Amos 8:4-7; Luke 16:1-13
We usually hear Jesus’ parables as nice little illustrations that teach us something about the kingdom of heaven. Think of a famous one: “A sower went out to sow,” and he scatters seeds on different kinds of soil. Different things happen in three different locations, and each situation clearly stands for something. Then the ending wraps things up with a nice, tidy bow. It’s great when storytelling works that way.
But then, there’s today’s parable about the dishonest manager. I’d like us to consider hearing this one very differently. And it’s OK to do that because parables aren’t necessarily tidy little Sunday-school stories. Like the human experience that Jesus came to inhabit, sometimes parables are messy. And today’s is maybe the messiest one of all.
So: A dishonest manager either wastes or steals from his employer and gets caught. The dishonest manager tries to cushion the blow of being fired by ingratiating himself with the customers, reducing their bills so they’ll help him out. And Jesus apparently commends such behavior to the disciples, advising them to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” (Luke 16:9).
Hmmm. Here’s a secret: Given what we know about Jesus, that doesn’t make any sense. I know it’s what the words of the reading say, but it doesn’t make any sense.
Well, in a situation like this, you can find all sorts of interpretations trying to make it make sense. Maybe the manager is nobly cutting those bills by the amount of his own commission, in which case the manager is sacrificing his earnings because he’s at fault. OK. Or maybe the lesson is broader, about making friends with the powerless, giving to them with no strings attached so that the poor may welcome you into the kingdom of heaven. Well, OK. But the truth is, there is no commonly recognized way of making sense of this parable.
So, let’s look at it from a different angle. I can’t promise you this is the “right” interpretation because, with parables, the point is that they spur a variety of interpretations. That’s why biblical interpretation is fun! No, really….
This is the first of two parables Jesus tells about the dangers of idolizing wealth. And importantly, this one is an intimate tale, one told not to crowds of thousands but to the disciples, the people closest to Jesus. So, imagine Jesus telling this story over pizza and beer rather than from a pulpit. And imagine it’s more a comedic sketch than a lecture on proper behavior.
In this story, the rich man probably isn’t God but probably is just a rich man. The story isn’t about him anyway; ethically, he’s a neutral character. The story is about the rich man’s manager, an important servant in his household – sort of like Carson, the butler in Downton Abbey. But I think the character of this manager is about as far from Carson in Downton Abbey as you can get.
In fact, this manager is a scoundrel, a talented con man who at least is blessed with self-awareness. He’s indolent – too weak to work hard and too proud to beg. So, having been caught skimming money, his solution is to ingratiate himself with the people who owe debts to his boss. He goes and invites them to join him in committing fraud – it’s in the customers’ interest to save the money, after all. But he’s actually scamming them as much as he scammed the rich man: They’ll have to “take care” of the manager once he’s fired because he’ll blackmail them into silence. As a scam, it’s Hollywood-worthy.
Well, the rich man finds out what’s going on. And he’s impressed with the manager’s cunning and the shrewdness of his plot, probably wishing the manager had used those talents to help build his business instead of stealing from him.
So, there’s the story. And looking at his friends around the table, Jesus observes that the “children of light” – the good folks, his followers – they aren’t very shrewd in their dealings with the world, letting themselves be taken by folks with a dubious moral compass. You know, just because you live to serve others doesn’t mean you want them duping you.
So, I imagine the disciples looking up from their pizza and thinking, “Yeah, but a while back, you told us that if someone takes our shirt, we should give him our coat, too. So, now you’re saying you want us to be more like the dishonest manager and look out for ourselves?” As they sit there chewing their pizza, maybe one of the disciples – probably Peter; he was great at sticking his foot in his mouth – maybe one of the disciples asks that question out loud: “Well, Jesus, is that how you want us to act? Like the dishonest manager?” And Jesus looks over his glasses at the poor sap and gets a little snarky, a little sarcastic. He says, “Yeah, right. Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it’s gone, those folks will welcome you into the eternal homes. That sounds like a great plan.”
If Jesus’ response is holy sarcasm, then what he says next makes better sense as the point of this teaching. “No, of course not,” Jesus tells his friends. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much … and by the same token, whoever is dishonest is a very little is dishonest in much. If you aren’t faithful with the wealth you have here, why would God trust you with the great treasure of eternal life? Look, you can’t honor two masters. You can’t serve God and wealth.”
That last word is important. In the Greek text, the word is mammon. That word goes back to a root that has to do with confidence – where we place our trust. So, mammon doesn’t just mean wealth; it means wealth in which we place our trust, wealth that functions as an idol for us. Can you serve God with wealth? Absolutely, in very holy ways. Can you worship wealth as your god? Only at your own risk.
For us, it’s not very comfortable or comforting when Jesus talks to us this way, but he’s standing firmly in the tradition of the prophets, whom God sent not to comfort the people (at least not off the bat) but to confront them instead. In our first reading, we hear from Amos, one of the earliest of the Old Testament prophets. Like most prophets, Amos wasn’t exactly a popular guy. God called him to bring the word to the leaders of the kingdom of Israel, the northern kingdom, at a time of peace and prosperity, at least for the folks at the top of the ladder. The people with power, status, and influence were doing just fine, thank you very much – keeping the letter of the law by observing religious festivals and making the Temple offerings the law required. But at the same time, they were shortchanging their poor customers, and selling worthless merchandise, and profiting from the slave labor that came from people who couldn’t pay their debts.
Like the teaching Jesus brings us today, Amos’ word indicts the perspective that profit and wealth are themselves the ultimate good, more important than God and God’s command to love our neighbor. If we demote the Lord and make money our god, Amos says, God will return the favor and bring the kingdom to somebody else. In Amos’ day, that meant judgment in a very outward and visible way, destroying the kingdom of Israel and sending its leaders and people off into exile. That’s what’s coming, Amos said. And just a few decades later, he was proven right.
That’s pretty confrontational stuff, between what Amos and Jesus have to say. But to the extent the story fits, we have to wear it. Life offers us many idols, many not-Gods in which we might place our trust. Mammon is certainly one of them, though it’s not the only one. Our golden calves might be position and authority, or other people’s perception of us, or being the expert, or simply getting what we want. But all of these, like money, can lure us into putting something else in the place of God and trusting it instead. And when we do that, our actions tell the story of where our priority lies. As the wealthy and powerful of Amos’ day might have put it, “Come on; when will all the God talk be over so we can get back to business?” – because it was their own efforts, their own projects, that they seemed to think would save them. And that didn’t work out so well.
So, there we have our happy little readings for this Sunday morning. They’re hard to hear, but maybe we need a little confrontation. Sometimes we don’t recognize how lost we are until someone hits us upside the head with it.But remember that judgment isn’t God’s last word. Remember what we heard last Sunday: God goes to great lengths to find the sheep who are lost. Think about the parable of the prodigal son, which comes immediately before Jesus’ teaching this morning, actually: God waits very patiently for us children to recognize how we squander what God gives us and honor ourselves instead. And once we look around at our lives, and shake our heads, and see how far we are from hitting the mark, God welcomes us back with open arms, rejoicing that we finally figured out just how lost we are. And that very day, life begins again.