Bible Reading 1 Peter 4:7b-11
Today’s Bible reading is one of several that encourage carpe diem -- to seize the day, to make the most of our time, to do the best that we can at everything, and to use all we are and all we have on this earth for the betterment of ourselves, of others, and of our faith and of life in general. Peter writes:
- ... keep alert and self-controlled, so that you can pray. More than anything, keep loving each other actively; because love covers many sins. Welcome one another into your homes without grum-bling. As each one has received some spiritual gift, he should use it to serve others, like good managers of God’s many-sided grace — if someone speaks, let him speak God’s words; if someone serves, let him do so out of strength that God supplies; so that in everything God may be glorified through [Jesus] the Messiah — to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen. (CJB)
Last week, we looked at two of three parables in which Jesus described the mistaken attitude certain religious leaders had toward people who did not know or had wandered away from God. Instead of rejecting and isolating themselves from such people, they were expected to do what God did and always does -- to seek them out, reach for them in love, and greatly rejoice when they find their way home -- binding their wounds and strengthening them as part of the family of the faithful.
Now Jesus turns to his followers and tells them one of the most difficult to understand parables of Jesus that is recorded. Critics of Christianity often point to this parable to point out a flaw in Christian ethics (to put it nicely), or manipulative hypocrisy -- (to put it not so nicely). This accusation is based on a casual surface reading of the story by which it could sound like Jesus is approving dishonest behavior. But parables are never about the surface story which is taken from well-known common-life practices of the day. They are about the deeper spiritual lessons that they may illustrate. Just because practices are named does not mean they are meant to be acceptable, nor are they necessarily a part of the spiritual truth being taught – they are needed to make the story complete.
Now hear the story Jesus told,
- Once there was a rich and powerful man who had an asset manager. One day, the man received word that his asset manager was squandering his assets. The rich man brought in the asset manager and said, “You’ve been accused of wrongdoing. I want a full and accurate accounting of all your financial transactions because you are really close to being fired.” [Actually, a better reading is because you are fired.] The manager said to himself, “Oh, no! Now what am I going to do? I’m going to lose my job here, and I’m too weak to dig ditches and too proud to beg. I have an idea. This plan will mean that I have a lot of hospitable friends when I get fired.” So the asset manager set up appointments with each person who owed his master money. He said to the first debtor, “How much do you owe my boss?” The debtor replied, “A hundred barrels of oil.” The manager said, “I’m discounting your bill by half. Just write 50 on this contract.” Then he said to the second debtor, “How much do you owe?” This fellow said, “A hundred bales of wheat.” The manager said, “I’m discounting your debt by 20 percent. Just write down 80 bales on this contract.” When the manager’s boss realized what he had done, he congratulated him for at least being clever. (Luke 16:1-8a (VOICE)) [ed. comment]
Accusations came to the owner that the manager was wasting funds. “Wasting” is the same word used in the prodigal son parable we didn’t talk about last week. This son had demanded his inheritance from the father and then went off lavishly wasting it all in wild living. The manager was careless, neglectful, and probably committing some sort of embezzlement. As a result, the owner’s assets were being drained and his business run into the ground. When the owner learns of - and believes these accusations, he calls in his manager and tells him he is done, and that he would have to prepare an audit -- an explanation of all his expenses and activities and the current condition of the business so that his successor can take up his work with a fresh and accurate slate.
The upside of this final task is that it gave the manager some time to develop and implement a plan for his personal future. He considered digging ditches, but after years at his plush desk job (like mine J) left him in no physical shape to suddenly switch to hard manual labor. He considered begging -- but after this high position, he would be too ashamed to fall so low. Then (the verb tenses tell us) an idea suddenly hit him. He called in all those who rented land and owed the owner. They paid the owner with the crop they raised on the rented land. He re-wrote and had them resign their contracts with drastic discounts and destroyed the original agreements. Only two specific examples are told in the story to give the idea.
There may be several things going on here. 1) Of this frist one we are sure because it is stated in the story. He gave the discounts as a means of making friends who would then practice hospitality for him when he came around homeless and hungry. But background tells us it could have been more than that. 2) By conspiring with these debtors, he drew them into his illegal deception and now had, if need be, and opportunity to blackmail them, thus securing his future. 3) And or -- a third possibility is based on Jewish Law which states that you don’t charge interest on a loan to a fellow Jew. Those who wished to make money on loans would get around the law by rationalizing that the law was designed to prevent exploitation of the poor, and not intended to prohibit a “mutual investment” in which both shared in the profits. The lender’s gain came by receiving interest on the loan. Since these debtors were (trying to) rent land and raise crops, (no matter how little they made) it gave lenders the alleged loophole they needed to not only call them not poor but also to charge interest, and not even interest, usurious (exorbitant) rates of interest. None of this showed in the contract, and some speculate that the reduction of the bill was the elimination of the interest.
If this is what happened, then the owner had several problems. Without the original contract, he had no proof that he wasn’t being properly paid. Further, if he was involved in the usury, he could not convict the manager without exposing his own violation of the law and seen as an oppressor. And if the owner wasn’t aware of it, what possible reaction could he publicly give if his manager eliminated an unfair part of a bill?
To save face, to save his pious reputation, (which was important to the 1st century Jew -- (as Jesus points out later) he had no choice but to approve of the manager’s actions, and also appreciate his decisively cunning actions in a crisis -- though not the morality. It is important to point out that this approval is coming from the rich owner in the story, not from Jesus. Nor does this rich owner represent God as such characters sometimes do in other parables.
