Luke 16:1-13 - Stewardship in the Upside Down Kingdom of God

I’m always happy to be here at Pulse, but it’s an especially unique privilege to get to bring the word of God in this place today. Last week, pastor Honor said that God loves us even though we aren’t perfect vessels of God’s message. And praise God, because Lord knows I’m not perfect! Today’s sermon is called, Stewardship in the Upside-Down Kingdom of God. This isn’t the Upside Down from Stranger Things. There’s no Demogorgon here. This is just life in God’s Kingdom, and it’s nothing like what we expect here on Earth.

Today’s scripture comes from Luke 16, known as the Parable of the Steward of Injustice or the Dishonest Manager. I love the gospel of Luke because it’s filled with sweeping narratives and nuanced characters and a hungry Jesus, always going from meal to meal, eating and teaching as he goes. The gospel of Luke reads like an opera! But this passage is one of the strangest parables that Jesus tells, and I think it’s because it’s not really a parable, but an “example story.” Parables aren’t always telling you what to do, or what character to be like, but this passage is trying to do that. Jesus is showing us what money is, and isn’t like in the Kingdom of God.

LUKE 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a steward, 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 accounting of your management, because you cannot be my steward any longer.’ Then the steward 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 steward of 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.”

If I was one of Jesus’ disciples, after this I would have pulled him aside and said, “Jesus, what are you talking about? Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth? Didn’t you hear yourself in the Sermon on the Mount? This is crazy.” I guess it’s a good thing I wasn’t there that day. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s go back to the story itself. “There was a certain rich man who had a manager.” This was a common practice at the time, where wealthy estate owners would have a hired employee overseeing the day-to-day managing of the place. Also, common at the time was skimming off the top. As the goods went up and up the supply chain, each middleman added on his own fee. Most likely, our steward here was taking a hefty commission. It’s how he made his living. By the time the goods made their way all the to the top, the estate owner was making huge profits that the workers saw very little of. This should sound pretty familiar to us. Take the tobacco industry, for example. Of all the profits, 50% goes to manufacturers but only 0.3% goes to the workers. Or in Florida, where the piece rate for a 90lb box of oranges is 85 cents, so workers make less than $7/hr in backbreaking work. The rich get richer and the Steward plays his part in this unjust system.

But the story Jesus tells gets interesting because the rich man hears rumors of the steward’s mismanagement. We never find out if the Steward really was squandering the Rich Man’s property or not. He doesn’t get to defend himself. He’s just fired on the spot. Like all of Luke’s shady characters, he begins an internal monologue. ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?” He’s too weak for manual labor, too prideful for a simple handout. I think the Steward has a choice here. Option 1 is what would make the most sense by our standards. He could turn around and tell his boss, "Okay yes, I was messing with your profits, but I can do it to your advantage. I’ll charge people double interest and pass along the profits to you. You thought I was dishonest before, well now let me be dishonest in a way that benefits you.” Honestly, that’s what most people in this country would do. They might feel guilty, but they would find a way to rationalize it – “I need to put food on the table; my family is counting on me; if I don’t do the dirty work, someone else will. I might as well profit while I can.” But instead, the steward makes an unexpected decision.

He says, “I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” This plan is about hospitality. Who will take care of him when he has nothing left? He knows that the only relationships he has are ones where he has added to people’s financial burdens. There’s not a person that would stick out their neck to help him.  They don’t owe him anything. He has put his own interests first over and over again. Why would they take care of him when he has nothing left? So, he comes up with a plan that’s just as shrewd as he’s always been, only this time, it’s a completely different outcome.

He brings in the people who are deeply in debt to his master and brings up their bills. How much do you owe? The first debtor says “100 jugs of oil.” This would have been worth about 3000 denarii. A denarius was what a farm worker made in one day. One day’s wages, times 3,000. This was an astronomical, almost laughable sum. He has the man cross it out and write half. Then he brings in another debtor and cuts it by 20%.

