Sunday, September 18, 2016

Grappling With the Parable of the Unjust Manager

Every three years the parable of the unjust steward rolls around in the Sunday lectionary and preachers have to struggle with the difficult problem of the master praising his shrewd  but crooked steward. Three years ago, I posted this,
I have taken the radical view that this parable is all about advising the shrewd preacher to undo any harm he has done to his congregation by earlier sermons. ;-) 
This year I would like to present a more serious approach to the parable from the late John Richardson, A.K.A. "The Ugley Vicar" who died a year and a half ago. John was a virtual friend and fellow blogger who supported me in my journey through helpful comments and at least one book that he sent me. He posted his sermon notes from 2010, and I will reproduce them here for those who may not have heard a good explanation of the parable, and I only wish I had been there to hear him preach it live.

Sermon Notes: Luke 16:1-13 (15), The ‘Unjust Steward’
Just out of interest, I thought I'd post my sermon notes for Sunday on the 'parable of the unjust steward'. I sweated long and hard over this one, though in the end the sermon itself was quite straightforward. There are still puzzling things in the text, but I think I'd almost got the hang of it. As readers will see, I went beyond the set lectionary reading (I was preaching 'away') in order to round off the point of the parable. These are raw notes, so the preached version varied somewhat. 
Opening question: Is your money working hard for you?
Lots of people these days have investments, whether it's in shares or bonds or in the bricks and mortar of a house. We don’t just save money – we want our money to do a bit more, to make money.
As one advertiser puts it, it makes sense to make sure your money is working as hard as you do.
Jesus agrees:
And Jesus agrees – you’ll be pleased to know.
Here in Luke’s gospel this morning he is talking about attitudes to salvation.
Back in chapter 15:1, we discover that he was talking to a crowd of tax collectors and sinners – people most people regarded as beyond salvation, or at least beyond the pale.
And we’re told in v 2 that the religious leadership were complaining about this, because instead of having a go at them, Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.
So he began to tell parables. First he told a parable about a man who lost a sheep – wouldn’t you rejoice if you’d lost a sheep and found it? So heaven rejoices over a lost sinner who is found.
Then he told a parable about a woman who lost a coin – wouldn’t you rejoice if you lost a coin and then found it?
Then he told a parable about a man who lost a son. Wouldn’t you rejoice if your wayward child came home? And don’t be like the brother who resented the fact that his father was so pleased.
All these parables were really directed at the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, grumbling about Jesus welcoming lost sinners who were coming to him.
But then in chapter 16 we have a parable told to the disciples: Jesus’ followers who would later take on the same task of reaching the lost.
And this time the parable is not about a man who has lost a sheep or a woman who has lost a coin, or another man who has lost a son, but about a rich man who has a useless manager.
Please note, the parable is about the rich man, not the shrewd manager – it is his reaction we have to watch.
The story is simple, subtle and amusing. A rich man had a man managing his affairs who was useless, so he called him in for a staff review.
The manager realized the game was up, and that he would lost his management post. What was he to do? The answer was make friends while you can, call in the debtors and get them to rewrite their bills.
The question – as in each of the previous parables, is how is the man going to react? And what can we learn from this?
And the way he reacted is in v 8, and it is a bit of a surprise this time. We might expect rage. Jesus said, “The master commended the dishonest manager ...”
Two points to make here. There is no doubt (in my mind) that this is still the man in the parable, not Jesus, though actually it doesn’t really matter.
Secondly, the word ‘commended’ means almost ‘bragged about’, ‘boasted about’, ‘praised publicly’ – ‘Look, I’ve had this useless manager for years, but you’ve got to admire him in the end’.
And the reason is, Jesus says, because the rich man could recognize a shrewd man – a ‘wheeler-dealer’. Commending someone who has cheated you twice over is a strange reaction, but Jesus says
... the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.
And that’s the message to us – or rather the warning. These guys doing the wheeler-dealing in the city, they all know what it takes to make money work for them.
But Christians are stupid when it comes to money and worldly wealth. He asks, “What are you doing with your money?” And most of us would say we’re investing it. And he would say, “Are you?”
In v 9, he says,
... use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
And that’s the question: is your money working to gain you a place in heaven, or is it just making you more money? In fact, the question becomes, “Is your money working for you, or are you working for your money?”
We all like to think we are shrewd about money. But the disciple who is not investing their money in their heavenly future is not shrewd at all!
Parallels about wealth:
And to bring this out, Jesus draws some parallels. In v 10, your trustworthiness in big things is measured by your trustworthiness in small things.
The contrast is not between ‘little’ and ‘much’, but what doesn’t matter and what does. And the parallel in v 11 draws this out: worldly wealth is not the same as true riches.
And v 12 makes a third point along the same lines. Your worldly wealth doesn’t even belong to you.
Someone was once told a rich man had died. He asked, “How much money did he leave?” The answer, “All of it.” And that’s how much you and I will leave – it is not ours. If it were, we could take it with us.
We can’t take it with us. But it could be we are going somewhere where we will be welcomed because of how we have made our money work for us, we will be given something of true value, and it will be ours to keep forever.
Working hard for the money:
Donna Summer once sang a song titled, “She works hard for the money.” What she meant was, she works hard to earn money. But what a lot of us don’t realize is that we are working hard to serve money.
We think the money is working for us, but actually we are working for it. Jesus caps this parable with a saying in v 13:
No servant can serve two masters. 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 both God and Money.
And he uses an unusual word here – not ‘money’ but ‘Mammon’. He only uses it twice in his teaching: once in this saying and once in the parable where the NIV has ‘worldly wealth’.
Why does he use it? Because it gets across the idea that money easily takes on a life of its own, it becomes not just money but a force, a power, something that rules us, instead of us ruling it.
You see, we are like the master in the parable. If we were shrewd we would recognize the wisdom of money working for us, making us friends in the next world. Unfortunately, too often we become the servant of money itself.
Now our set reading stops there, but we have to read on, because remember all this started with the reaction of the pharisees to Jesus welcoming sinners.
How do they react to this idea? V 14 tells us:
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.
And isn’t that going to be most people’s reaction. Try telling your mates at work, or your family, really our money should be working hard for us, making us friends in heaven.
Won’t they sneer at you? But what made it worse was these were the religious leaders. They could find a way of squaring the circle. You can have God and you can be just the same as everyone else when it comes to money and material things.
They loved money, we are told, and yet they also wanted to appear to be looking forward to eternity – to the coming of God’s heavenly kingdom and to the place where our kind of money and wealth would be worthless.
Jesus said to them, v 15:
You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.
The Pope’s visit has raised the suggestion that the big challenge in our society is between aggressive atheism and faith. The big challenge Jesus raised was between half-hearted faith and wholehearted faith. As a disciple, I think this is a much bigger challenge to me. And I think the same is true for all of us.
The internet has preserved his blog and I encourage everyone to explore John Richardson's legacy through his blog musings.

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