The parable ends. Jesus spells out the applications. First,
Invest in Others
- … those attuned to this evil age are more clever in dealing with their affairs than the enlightened are in dealing with their affairs! (Luke 16:8b (VOICE))
Jesus is not promoting the adaptation of unjust practices, he is saying that with as much thought, effort and resources they expend to inappropriately chase their selfish goals, we should be at least equally eager to think and work and invest (but with appropriate ethics) to accomplish good -- especially by investing in those in need who cannot repay.
The rabbis taught that the rich care for the poor in this life, the poor help the rich in the next, and that charity for the poor was rewarded in heaven. Resources can be used selfishly or to make life better for both ourselves and others. Resources are a responsibility that need to be used wisely. Use your resources to make friends, so when the resources disappear (that is, when you die and have to leave it all behind) you will be welcomed into heaven. A person’s true wealth is not in what he keeps, but in what he invests in others. Jesus is implying that even the world gets that -- but by contrast, people of faith, (such as the religious leaders of the day) who by their hypocritical holier-than-thou attitudes, use their resources to unnecessarily alienate and repel people so that God’s love and their teachings are never heard by those who need to hear it most.
Faithful “means” are important
And just in case people still haven’t figured out that the “means to the end” are as important as “the end”, Jesus reminds us that faithful honesty to God and others is the only acceptable means of practice, and that it comes from our hearts, and works its way out into our way of living. We always are who we are through and though. This is how he emphasizes it:
- Learn some lessons from this crooked but clever asset manager. Realize that the purpose of money is to strengthen friendships, to provide opportunities for being generous and kind. Eventually money will be useless to you—but if you use it generously to serve others, you will be welcomed joyfully into your eternal destination. If you’re faithful in small-scale matters, you’ll be faithful with far bigger responsibilities. If you’re crooked in small responsibilities, you’ll be no different in bigger things. If you can’t even handle a small thing like money, who’s going to entrust you with spiritual riches that really matter? If you don’t manage well someone else’s assets that are entrusted to you, who’s going to give over to you important spiritual and personal relationships to manage? (Luke 16:9-12 (VOICE))
The way you handle little things is a good sign of how you will handle big things. The typical philosophy by human standards is: If you can’t handle what is yours, why would anyone trust you to handle something that is not yours? But Jesus gives it a new twist -- He says we’ve already been entrusted with gifts from God that are not ours to own, but only granted for us to manage during our lifetime. If we cannot manage these lesser gifts, these temporary earthly possessions that God has given, then why would we expect to receive the higher gifts, the eternal riches? What we receive there as your eternal gift will depend much on how faithfully we invest what he has given us on loan to manage here in this life.
Two Masters - Choose
Jesus wraps up his parable with this summation.
- Imagine you’re a servant and you have two masters giving you orders. What are you going to do when they have conflicting demands? You can’t serve both, so you’ll either hate the first and love the second, or you’ll faithfully serve the first and despise the second. One master is God and the other is money. You can’t serve them both. (Luke 16:13 (VOICE))
Jesus says all this to his disciples, but it is the Pharisees within earshot that respond. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if that was his intent. Just like a parent with multiple children talks to one child, it is the others who overhear and learn something about themselves that they would not have if they have been spoken to directly. After the direct approach with the parables of the previous chapter got Jesus nowhere, he speaks to his disciples, perhaps with the hope that with the less directly confrontational approach, their defenses would be lowered and they would overhear and respond more positively.
Of course, the danger of this kind of indirect teaching is that the overhearing child doesn’t make the connection between the lesson and their own life – and no application is made. It would also be easy for the modern reader to overhear and isolate the lesson only to the religious leaders of that day and not apply to our modern living. But the trap they were in remains a dangerous temptation to which we are susceptible even today.
The words of Jesus were not dismissed. Even only overhearing, they started scoffing. Just as they were critical of Jesus’ hanging out with people who most needed to hear God’s word, they are now critical of him for warning about the tempting danger of greedily falling in love with and being owned by material things and/or its perceived benefits.
Tying into a parallel passage in Matthew 6, we could say that these particular people gave to charity, but not to help the needy, they prayed often and publicly, but not to talk to God, they fasted, but not to open themselves up to God’s nourishment. In a similar way, they loved wealth because they saw it as yet another public display of how good and spiritual and important they were -- because for them, wealth was granted by God as a special blessing and reward for following his will. To them, their wealth meant they were more highly honored by God than this poor rabbi and his followers who left whatever wealth they had to follow him, and it was laughable for him to warn about the dangers of (usually ill-gotten) money when they saw it as a sign of blessing. How important could they be if God honored them with so few material possessions?
Mocking / Appearances
- The Pharisees overheard all this, and they started mocking Jesus because they really loved money. Jesus ([said] to the Pharisees): You’ve made your choice. Your ambition is to look good in front of other people, not God. But God sees through to your hearts. He values things differently from you. The goals you and your peers are reaching for [---] God detests. (Luke 16:14-15 (VOICE))
- They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.” (Luke 16:8b (MSG))
Closing Hymn # 398 (vv 1,3,5) Jesus Calls Us
Closing Blessing Now being gifted to bring love and compassion to all on your earth, go to bring help and healing by resembling more and more the kind of people he calls us to be. Amen.