Well, phooey. Just when you think you might be starting to understand what Luke’s Jesus is saying, even though it’s hard to live by, here comes a parable that seems, well, just plain wrong. I’m sure the original hearers/readers thought the same thing.
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. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then 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.” 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. 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.
‘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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.’ [from Luke 16]
Okay, there’s a long sermon to preach here, but let’s just jump to the end.
Jesus is indeed praising the dishonest manager, but in a sideways fashion. Yes, he says with a smile (at least that’s how I envision it), this guy is smart. Imagine what he could do with his smarts if he were honest and generous. He’s been cheating his boss (almost certainly by overcharging customers and keeping the extra for himself—two sets of books, it seems). Now he calls in the ones he’s cheated and offers to cut what they owe. Perhaps now he’s actually charging them what should have been the original price. He keeps his job; the boss is happy; the customer is happy. What’s wrong with this? He is still dishonest! It doesn’t seem that he’s sorry for what he’s done, he is just relieved he was able to save his own skin, but there is no change of heart.
You cannot serve both God and wealth. That’s the bottom line, and the last line of our text. It’s the truth that this parable is seeking.
If all we care about is getting wealthier, our relationships grow less important. We don’t care about the customer—just the customer’s money. We’ll give up time with family and friends to focus on what we think is more important at the moment. We don’t hang with our kids because we think we’re trying to make a better life for them.
If all we care about is getting wealthier, our bodies will suffer. We’ll be more stressed, less healthy, we’ll play less and sleep less, and eat things that aren’t as good for us. Because time is money, and you don’t get rich by taking walks and riding your bike, or by growing a garden and making a nice salad.
If all we care about is getting wealthier, our spiritual lives shrivel. This is just the truth that we feel in our bones. We find ourselves pulling away from our own spirits until the desire to be spiritual seems ridiculous.
We can’t love God and money. But it’s hard to figure out the balance. We have to work, have to pay the rent, buy shoes and school supplies for the kids, make sure we’ll someday be able to retire without burdening those kids.
Jesus doesn’t say it’ll be easy to do, this finding a balance. It will likely take a lifetime for most of us. But it’s worth the work of balancing. It’s worth the spiritual act of seeking money’s proper place in our lives and souls.
Our spirits will suffer if we don’t.
© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier