The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ
September 18, 2022
“Well, That’s Surprising”
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.
There are passages of the Bible that ring with moral clarity. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” is an example. But here, in this 16th chapiter of Luke, one can be forgiven if the first reaction is to throw up one’s hands. At first reading, it seems to be filled with moral ambiguity. We don’t know what to make of it. Indeed, it might have been easier if I had stayed away from this passage. After all, there were several other lectionary options. But I have never understood what Jesus is trying to say and I’m getting older by the day. If I am ever going to discern some redemptive element within this text, I’d better get at it! So, here we go.
I am going to make four points and attempt to make them relevant for us today. First, Jesus was born into a time and place. Seems obvious, but unless we understand the circumstances Jesus and the common men and women of His day are dealing with, this passage remains opaque. Second, God is bias for the poor and this passage is no exception. Third, the action of the manager may have restored not only the manager’s future prospects but the owner’s moral virtue. Fourth, living in the world when called to bear witness to the unseen kingdom of God, may require seeing the world anew.
First, Jesus was born into a time and place. As stated above, this seems obvious. Anyone who has listened to a sermon knows we preachers often talk about historical context. After all, unless you know the history confronting Jeremiah, his prophecies of judgement against his nation make little sense. Right?
Think of it this way. Suppose you were from Mars visiting the earth for the first time. You turn on the television and a documentary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes on. Being a Martian, you have no knowledge of the struggle for civil rights. You don’t know about Jim Crow. You don’t know Bull Conner, Strom Thurman, Rossa Parks. None of it. So when King says he dreams of the day when his children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, you have no idea what he’s talking about. But we’re not from Mars. We know exactly what Dr. King meant.
I begin, then, by making this first point. Jesus was born into a time and a place. He is speaking in a world vastly different from our own. We are like the Martian trying to figure out Dr. King. Unless we know something about the culture of Jesus’ time and place, this passage makes little or no sense.
All of that brings us to our second point — namely, God is bias for the poor and this passage is no exception. Is there anyone who would like to argue against this point? You wouldn’t be alone. The success gospel of our day is a reminder that there are preachers who will tell you faith will bring you wealth, that following Jesus makes good business sense. Lost to them is the reality of the cross, the words of the prophets from the old Testament, and the warning of Jesus found in our reading this morning: “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.”
Now I could go on. I could quote passages ad nauseum. All of it would go to prove that I believe God has, and always will have, a bias in favor of the least and the lost, that when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor…” Jesus means it. So I ask that we carry this fact with us as we explore this passage. God has a bias in favor of the poor and powerless.
Third, the action of the manager may have restored not only the manager’s future prospects but the owner’s moral virtue. To understand this point takes a little doing. When I first read this passage, I thought the manager was a liar and a cheat. But I did a little digging and I discovered that in the 21st century time frame, that is exactly what the manager is — a liar and a cheat. He is cheating the owner out of what is due him. Right? In our world, he would be seen as skimming off the top. So why is Jesus commending him?
It turns out that Jesus’ day is not like our day. It was common practice to cheat the poor and powerless out of house and home. That was how wealth was garnered. Oh, the Jewish law forbade charging interest. But there were ways of charging interest without listing it as interest. When the manager reduces the amount the debtors owe the owner, he may be evening the score. When he tells the one who owes 100 jugs of olive oil to write down that he only owes fifty, that may be far closer to what was actually owed. What the manager may have been doing is showing mercy.
And note this. If I am right, the owner was breaking the Jewish law code. He was getting rich off those who had little. This was a common practice in the first century. Barbara Rossing in her commentary informs us:
Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. The rich man or “lord” (kyrios, v. 3, 8), along with his steward or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants.
By reducing what the peasants owed, the manager is not only putting himself in the good graces of the peasants, he is elevating the status of the owner. He restores not only himself but his master. It truly is a stroke of genius and little wonder that the owner commends his manager.
In our own day there are people who have amassed vast sums of money. Indeed, governments around the world recently seized the property of many Russian oligarchs. We got to see their yachts. I, for one, didn’t have much sympathy for folks who made their fortune serving an oppressive regime. Did you? And in our own country Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, confessed that he pays less in taxes than his secretary. Even he thinks there is something wrong with that.
So maybe we can begin to understand that within the economic system of Jesus’ day, there was an unjust structure that kept the poor poor and the rich rich. If God does, indeed, have a bias in favor of the poor, this parable only serves to emphasize this point.
Fourth, living in the world when called to bear witness to the unseen kingdom of God, may require seeing the world anew. To make this point, let me get personal. This is a picture of our home on Grand Isle. I am hardly hurting. I am sharing it because I am reminded of what Augustine said, “The superfluities of the rich are the necessities of the poor.” Simply put, I could live elsewhere, and the money spent to provide this home could have been used to assist those who have no home.
I am far from a perfect follower of Christ. I live in a world that often is at odds with the world Christ envisioned. We all do. Compromises are made and our imperfection remains. To be honest, I have no intention of selling our home and moving into a more modest dwelling, of taking the prophets and donating it to Habitat for Humanity. That is a fact.
In the end, I must rely on God’s forgiveness sealed in the cross. I stand in constant need of being saved. I have and always will, need Jesus. My hope rests not in my virtue, but in God’s grace. And you?
 Barbara R. Rossing is professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where she has taught since 1994. Ordained in 1982, she served as pastor of a congregation in Minnesota, director for Global Mission Interpretation for the American Lutheran Church, pastor at Holden Village Retreat Center, Chelan, Wash., and chaplain at Harvard University Divinity School. Rossing has lectured and preached widely, including at synod assemblies and global mission events for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), as well as at ecumenical theological conferences. She has served on the executive committee and council of the Lutheran World Federation (2003-2010), and chaired the Lutheran World Federation’s theology and studies committee. Her publications include The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Basic Books, 2004), a critique of fundamentalist “Left Behind” theology; The Choice Between Two Cities: Whore, Bride and Empire in the Apocalypse (Trinity Press, 1999); two volumes of the New Proclamation commentary for preachers (Fortress Press, 2000 and 2004) and articles and book chapters on the Apocalypse and ecology.
[i] 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. 2So 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.’ 3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’7Then 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.’ 8And 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. 9And 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.10“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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No 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.”