Sermon #153: The Shrewd Manager
Sermon #153 St. James the Less #61 9/22/19
Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And 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.
‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.’ Luke 16:1-13
I heard this story recently of a guy who decided to go see his favorite team play in Chicago against the White Sox. If you don’t know, the White Sox play on the South Side of Chicago which has a reputation for being a rough part of town. If you are not a local, you can very easily walk down a street that you probably shouldn’t be on.
As the story goes, this poor guy was fairly naïve, and wanted to hurry into the stadium because the game was about to start. He was driving down one the side streets close to the stadium with his window down looking desperately for a parking spot.
All of a sudden, a man was waving him down, motioning him to park along this certain street, and amazingly there were no other cars parked there yet. It was perfect, he was close to the ballpark, and would still have time to buy his ticket before the first pitch.
Even before he could put his car in park, the man who waved him down told him it would be $20 to park there. The fan, in a rush to get into the ballpark as soon as possible, quickly got his wallet and handed the man 20 bucks.
The fan asked the guy if this would be a safe place to park, as he dug in his back seat looking for his hat, but strangely he didn’t hear an answer from the parking attendant. He looked up and the attendant was gone. When he got out of his car, he saw the so called “attendant” running down the street.
It then occurred to the poor fan that the guy who waved him down never showed him any credentials, never gave him a parking pass to put in his window, and come to think of it, the guy didn’t even have a shirt on! And of course, once he went down to the end of the street he saw a sign that said, “No Parking.”
By wearing the opposing team’s hat and jersey, while desperately looking out his car window, he must have had “Sucker” written all over his face, but that was quickly replaced with, “Welcome to Chicago, you just got hustled.”
I’m embarrassed to say that poor, naïve fan was actually me…Maybe y’all aren’t that surprised.
Thinking back on it now, I can’t really be that angry at the shirtless parking attendant. Every bit of common sense had left me in that moment. Yes, it was dishonest of him, but I sure didn’t help myself out. Sometimes being street smart is worth a lot more than being book smart.
And that’s kind of the general sense of what we get out of Jesus’ parable this morning. The meaning is not nearly as clear as last week’s parable. At least last week we knew that Jesus symbolized the shepherd, and we symbolized the lost sheep. You really can’t get confused about that.
But this week leaves us scratching our heads. Jesus tells this strange parable of a dishonest manager, who seemingly rips off his boss before being fired, and then surprisingly his boss commends him in his shrewd dealings.
We’re not the only ones who’ve scratched our heads about this odd parable, theologians have wrestled with its meaning too. Though there are a number of interpretations, one thing that everyone agrees on, is that Jesus is not saying this is how we should conduct ourselves; this isn’t how we should do business.
Rather he is telling a story about everyday life that his audience would understand…kind of like a story about getting ripped off at a baseball game. It’s descriptive not prescriptive.
Though we can easily imagine being outside a stadium, desperately trying to find parking, we may have a harder time visualizing our parable which centers around this unflattering manager.
To really understand why the manager acted the way he did, we have to know something about his place in Roman society. These estate managers could either be enslaved or free, but either way, they had access to their boss’s wealth, and acted as his agent in business affairs. Because of their power and influence as a middleman, these managers had an important social status within the community.
When this man’s boss informs him that he is about to fire him because he has been squandering his property (clearly, he was lousy at his job), and so the manager naturally freaks out, and has to figure out what he’s gonna do next.
He relies not only on his boss for a paycheck but also for housing. With this bad news, he’s also going to be homeless very soon. He’s at least honest with himself, he knows he’s not strong enough to dig, and too ashamed to beg.
And this is where his street smarts kick in. Over the years of running his boss’s estate, he has built up a lot of relationships with the people in the community. He uses those relationships to his advantage, with the hope that if he cuts them a deal right now then they will owe him later.
He understands how the world works. Relationships and networking are so important, and so by cutting down their loan and doing them this favor, he hopes his reputation will be higher in their book.
In some ways he has now become their benefactor, and he expects them to return the favor (likely sooner rather than later), and in so doing he has made arrangements for his future. He may lose this job, but there will be a lot of people out there who will now be willing to help him out. I mean this whole thing comes down to, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.”
There are a lot of troubling parts to this parable, no one will argue with you there. The manager is playing with money that is not his own. In some ways, he is stealing from his boss, AND YET his boss commends him not for his dishonesty, but for his prudence in business affairs.
The Age to Come
We would be missing the point if we thought Jesus was trying to tell us something about how we should conduct business-that we should be cutting dishonest deals even with other people’s money.
Rather Jesus is using this parable to compare and contrast the present age to the age to come.
He uses this negative image of a dishonest manager to prove a point about the present age. The children of this age are focused on their short-term future well-being, and they will do whatever it takes to make sure their well-being is secure.
The manager was looking out for himself, and he was successful in insuring that he would be just fine after he lost his current job. He used his street smarts to play the game of this world, and survived for another day. And for that his boss commended him.
For Jesus, if in the present age people value using their wit and relationships and theirs’s (or another’s) wealth to secure their future, how much more so, should Jesus’ followers’ value those things that will actually last in the age to come.
In the coming age of the Kingdom of God what is valued may not be street smarts and shrewd dealings, but rather how we love God and our neighbor. Instead of looking out for our own interests, what’ll be raised up will be the values of this new kingdom. Things like: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).
It all comes down to what we value. In this age, Jesus realizes that we care about money and how that is linked to being self-reliant and protecting ourselves for the future. But he forces us to think about not only this age, but the kingdom and new age that he is bringing about through his death and resurrection. The values of that coming Kingdom and age are different from the age we live in now.
What we value shapes us, whether we realize it or not. Jesus knew that, and that’s why he told his parable.
If money is what you desire and you want to make a quick buck, I recommend selling parking spaces on the South Side of Chicago. But that’s not the only thing that we long for. We desire relationships, a certain reputation, the desire to be important or popular. We long to be collect certain things, or experiences, or collect friends just have them around but for no real reason.
Our values shape how we spend money, how we spend our time, and who we spend it with.
If you’re not really sure what you value, Amazon and Facebook have a pretty good idea, just check the adds that pop up, and what they recommend for you to buy.
What we love and desire and what we value are all linked together, and all of these things shape us into the person that we are today and who we will be in the future.
One writer puts it this way, “Our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate-what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a vision of what we hope for, what we think the good life looks like” (Smith 27).
What do we truly hope for? What is our vision of the good life?
For many of us, money plays an important part in that vision of the good life. Money has its place, but for so many people, money is “the ultimate” in our life. Through this parable Jesus is reminding us that our thoughts on money and wealth should be shaped by our deeper values of who and what God is calling us to be.
Everything we do has implications for the age to come. Our values should reflect the coming kingdom of God-that glorious future age when God and his people will be together, on earth as it is in heaven.
It will be an age that is filled with the values of God’s kingdom where mercy and justice and forgiveness shall reign.
If we truly believe in life after death, and the future resurrection of the body (as foretold at end the Book of Revelation and as we say every week in the Nicene Creed), then we cannot deny that who we are now and what we value, do in some ways form us into who we will ultimately be.
That is what this life is all about, it’s at least what this Christian journey is all about-shaping our values, our loves, and desires towards what God values and desires.
And When we do that, God’s kingdom and the age to come, seem to be just a little closer.
15 Pent. Proper 20. Track II. Year C. Lk 16:1-13. Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith.
Photo by Max Di Capua on Unsplash