There are times, I am sure, when we read our Bibles, and the first thought that comes to us is that we’d like to have a pair of scissors. Just take that offensive passage and snip it right out of our Bibles. There! It’s gone! We don’t have to deal with it anymore. If we’ve already spent some time meditating on, and thinking about our rather strange passage this morning, we’ve probably already discovered that this is one of those passages that we’d just as soon snip right out of our Bibles.
Unfortunately, that’s not a viable option. We Christians are called not only to read our Bibles, but also to take what we read very seriously, even if we don’t like what we’re reading. But sadly, while we may not ever actually get out a pair of scissors and literally chop some sections right out of our Bibles, we tend to do it symbolically by the way that we read them. We come across something that we don’t like, or that’s boring or dull , and off with it’s head. We skip right by it.
It appears that Jesus is doing at least two things that we might label as wrong in this passage. First of all, it seems like Jesus is commending the crooked ways of this dishonest manager to his disciples, and secondly, Jesus is saying some harsh words about the way that we use our money. And that’s always dangerous!
Let’s chat about this dishonest manager first, and then we’ll talk about the money. It almost seems like Jesus is saying to his disciples, Emulate this crooked and dishonest manager and you’ll get to heaven. Now if that’s the message of this parable, we’re all in a heap of trouble. At least I hope we’re in a heap of trouble. I certainly hope that none of us will leave this place this morning supposing that we’ll get to heaven if we emulate this guy’s cheating and conniving ways. Dishonesty and behind the scenes tactics have never worked very well for Christian people. It’s not something that we’re generally called to do…not even on Facebook.
And fortunately that does not happen to be the message of this rather private parable. Nowhere does Jesus commend the dishonest practices of this crooked manager, nor does he encourage us to emulate him. The guy is a crook, he’s an embezzler, and he’s been an embezzler for a long time. his boss is fed up with the whole thing, and the guy is gonna get canned. He’s outta here, fired, slipped the pink one.
Now it’s instructive, I believe, that this is also a very private parable. It is intended only for the ears of Jesus’ disciples. This isn’t big crowd material, and we can see why, right away. The big crowd would certainly misinterpret it. It is a custom tailored lesson just for the disciples, and now that it has made it into the Scriptures, it serves the same function for us. Most of that lesson comes after verse 10, but let’s consider the story, too. Even though a parable is usually just a made up story that forces pondering, sometimes there’s a bit of reality behind it too. Embezzlement happens. It is nothing new. Jesus might have known about someone who got caught embezzling; he might have even forgiven someone for it.
In this parable, when the guy got caught, he knew he was in trouble. He knew that up front. His boss came in, told him he was guilty of squandering his property, demanded an accounting of his management, and fired him on the spot.
“Well, what to do now? I’m out of work! I’ve lost my job!” But notice how quickly he sizes up his situation. Look how quickly he comes up with a plan. First off, he knows he’s not going to get a job in management right away. That bridge is burned. Nobody’s gonna hire him as a manager if he has to put “fired for embezzlement” on his resume. People are smarter than that, usually.
He also knows his physical limitations. He’s not strong enough to do manual labor, he can’t dig, he can’t work in the fields, and he’s too proud to beg. There’s enough of the management mentality left in him for him to know that the tin cup on the corner thing is beneath him. And so, he’s going to commit one last, brilliant act of embezzlement. And so one by one, he summons his boss’ creditors.
“How much do you owe da boss?”* “Well, I owe him a hundred jugs of oil.” “Sit down. Change your bill. You now owe only 50.” And to another, he said, “How deep you in?” And the debtor replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” “I’ve got news. Today it is eighty.”
Now notice that none of the creditors has a problem with this. They are only too happy to have their bills reduced. No one says, “Now wait a minute! I’m an honest person! I believe in making good on my debts. I Intend to pay back every drop of oil and every kernel of wheat!” Everyone wants to participate in this scam, because everyone stands to benefit from the dishonesty.
