Luke 16:1-13 - "Disrupting Dishonesty"

Luke 16:1-13

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 accounting 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.”

The start of a parable sounds like a familiar formula for many Christians. It's like hearing, "Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A guy walks into a bar…” Your brain automatically knows what’s coming next. In that case, a bad joke; in the case of Jesus, when we hear, “There once was a rich man…” we know a parable is coming. And if it starts with a rich man, then we almost certainly know it’s one of Luke’s parables. There are 11 parables and stories about money that are only found in Luke’s gospel. When Luke isn’t talking about money, it’s probably because he’s talking about food. This story has a bit of both. 

The problem with our familiarity is it can send our brains into autopilot. “I’ve heard this one. Don’t the pastors usually save it for Stewardship season so they can convince me to give more money?” But the problem with autopilot is that we can miss what God is speaking to us today. So today, let’s first begin by defining what a parable is and what it isn’t. Jesus's parables weren't the ancient equivalent of a children's sermon—a simple story with a simple answer. His parables weren't designed to give clear information. In fact, it was often a way to slam the door in the faces of the crowds just looking for a spectacle. Just look at how often disciples are described in the book of Mark as "confused" or "bewildered."

Furthermore, while Jesus’ parables may have been disorienting, we must also remember to look at them in the larger context of Jesus’ public ministry and proclamation. Theologian William Herzog wonders “how can one judge what the parables are about unless one locates them as part of some larger strategy that led eventually to Jesus’ execution as a subversive to the Roman order and a false claimant to political power in Judea?”

Were the parables subversive political and theological allegories? Perhaps in part. However, parables don't have one, precise meaning that we are "supposed" to understand. If the parable was just a means to get us to the allegory, why would Jesus bother with the parable at all? You see, parables are multivalent on purpose—they say different things to different people. That is not an interpretation problem we need to iron out to get to the "real" meaning. The question we are asking of this morning's parable is, "how does this affect us?" The parable is the beginning, not the final word.

So what of this morning's parable? What happens when we slow way down, when we back away from the "answers" we expect to get, and we pay attention to the strange and interesting details of the story? I invite you to open up your pew bibles and follow along with me. Perhaps you will notice something I missed. In Luke chapters 15 through 17, Jesus tells a series of parables to an eclectic audience of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and scribes. He tells 3 parables of lost things—a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost younger son, and then he turns to his disciples to tell this parable.

It begins with a rich man who had a manager. This is probably meant that this rich man was an absentee landlord who had placed a man as the steward and manager of his property while he was away. The manager would have had a great responsibility in the rich man's absence, but ultimately, nothing he controlled was his. But then, word got back to the owner that the manager has been squandering his property. Now, we never find out if the rumors were true. Jesus doesn't say if the accusations were true or if they were lies cooked up by rival trying to take over his job. The manager never even gets the chance to defend himself to his boss. For those of us who generally see authority figures as being on our side, it can be second nature to believe the rich men in Jesus' parables. Of course, they are telling the truth! But they are not God figures and they are not always honest, so we have no way of knowing what really happened here.

Faced with the accusation, the manager goes immediately into crisis mode. We rarely get to hear the inner monologue of biblical characters, but here we see his quick deliberations. He sees only two bad options for his future survival—to dig or to beg. He is realistic about his unsuitability for hard labor and his unwillingness to beg. In his crisis, he develops a plan so when he is dismissed as manager, he will be welcomed into people's homes not with the pity that comes from begging, but with mutual respect and appreciation.

The manager calls two of the master’s debtors to him and asks for an accounting of their debts. The first man says he owes one hundred jugs of oil, which was the equivalent of 3 years wages for a day laborer. Oil was something of a luxury good and it was unstable because it could go bad, making it a precarious way to eke out a living. In an instant, the manager cuts the man’s debt in half. Then the second debtor comes to him with a debt of one hundred containers of wheat. This would have been 8-10 years of wages for one man. This time, the manager cuts it by 20%. It seems strange that he would cut the larger debt by less this time, but then the strangest thing of all happens—the master commends the manager for his shrewd behavior. Why?

