Last week in the news we heard of various labor problems between workers and unions representing them: teachers in Seattle and Kent, nurses in Minnesota, the large railroad companies…. there was collective bargaining, tense talks…. and talk of strikes. Even when we read the news, we all have opinions – about wages, pensions, strikes, general conditions, reasons for economic problems, etc. If we’re really honest, we know that these are NOT simple matters. The economy…. and money issues…. are complicated!
It was true in the time of Jesus as well. A huge gap between the rich and the poor. A Jewish prohibition against charging interest for loans, and many other issues not so different from our own.
Today’s passage may be one of the most difficult of Jesus’ parables. All through Luke we’ve struggled with our relationship to money and riches as we’ve read the texts and sought to understand the words of Jesus.
A rich man hears that his money manager is cheating him. He tells him to give a final account because he is being fired. The manager thinks to himself “I’m not strong enough to do actual labor, and I’m too embarrassed to beg, how should I avoid this disaster?” He decides to cook the books of his master’s debtors, in order that they would all be indebted to him and welcome him once he was fired.
I’ll admit that I don’t really understand this parable completely. I’m not positive exactly what Jesus meant. I can only guess.
But here are the verses that raise some problems:
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”
What does shrewd mean? Why was the manager commended? Why is he praised?
We can only assume that he is not praised for further cheating his master (!), but for acting shrewdly…. “using the system”.
The commendation is directed not toward the manager’s cheating, but “because he had acted shrewdly” (v. 8) regarding what he cared most about – money, and for saving himself from a personal catastrophe.
Perhaps we could interpret the verse more positively like this: “If worldly people are so shrewd regarding something as insignificant as “worldly wealth”, should not believers be even more shrewd about the “true riches” of the kingdom of God?
Or stated slightly differently: “If people of this world are smart and cunning (creative and active) …. shouldn’t believers also be willing to work hard and use every opportunity at one’s disposal to further the kingdom?”
9 “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
This is maybe the most troubling and difficult verse. Surely, this cannot mean that we should used money gained by cheating in order to buy friends and influence people.
Instead could we interpret it more like this: – “to be willing to work within this ‘unequal, often unjust economy’ to help others, to do justice…. in order to “gain treasure in heaven”. Matthew 6:19 / Matthew 25, etc. Now granted, that’s not exactly what the text says….it is an admittedly generous interpretation. But it is at least conceivable and surely in line with other texts in Luke.
11 “So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?”
This may be the key to this passage. Said differently, “If you’re not able to handle insignificant things like possessions and money wisely, how are you going to make good decisions about “real” treasure…. spiritual treasures?”
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.”
As in other places in Luke…. what is required is an absolute devotion to Jesus and kingdom values. Just like we were told to “hate our families” we are told to “hate money”. Not that we are not involved or can’t own any….only that we cannot be enslaved to it… treat it as a master.
So where does this difficult parable leave us? What are we to learn from Jesus’ story? Here’s my attempt at a couple of answers:
- Money is complicated – no simple answers in scripture.
- Should we get rid of all of it? Yes, there are literal statements to this effect, but no standard response is observable.
- Should we equate great wealth with great blessing and approval from God? Again, there are many biblical examples where this is stated or inferred. But there are also as many texts which would point in a totally different direction.
- Is tithing the right answer? Is it sufficient? Here too, scripture (especially the old testament) would affirm this. But Jesus never taught it explicitly – and most of his references to tithing in the new testament are negative in meaning. Instead, Jesus seems to emphasize not 10%, but always 100%!
- In short, there doesn’t appear to be “one size fits all” when it comes to money and finances.
- Money must serve the Kingdom… we must NEVER serve Money. Our only Master can be God.
- Jesus doesn’t seem to romanticize the poor, nor does he stigmatize the rich.
- In verse 14ff he criticizes the Pharisees for being “lovers of money”. They justified themselves and their wealth….through appearing righteous, but God knew their hearts. 14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “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.”
Are we lovers of money? Are we slaves to money? Or are we servants of God, lovers of God who leverage our money and possessions shrewdly….on behalf of the Kingdom?
(the above is a summary of the message shared during our worship time on September 18, 2022.)