The manager stands to benefit the most though, because he’s put his boss’ debtors into his own debt. He’s using the debtors to provide gain for himself. He’s manipulated them into the position where they are going to feel obligated to financially support the manager once he’s out on the street. “You owe me; I did for you.”
It is hard to be sympathetic to anyone in this parable, because nobody realizes or appreciates the awful ultimate outcome of a scam. When one conspires to gain wealth dishonestly, the only result can be loss. Everyone in this parable is going to lose. But to his credit, the dishonest manager was only doing what he did best. He was a scammer and a schemer. He’d been scamming his boss, and now he’s scamming his boss’ debtors. Here’s a guy who’s got his own best interests in mind and he knows how to achieve his goals. He sized up his situation, he considered his alternatives, he arrived at a conclusion, and, surprisingly, in spite of his bone-deep dishonesty, he actually received the admiration and commendation of his former boss.
So what’s to admire? Good question. At best, this guy’s only done a really bad thing really well. Did we get that? This guy did a bad thing really well. It appears that Jesus is comfortable admitting that sometimes bad people do bad things really well. And that seems to be the point. Just as bad people do bad things really well, good people ought to be doing good things really well. In reminding us that bad people can do bad things well, Jesus delivers a scathing indictment on his disciples and on us. He says that the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation, than are the children of light. It seems that bad people do bad things better than good people do good things.
If there is one thing to commend about the dishonest manager, it is his thought process. It is his ability to think his way through a situation, to size it up, and to come up with a plan.
In their future ministries, the disciples are going to need to be good thinkers. They are going to be confronted with situations that require them to draw quickly upon their intellectual faculties. They’re going to have to give a solid defense of their faith. They’ve got to learn, they’ve got to study the Scriptures, and they’ve got to know who they are and what they are about. And this is what Jesus is encouraging them to do.
We, too, live in an age and in a culture that requires us to be thinkers and learners and people who are willing to study. We need to know now more than ever, who we are and what we are about. Answers to the tough questions of life just don’t drop out of the sky, they come from the Scriptures. Unfortunately among some Christians there is an anti-intellectual movement afoot. We seem to crave easy answers that are spoon fed to us. We want fluff when we need substance. I trust that Jesus’ words in this parable will banish that tendency from our hearts. The world more than ever needs Christians who can think, who can reason, and who can provide an intelligent defense of our faith. This is our calling.
I’m going to switch gears a little bit just now, and look at verses 9-13. Verse nine is a problem, and it remains a problem. It seems like Jesus is telling us to buy some folks off so that we can secure a place in heaven. That can’t be right, of course, because salvation can’t be bought. It is the free gift of God’s grace. And so it has to be something else that Jesus has in mind. I Just have no clue what is is, and others aren’t all that clear on it either. Verses 9-13 are actually Jesus’ commentary on the parable. They discuss the differences between handling money and handling spiritual matters. The dishonest manager could handle money. That’s obvious. Jesus calls his disciples and us to be as adept at handling spiritual things as we are at handling money. And there’s a powerful connection here, because oftentimes the way we handle money is an indicator of how well we handle spiritual matters.
Money isn’t much, even when there’s a lot of it. That’s especially true when we compare it to spiritual matters. Money is the “very little” that Jesus talks about in verse 10. And even though money is a “very little” thing, we’re still called to be faithful with it, because in a small sense, it becomes practice for us. If we are faithful with our money, we gain skills in handling the far more valuable spiritual matters. If we’re not faithful with our money, and if we don’t handle it properly, we shouldn’t count on handling many true riches. And I’m speaking of the vast riches of our faith.
So how do we handle money? We use it not for our own gain, but rather for the advancement of God’s Kingdom. If we’re supporting mission and outreach, if we’re feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, if we’re funding the preaching of the Gospel, then we are being faithful with the greater things of which Jesus speaks. By proclaiming the good news wherever we go, people are going to come to know the love of Jesus Christ. They’re going to repent of their sins, and they’re going to receive the free gift of salvation. This is who we are and what we are to be about. This is above all else our calling.
*Imagine an affected voice such as “Vinny” might use in dealing with his minions.