I think what is happening here, is the steward is cutting out more than just his commission. He couldn’t take a 50% cut. He’s cutting into the Rich Man’s profit. For a brief moment, he is reversing the flow of capital, from the rich to the poor. He does it just long enough to get himself out of the unjust system. He wipes away debts and for a brief moment, the rich don’t get richer. He plays Robin Hooåd, knowing that when it’s over, there are people who owe him their livelihoods. He will be welcomed into their homes. He has ensured his own future, not by greed but by generosity. So, what can the rich man do? His employee has used his unjust system against him. He can’t admit that he’s been humiliated, so he has no choice but to commend the steward for his shrewdness.

Was the steward unjust? Maybe. But was the system unjust? Absolutely. When he had no good options left, he created a new one. A dead man walking tends to see things clearly. But how much better would it have been if he had done the right thing from the beginning? How much better would it have been if, from the beginning, he chose economic reparations? If he chose to forgive the debts of the poor, rather than building up his own wealth. Wouldn’t that have been a better model for how we should treat money? There are no perfect vessels of God’s message.

Maybe this strange parable is about the power of money. The world gives us two options—live into the crooked, broken system that leaves people behind in the name of “personal responsibility” and “free market capitalism” or we can take the approach that some Christians try- like ostriches with their head in the sand. We could try to pretend that we can live apart from the systems of greed and consumerism. That just leads us to be afraid of money, to not talk about it, and always be suspicious of others who do have it.

These are two bad options, which is why I think Jesus does something different here. He knows that money is powerful. We can either let us control us, or we can control its power. Money is powerful, so we’re going to have to be as shrewd as snakes here. The world tells us to use money to our advantage, and instead, we’re going to use it to bless those who have nothing. The world gives us only bad options. But we are not just people of this world. We are baptized people! We are free people! Free from the power of sin and death. And how do free people live? They live with an openness and creativity that others don’t possess. When the Steward is cut loose from an unjust system, he is free. And in his freedom, his creativity kicks in. He doesn’t have to live by unjust rules anymore. He’s free to see things clearly. And when does, he turns the whole economic system upside down. He gets into some good trouble.

This is what Luke shows us over and over again. Success in the Kingdom of God is exactly the opposite of success in our society. You want your future to be secure? Burn bridges with corrupt people in power and take care of those less fortunate than you. If you want to be first, you must be last. If you want to be blessed, you will be hated first. This is what Mary sang about in her Magnificat,

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

If you’ve been reading the news in the past week, you know a thing or two about powerful men being brought down from their thrones. This is Kingdom of God work. We’re in the Upside-Down Kingdom.  The way out of the unjust systems is not to climb to the top of them, it’s to look down to who we can help. After he finishes his parable, Jesus tells us what it’s about. It’s about being faithful with what we’ve been given. It’s not what you do when you have excess and ease that matters, it’s what you do when no one is watching when you’re trying to make ends meet that matters.

It reminds me of all the abusers and sexual predators whose crimes are being brought to light. Actors, comedians, politicians, producers. Each day, there’s another man who gets called out for the way he has treated women and men who have less power than he does. Some of these men, like Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K., are taking fake responsibility for their actions. Uh yeah, I did that but now I see how bad that was and I’m “in treatment.” Sure. You happened to get a conscience about when everybody found out and your career was on the line. “Whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”

Jesus is saying, get your affairs in order. Check yourself. If you can’t be trusted with small amounts of power, you’ll end up abusing your way up the corporate ladder. If you can’t help but go on a shopping spree every time you get a paycheck and then at the end of the month, realize you don’t have enough left over to give back to God, what makes you think things will change when you get more money. Jesus calls it for what it is—you can’t serve God and money.

Let me tell you, serving God is so, so much better than serving money. The Kingdom of God is the place to be. Money is never easy to talk about at church, certainly not for an intern. But I feel like every time I name it, I take away its power. If I can’t serve God and money, then I’m going to have to make a choice. I want to choose God. I want to choose life in the overflow, where God turns my expectations upside down and says, this is how I want you to live. I want you to look around and see people in need and I want you to love them with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Jesus is calling us to shrewd, for we live in broken systems. Calling us to be creative, for the world only sees bad options and needs our creativity. And Jesus is calling us to be recklessly bold with the way we disrupt the systems of power. God’s Kingdom is breaking in, can’t you see it?