Because the manager was probably eliminating his own fee. At the time, everyone from middlemen to indentured servants added commissions and fees as they passed goods along. It is why tax collectors were so famously despised by gospel crowds. It wasn't "legal" and all Jews understood that it went against the clear economic principals of the Torah, but it was such common practice that everyone looked the other way. Of course, unjustly inflating costs for personal gain wasn't contained to that era alone. It's the same kind of practice that the prophet Amos decried on behalf of the Lord in our first scripture reading. “They make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances.” You see, the merchants would falsely weight the scales and manipulate currency to rob the farmers of their earnings. They preyed on the vulnerable and illiterate peasants who had no way of knowing if the scales were fairly weighted or not. As Amos clearly said, economic manipulation and theft make the Lord furious. 

But the manager did more than cut out his own commission. As commonplace as secondary fees were, no manager could get away with adding up to a 50% commission. No, the manager cut deep into the master’s exorbitant profits. He reduced the debt far enough that the master would feel it. Or at least, he would notice it. Perhaps the landowner was like the Jeff Bezos of his day—making $3,000 per second. No matter how much the manager cut the debts, the landlord wouldn't feel a difference. But on principle, the manager had changed things for everyone. 

Because now, the manager has created a new kind of debtors. They are no longer under a crushing debt so large they have no hope of ever repaying it. Now, they are debtors of gratitude. When the owner publicly commends the manager, he signals to everyone that he will honor the newly forgiven debts. In doing so, his debtors now have an obligation to him out of honor, not just of fear. Financial freedom allows them to choose to be faithful servants going forward.

The manager used the limited tools at his disposal to reverse the flow of capital for just a moment, instead of from poor to rich but now from rich to poor. In doing so, he took away the power of the landowner to oppress the workers with heavy fees and forced him to charge his workers justly and secures his future among the gratitude of his fellow workers to boot. He does all of this with little power, few resources, and without drawing a sword.

He chose what ethicists call, non-violent resistance. Non-violent resistance is about creatively challenging and changing the unethical status quo. For most Americans, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's is the definitive example of what non-violent resistance looks like. It is calmly walking across the Edmund Pettis bridge or up the stairs of Little Rock Central High School. It is sitting still at a lunch counter or on the seat of a public bus. But non-violent resistance is anything that shifts power without violence. American political scientist Gene Sharp identified 198 methods of non-violent protest and persuasion. They range from formal statements to walkouts to symbolic acts to ritualized worship in public.

Non-violent resistance can also look like sailing across the Atlantic in a carbon-neutral ship or mobilizing 4 million people on all 7 continents to march and declare to elected officials that we must take seriously the threat of our rapidly warming planet. One year ago, 15-year-old Greta Thunberg sat alone outside the Swedish Parliament with a sign that said, "school strike for climate." On Friday, she led 250,000 people on a march through New York City. Greta recognizes, perhaps like the manager in our story, the unjust system she was born into. She, like all of her generation, was born into a world that is burning fossil fuels at a breakneck, unsustainable speed. She was born into a system that even at its best, tries to place the blame on individuals for killing our planet one water bottle and plastic straw at a time, never mind that such blame hides the fact that one container ship produces the same amount of CO2 emissions as 50 million cars. For scale, there are only 4.6 million cars in the state of Ohio. If the shipping industry were a country, it would be the 6th largest contributor to global CO2 emissions. But by all means, feel guilty about using a plastic water bottle. 

We all live in dishonest and corrupt systems. It’s why we in the church take the power of sin so seriously. It’s more than just our individual actions—it’s a seemingly inescapable web of brokenness and injustice. Like the manager in the parable, we have been entrusted with dishonest wealth. We buy homes on land stolen from the Osage, Shawnee, and Miami people. We finance them with a mortgage industry that began in our country with the mortgaging of human lives as property. Dishonest wealth is all we have, but it can be disrupted. 

The shrewd manager worked within a dishonest and corrupt system. For a long time, he let the dishonesty serve him, no matter the cost to his fellow human beings. But when he faced a crisis, he chose to disrupt the dishonest system through non-violent resistance against corruption.  The great irony is the manager's story ends with him doing precisely what he was first accused of—squandering his master's property—only this time it has earned him a secure future and his master's praise. We do not need to wait for a crisis of our own to look for creative ways to disrupt the dishonest systems around us. Jesus puts it bluntly—you cannot serve God and wealth. So, serve God and your neighbor with more than 198 creative ways to disrupt dishonest systems for the sake of justice and flourishing for all.