Sermon on Luke 16:1-13 preached to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on September 22, 2013.
One of the realities of our digital age is that nearly every website gives its users the opportunity to comment on the website’s content. Just about every article on the internet has a section below it where readers can offer their opinions about what they have just read. This comment section is, in some ways, similar to the editorial page in a newspaper. There is, however, a significant and important difference. While the content of the editorial page is scrutinized and selected by an editor, there is no such filter in an internet comment section. Literally everyone who can type (and quite a few people who can’t) is given the opportunity to make their voices heard over the information superhighway. As you can imagine, there are some very disturbed, angry, ignorant, and downright crazy people who post in these comment sections. If one spends any kind of time on the internet, one quickly learns that these comment sections rarely edify and frequently frustrate. Responding to these comments is not an option, because the torrent of negativity unleashed by every minor disagreement is overwhelming. It is better simply to ignore the comments. The arguments are pointless and the unintended consequences can be catastrophic. Brothers and sisters, I adjure you by God: for the sake of your physical, mental, and spiritual health, do not read internet comments; it’s simply not worth the anguish.
So while I was reading some internet comments the other day, I was reminded about a particularly annoying brand of internet commenter. This is the person who wanders into a forum and makes a comment that is specifically designed to make people angry. For instance, a University of Oklahoma fan may wander into a University of Texas forum and proclaim how terrible the Longhorns are. Obviously, the person who does this is not even trying to contribute to the conversation; he’s just trying to get people riled up. In internet parlance, this person is known as a troll, and the activity he engages in is known as trolling. As frustrating as internet trolls can be, the most insidious thing about them is that they see what they do as a public service. If you challenge an internet troll to contribute something of substance to the discussion, he will respond that he is: he’s being intentionally provocative, he’s causing us to moderate our position in response to his ludicrous opinion. The reality, of course, is that this generally isn’t true: the internet troll is usually just being a jerk. It’s interesting to me, however, that those who troll tend to embrace this narrative in which they are provocateurs, contributors to the internet symposium who force us to do the hard work of self-examination.
The reason I bring this up is that in our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus seems to be trolling us a little bit. This is probably the most bizarre parable in all of the New Testament, because it seems to go against everything that we know about what Jesus did and taught. This is especially true in the gospel according to Luke, in which Jesus is incredibly concerned with how preoccupied people are with money and influence. To get a sense of how strange this parable really is, we need to take a look at some of the other moments in Luke’s gospel, many of which we’ve looked at over the past few weeks. Just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus tell the parable of the great dinner, in which he warned us not to think to highly of ourselves, not to exploit the influence we believe we have in order to gain advantages over people. A few weeks before that, we heard the parable of the rich fool, who built huge silos to store all his stuff and ensure his security, only to die that very night. And next week, we will hear the story of Lazarus and the rich man, in which a man is thrown into Hades because of his obsession with his wealth and possessions.
So when we arrive at the parable in today’s gospel, the parable of the dishonest manager or the shrewd steward, I think we’re right to feel a little thrown off, perhaps even a little uncomfortable. The story goes like this: a rich man has a business manager and discovers that the guy is mismanaging his boss’s assets. Maybe he’s made some bad investments, maybe he’s skimming off the top, maybe he’s just incompetent; whatever the reason, the rich man demands an audit from his steward. Instead of buckling down, getting the books right, and hoping that his boss will give him another chance or instead of updating his resume and hoping that he can get some honest work, the manager proceeds to go around to his boss’s debtors and reduces what they owe the rich man. The thing is, he doesn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart, he doesn’t do this because his boss is unjust; he does this in order to get consideration from the people whose debt he’s forgiving, he does it for purely selfish reasons. At this point, we can’t wait for the owner’s reaction. This manager is going to get it! He’s defrauded his boss; he’s been completely selfish. There’s no way that he’s going to get away with this. So imagine our surprise when Jesus tells us that the rich man commended the steward for acting selfishly. Really? Did you get that right Jesus? Not only was the rich man not mad, but he praised this dishonest manager? As if we weren’t confused enough already, Jesus goes on to instruct us to follow this manager’s example: “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.”
What is going on in this baffling parable? Is Jesus really telling us to emulate this dishonest steward? Are we really supposed to follow the example of a guy whose life is dictated by his own selfishness? It’s hard to say. One disadvantage of the study of Scripture is that we don’t have the tapes. We don’t know how Jesus sounded when he said the things recorded in the gospels. The result of this is that many of us tend to have a Scripture reading voice in our head (mine is some combination of James Earl Jones and Billy Graham). Whatever it sounds like, it’s usually magisterial and full of authority. But the reality is that Jesus probably had a variety of ways of communicating. Sure, there were times in his ministry when a Scripture reading voice would have been very appropriate, like in the Sermon on the Plain. But, what about when Jesus takes up a little child in his arms and says that it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs? Are we supposed to think that he spoke to these children the same way that he spoke to the crowds? Probably not. In the same way, I wonder if we are mishearing this parable of the dishonest manager because we are assuming our James Earl Jones/Billy Graham voice. What if we’re missing a note of sarcasm in Jesus’ voice: “Go ahead, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, because when it’s gone they’re totally going to welcome you into the eternal homes. See how that works out for you.” Now, I may be treading on some perilous ground here, but this interpretation seems more consistent with what we’ve heard before and what we’re going to hear in Luke’s gospel. In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus makes it very clear that we shouldn’t be preoccupied with wealth because we can’t take it with us, because wealth is not eternal. In the same way, it stands to reason that if we make friends with our wealth, that thing which isn’t eternal, those friendships won’t last very long. Regardless of how we hear this parable, I think it’s clear that Jesus is being intentionally provocative, that Jesus is encouraging us to look closely at this dishonest manager and determine what we can learn from him.
On one level, I think we sympathize with the guy. He’s in a position that too many of us have been in at one point or another; he’s about to lose his job. And the only way he knows how to take care of himself is by being shrewd but also by being selfish, by looking out for number one, by worrying about himself first and about his impact on other people later. This manager looked at his situation and was terrified, because all of his possessions, including his job, his friends, and his money are in jeopardy. As one New Testament interpreter has remarked, possessions are our guard against nonexistence. This manager was convinced that if he lost his possessions, if he no longer had what he once had, he would cease to exist, that he wouldn’t matter, that his life would be meaningless. This manager defined himself in terms of what he owned, he defined himself in terms of what he could get out of other people, he defined himself in terms of things that are passing away. But what Jesus reveals us to us in telling this parable, what Jesus reveals to us in all of the gospel according to Luke, what Jesus reveals to us in his death and resurrection is that we are not defined by what we have. We are not defined by how much we make, by what circles we travel in, by how nice a car we drive, by who our parents are, by how much education we have, by who we voted for, by what we post on the internet, or by any of the thousands of other ways that our culture defines value. We are not defined by what we have; we are defined by the fact that we are beloved children of God. That’s it. Jesus tells this story not to give an example of how not to behave; Jesus tells this story to remind us that what we have does not define us; Jesus tells this story to reminds us how much God loves us. Jesus reveals the depth of God’s love for us on the cross. By destroying the power of death, Jesus affirms the promise that nothing can separate from the love of God in Christ. When we embrace our identity as beloved children of God, when we lose our preoccupation with what we have, then we will be empowered to share the love that God makes known to us in Jesus Christ, the love that transcends divisions and unites us, the love that reminds us of our eternal home.