September 22, 2013

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager

Passage: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
Service Type:

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.


An online survey (July 2013) conducted by New York law firm Labaton Sucharow of 250 financial professionals revealed the following:

  • 52 percent felt it likely their competitors had engaged in unethical or illegal activity to gain a market edge.

  • 29 percent believed financial services professionals may need to engage in unethical or illegal activity in order to be successful.

  • 24 percent said they would likely engage in illegal insider trading to make $10 million if they could get away with it.

The survey concluded: "A particularly troubling and consistent finding throughout the survey is that Wall Street's future leaders—the young professionals who will one day assume control of the trillions of dollars that the industry manages—have lost their moral compass, accept corporate wrongdoing as a necessary evil and fear reporting this misconduct."

Many things have changed in the financial services industry from first century Palestine; other things have not.  There were dishonest financial services professionals in Jesus’ day as well; his parable is the story of one such “resourceful” practitioner.  It is the story of how financial mismanagement by a certain manager finally caught up with him.

In the parable of the dishonest manager a man learns that his financial manager is cheating on him.  The manager catches wind that he has been discovered; found out he now says to himself, “I’m in hot water for sure. I’m going to be fired.  I can’t fudge the numbers any longer.  I’m not strong enough to be a labourer.  I’m not smart enough to be a teacher.  I’m not humble enough to draw welfare.  What will I do?  I know what I’ll do.  While I still have my job I’ll call each of the people indebted to my boss and cut their bills in half and tell them to pay quickly.  These people in turn will be so happy to have their indebtedness reduced that they’ll all give me a kickback.  I’ll be set for life.”

The story of money misappropriated is common enough; perhaps all too common.  But the thing that makes our head snap in Jesus parable is that the master commends the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly!  “You’re a clever guy!”  We were expecting authorities called and some jail time served.  But no!  And then—to make matters worse—Jesus himself offers his own backhanded compliment of the dishonest manager: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”  As if that weren’t enough he goes on to say that there is something about this manager his disciples out to emulate.  “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.”

Admittedly this parable is a hard one to interpret.  Commentators have offered all manner of explanations to soften the edginess of the story; some explaining that the manager had forgiven the interest portion of the debts (something scripture forbade) or the portion that was his own commission.  I think we should take it edginess and all; there is nothing in the story that would indicate Jesus had the forgiveness of unjust interest in mind.

So what point is Jesus making with this parable?  Surely he is not commending the dishonest actions of the manager!  You would be correct in this assertion.  You only need to think of the tax collector Zacchaeus who had defrauded many; upon meeting Jesus he decides that the right course of action, because of his new found friendship with Jesus, was to make it right with those he defrauded.

Further, not every detail of a parable is to be taken as the parable’s point.  Jesus once told the story of a woman who persisted to ask an unjust judge to give her justice in her case; every day she waited outside his home and accosted him on his way to the court.  The judge finally did the right thing; not because he was disposed to do what was right, he was hoping for a bribe.  He did it just to get rid of her; because she was bother to him.  Jesus wasn’t commending the actions of the judge but the persistence of the woman.

1. So what is it about this manager that Jesus wants us to note?  Perhaps a more current story will help us appreciate Jesus’ point.

At the 2012 Las Vegas Film Festival a British film titled “A Landscape of Lies” won an award.  Film festival awards are common but the irony that this film won an award was the thing that made news headlines.  Apparently the movie’s title reveals a lot more about the making of the movie than merely the plot the movie depicts.

The movie makers never intended to make a movie; it was a scheme hatched by five Britons to bilk the government of money.  The project was a sham, set up to claim almost 1.5 million pounds in goods and services tax for work that had not been done, as well as 1.3 million pounds under a government program that allows filmmakers to claim back up to 25 percent of their expenditure as tax relief.  When tax investigators began to suspect it was a scam the fraudsters tried to cover up their scheme by actually making the movie; hence it came to win a Film Festival Award.  That wasn’t sufficient for tax authorities; the five producers were convicted of fraud and sentenced with various lengths of jail time in March of 2013.

Now here is what I invite you to think about.  Consider the effort these five people expended in concoction and enactment of their scheme to defraud.  If only they had given their energies to legitimate pursuits they might well have been very successful.  Think about the human resourcefulness given to the pursuit of what deemed easy money.  That is what Jesus wanted his hearers to note about the dishonest manager; his resourcefulness.

His point is that we followers of Jesus—children of the light—ought to be exerting the kind of “pedal-to-the-metal” resourcefulness we see in people around us giving to the pursuit of what they find important.  We know that we can live our earthly lives treasuring up treasures in heaven; our earthly store can be expended for heavenly gain—or as Jesus put it in the imagery of his parable: “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Jesus calls us to use every ounce of our human resourcefulness in pursuit of the kingdom.  The kind of human excellence expended for work that we see offered in the enterprises of our society ought to be turned toward the kingdom.  Even in Jesus day, he remarked that the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their pursuits than the children of light.  Years ago when I was in youth ministry I remember one leader making a similar point asking—why does the devil have all the good music?  People will spend hours and hours honing their musical craft in order to entertain people; will we Christians give the same energies in making music for the kingdom; for excellence in song that makes the name of Jesus known?

