every culture has some connection to it, but not every culture treated slaves like they were treated in America. In Israel, yes Israel had slaves and they also were at one time slaves themselves. In Israel, slaves were not reduced to the absolute category of chattel, nor to virtual animal servitude like that of American Slavery. In Israel, slaves were to be treated as hired workers and were indebted to six years of service if they were Hebrew in origin. Non Hebrews slaves were a bit worse off, but unlike in America, slaves throughout the Mediterranean world, could be professionals and work as doctors, educators, and business managers. Slaves were seen as human and could contribute to society if their master allowed them to. This particular slave was a business manager.
He was placed over the estate and he managed the accounts for his master. This was common in Israel because often the masters would be the religious leaders, and they would devote their lives to the service of God, which is a full-time job. So these leaders would set someone over their estate to keep them financially secured, so that they could be released to serve God more fully. But this particular rich man, was informed that the steward was not managing his accounts well.
This man was busy doing whatever rich men did in that day, because a message was sent, and he had to make his way back to the estate to figure out what was going on. “What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management.” He is asking him to go get the accounts so that he can go over them and transfer the responsibility of management to someone else. This was a time before computers so there was not a cloud that the rich man could access to see what was going on. The accounting was kept with the steward in his home, so the man was sent away to get the books.
This manager knew he was in trouble. There was no way to talk his way out of things, we do not even know what the crime or mismanagement may have been. But he knew that his service was over. This is why scholars believe that the man was a slave and not a hire manager. He walks home, and as he is walking home he is thinking to himself what he is going to do. “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” He says to himself. Then he has an epiphany, “I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me in their houses.”
He has a list of all those people who are indebted to his master, so he calls them in. And together they conspire. One man owes one hundred measures of oil, so this steward tell him to take the bill, sit down and quickly write fifty. To another that owes a hundred measures of wheat, he says to take his bill and write eighty. What is he doing? Well, he is the one that has the record of the bills. He holds the contracts. He and those that he called are the only ones that know the true amount owed. And he brings them in to write the bills out themselves so that together they know the truth. For each of these men he has lifted a burden of a year’s salary from their shoulders. And there is an agreement with them that because of that conspiracy they will provide for this man’s livelihood when he is removed from his position.
The man takes these new fraudulent bills to his master and he turns them over. And the master knows that they are inaccurate, but there is no way to prove it one way or the other. He knows that this man has figured out a way retain his lifestyle and there is no way for the master to disgrace or condemn him because all the evidence has been removed. So what is there to do? He sends him away commending his shrewdness.
Do you see why this is a troubling passage. The man is committing fraud and not only getting away with it but being commended for it. And Jesus concludes the story by saying, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” Jesus is seeming suggesting that this is acceptable behavior. “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”
I sit and consider this passage. I stew over it and I literally have given up on trying to understand it for a while. And then as I pray, I realize that the story is not about what we see on the surface at all. On the surface all we see is a guy committing fraud and getting away with it. But that is not the point. The point is relationships. The point is that each of the people in this story is bound in slavery of some sort. Each of them is indebted to the master in some fashion, and not are truly free. But what are we going to do with what we do have available to us?
As I reconsidered this parable I began to think about a book I have read a few times. I mentioned this book a couple of years ago, called Father Arseny 1893-1973 -Priest, Prisoner, and Spiritual Father. This man, who we may or may not be real, was a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church during the Soviet era of their history. Because of his position in the church he was imprisoned for various reasons and lived much of his adult life in the Gulag prison systems. While he was in prison he continued to live as he always had. He prayed whenever he had an opportunity, and he would encourage other prisoners to explore a life of faith. Many of the people he was imprisoned with followed him into the priesthood.
Eventually Father Arseny was released from prison, and he continued to serve the church, although in an underground manner because he could not officially serve because of his imprisonment. One day in 1962 a bishop came to visit him. This man was a very serious theologian and philosopher, and many sought his council. And many of the people Father Arseny had encouraged throughout his life were under the care of this bishop, so the bishop felt that he should visit Father Arseny. He stayed with Arseny for two days, and during that time they prayed together and make confessions to one another, and they discussed the fate and future of the Church in the Soviet Union. This Bishop looked at Father Arseny’s library and pronounced, “The faithful one needs only the Gospel, the Bible, and the works of the Holy Fathers. All the rest isn’t worth his attention.”
Father Arseny remained silent for a few moments and answered, “You are right, Your Holiness, the most important things are in those books, but we must remember that man as he develops nowadays is very different from man in the fourth century. The horizon of knowledge has become wider and science can now explain what couldn’t be understood then. The priests today must know a great deal in order to be able to help believers make sense of the contradictions he sees. A priest has to understand the theory of relativity, passionate atheism, the newest discoveries in biology, medicine and most of all modern philosophy. He gets visited by students of medicine, chemistry, physics, as well as by blue collar workers, and each one of them has to be given an answer to his or her questions such that religion doesn’t sound anachronistic, or just a half-answer.” (Page 132-134)
When I was in school my teacher said once that while the priest argued about the colors that should be put on the alter the Soviet Union took control over the hearts of the people. That statement broke my heart, because I love the Russian people. I have a great love for their exploration of theology, I love the way they wrestle with faith and life in the pages of their books both secular and religious. They have so much to offer the world, and yet something went astray. We often wonder what went wrong but it all goes back to our first parents. They too wrestled, they too struggled trying to figure out what was good, and what they took hold of is different from what we cling to.
But the words of Father Arseny speak to my heart. Today we have people that are just like the bishop in that story, all you need is the bible. And I agree it is the most important thing, but if we are unable to translate what is in the bible to those that are in the world, we might as well be talking about the colors on the alter while the Soviets take over the hearts. If we cannot speak Christ into science, if we cannot talk of Christ as we relate to those around us what are we?
This is where the shrewd manager comes in, and what I think Jesus was really getting at. All those present were indebted and enslaved by the master. But by the worldly knowledge of the Steward they were able to lift their burden together. Some scholars say that the debt could be relieved because it was the amount of interest charged on the debt, so the steward took that off because of the law against usury. Other have said that it was the amount that would have been his commission or his personally wages, so the steward did not defraud the landowner but only removed the portion of debt that would have been paid to him upon the conclusion of the contract. We do not know exactly what the terms were. All we know is that the man used what was available to him, to make life better for himself and those around him.
Jesus is telling us that we too need to wise. We need to think outside the box at times. We, like Father Arseny, need to be able to speak Christ to the medical student and the physicist, to the atheist and the blue-collar laborer. We are all in this together so we need to figure out how we can make life just a bit better for everyone around us, because life is struggle enough. Too much of life is unfair and unjust so we should seek to lift the burden instead of adding to it.
I still do not think I fully grasp this parable. I do not think I ever will. But I can be content in my lack of understanding. I can be content that even though I do not have all the answers, I can struggle with God. And as I struggle, God will give me glimpses of the truth that will keep me going another day. There will be times where we do not have an answer. Do not lose hope. Do not give up. When we do not understand look back to what we do, and maybe as we wrestle, we get a glimpse once again.
As we enter into our time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, I want us to listen to a song written by NT Wright and Dr. Francis Colins, a theologian and a scientist that are both men of deep faith. Men that approach life from different directions but come together in Christ. We may not all agree, or even have the same ideas, but God is with us in Christ. We are all under the same curse and debt, and while we were still there in that sin Christ came, lived, taught, died, was buried, and rose again. To lift us up, to restore and redeem us. He came so that we can be a people Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living his love with others in whatever capacity we have available to us.
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