2. Rev. Dr. Timothy Keller is the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City; it is a thriving church with three campuses in the city—east side, west side, and downtown.  Keller has published a number of books; I have recently completed reading Keller work Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.  The book is an attempt to explain the fruitfulness of what Redeemer Presbyterian was doing.

Keller writes; it is “not so much the particular ministry expression but the way in which we arrived at the expressions we used at Redeemer.  We have thought long and hard about the character and implications of the gospel and then long and hard about the culture of New York City, about the sensibilities of both Christians and non-Christians in our midst, and about the emotional and intellectual landscape of the center city” (p. 16).   What this reflection gave rise to was a theological vision that gave shape to their ministry expressions.  It is not a one-size-fits-all approach; rather Keller proposes that a congregation can develop their own theological vision answering a specific set of questions.

“A theological vision is a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry and mission in a type of culture at a moment of history.”  I believe we have much to learn from Redeemer church experience.

Consider with me another way of speaking about a congregation’s theological vision.  As each generation of Christ’s people arises, that generation has to adapt “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) to the culture they find themselves.  Note that the faith, the substance, the deposit of what we believe, has been delivered “once for all.”  It doesn’t change.  But circumstances are always changing.  Therefore we have to adapt unchanging truth to changing circumstances.  If we fail to adapt, we can’t speak to our contemporaries.  While we may learn much from John Calvin and John Wesley, we don’t live in the 16th Century, and we don’t live in the 18th Century.  We can learn from these men but we can never copy them.  We don’t want to copy Redeemer in Now York City, for that matter either.  We should never attempt to duplicate them.  We don’t even speak Wesley’s English.  In the 18th Century if someone were profoundly stirred by a sermon, it was said that that person’s bowels had moved.  This isn’t what we mean by “bowel-movement” in 21st Century English.  We always have to adapt the unchanging substance of the faith to changing circumstances.

On the other hand, as each generation of Christ’s people arises, that generation must never adopt the mindset of the culture.  If we adopt the mindset of our culture around us, we have forfeited the gospel.  We have performed the grand counter miracle: we’ve turned wine into water.  Now we are experts at communicating, to be sure, but we’ve nothing to communicate.  At this point the substance of the faith has been thrown away in the interests of a “with-it” preoccupation with communicating.

If we fail to adapt, we’ve retained the gospel to be sure, but it’s wrapped up in a parcel, a language, an imagery that’s foreign to our neighbours will not be able to hear the gospel.  If, however, we adopt, then we’ve developed wonderfully attractive packaging but with nothing inside the package.  The line we must all walk along, the line between adapting and adopting; this line is finer than a hair and harder than diamond.  What does this mean? We learn to do it as we have to do it.  And in truth we are doing it all the time. The parable of the dishonest manager is our Lord’s command that his people remain imaginatively, daringly resourceful in adapting and not adopting; in realizing theological vision for our town, our culture.

3. It’s right here—in the church—that our resourcefulness, critical resourcefulness, has to be deployed relentlessly.  The gospel is at its heart good news and therefore must be proclaimed.  This never changes.  The church’s work then is not to offer the world a better way of being religious; a better way of community building.  The unchanging truth is that Christ has given us news to announce and our religious life and community life are informed and normed by that which does not change.

The sermon, for example, attempts to communicate the unchanging gospel in terms of the constantly changing thought-forms and language of the world in which we find ourselves.  This isn’t one person’s responsibility; it belongs to us all.  As a preacher of the gospel I would enjoy having a research team made up of congregational members who would supply that grist for the mill of sermon writing that would help make the communication from this pulpit as effective as possible.

And it isn’t just sermon.  Music and prayer ministry can use this same sort of effort.  I believe that music needs to serve the congregation to pray and praise God.  We need believers of this current generation to give their instruments and music to lead us; voices and instruments of all kinds.  If our message is going to be heard by the young adults it seems astute that it be carried upon the musical sound that they hear and play.

The question is will we believers give our best resourcefulness to the announcement of this news Christ has given us to share.  Will we be as resourceful in our messaging as we see in the children of this world and their messaging?

Our cultural milieu is ever changing.  There was a time when Canada was Christian in many respects.  Churches operated in a society where Christian values were supported in public life.  We don’t live there anymore.  One church leader likened it to the sport of baseball; at one time every game was a home game for the church; they are all away-games now and not may are cheering for the church to win.  I am more and more of the conviction that what we call Western society is not so much a secular society but a pagan society filled with idols and false gods.

In that Christendom era, the church could afford to train people solely in skills for their private lives because they were not facing radically non-Christian values in their public lives.  Today we need to teach believers to “think Christianly” about everything and to act with gospel distinctiveness.  Believers need to know which cultural practices reflect common grace and should embraced, which are antithetical to the gospel and must be rejected, and which practices can be adapted and revised.

This fall we are taking up the study by N. T. Wright entitled Simply Christian in our church wide small group study; it is one angle of vision for this educational effort to think as a Christian in a world filled with false gods.  I commend it to you.

The parable of the dishonest manager; our Lord’s command that his people remain imaginatively, daringly resourceful in adapting and not adopting.  “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.”