Following the lectionary is a gift, in that it ensures we hear the full story of God from creation to new creation. But it’s also a challenge, in that it requires us to preach from certain texts that we would just as soon skip over, than take the time to wrestle with their meaning. This week’s gospel passage—the parable of the dishonest manager—is one of those texts that, if I were to be honest, I would prefer to skip over. Many scholars consider this to be the most difficult parable in Luke and based on a plain reading of the text, I would tend to agree. But regardless of the difficulty, this too is the Word of God that is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). So we ask for God’s grace, dig in, and do the good work to which we have been called as ministers of the gospel.
Beyond the general theme of wealth and responsibility found throughout Ch. 16, if you read any two commentaries on this passage you likely will find two different interpretations of the parable. Given the lack of consensus, your approach to this passage obviously will be shaped by the particular arguments that you find to be compelling—as a point of reference, I find John Nolland in the Word Biblical Commentary series to be particularly helpful. In your own study, however, you may not find the same arguments to be as compelling as I did. Nevertheless, hopefully some of this essay will still stir your imagination and contribute in some way to your sermon preparation even if our approaches go in different directions at certain points.
The passage begins with the parable itself in vv. 1-8. The manager, for some reason, has been deemed by his master unfit for the task. Reputation is everything in the culture of that day. To be dismissed under these circumstances certainly would have done irreparable damage to the manager’s reputation. His career as a manager, it would seem, has come to an end. However, it’s apparent this man has put all his professional “eggs” in the management “basket” and has no other marketable skills on which to fall back. Faced with this reality, the manager springs into action using his skills as a manager to make deals that will benefit him in the future and provide for him even after he no longer is employed.
What is interesting about the parable is that the master “commended the dishonest manager” for his actions even though they likely had a negative impact on the master’s bottom line. Perhaps the master was impressed that the manager was finally acting like a manager! Had the manager cared for his master’s wellbeing with the same level of urgency and creativity, as when his own wellbeing was at stake, then perhaps the manager would still have a job. So it is with those who belong to the kingdom of God. We have been entrusted with the resources of God’s kingdom. Will we act on behalf of the kingdom with the same sense of urgency and creativity as if our own personal wellbeing depended on it?
While the rest of the passage continues the theme of wealth and responsibility, Nolland (WBC) sees this next section (vv. 9-13) as distinct from the preceding parable. While the two sections are related by the general theme, they are not necessarily directly connected with each other. Nolland sees a more specific line of reasoning introduced beginning with v. 9. To understand this shift, first we have to unpack what the NSRV translates as “dishonest wealth.” Given the previous actions of the dishonest manager, our initial tendency is to read “dishonest wealth” as that which is obtained through dishonest actions. It seems unlikely, however, that Jesus would encourage his followers to engage in such actions. Another way to interpret “dishonest wealth” is wealth obtain through the dishonest systems of this world. In other words, all wealth is considered “dishonest” because the economic systems of this present age are inherently corrupted. But this “dishonest wealth” doesn’t imply willfully dishonest actions by individuals. It simply is shorthand for the wealth and resources at our disposal in this lifetime, as opposed to the riches of God’s kingdom to come.
A shift in perspective also takes place in v. 9. While the parable is set in a present context, v. 9 ends with a reference to “eternal homes.” The point that Jesus is looking to make is not only concerned with the here and now but has an eye toward eternity. The consequences of our actions have a foot both in the present age and the age to come. An admonition regarding the use of one’s wealth in combination with a reference to the eternal brings to mind the story of the rich man and Lazarus that ends Ch. 16. Indeed, Nolland argues that v. 9 is an allusion to the rich man and Lazarus story. The “friends” Jesus has in view as those with which we are to make “by means of dishonest wealth,” are none other than the poor among us.
If we follow this line of reasoning in v. 9, then reading vv. 10-13 through the lens of our wealth and responsibility as it relates to our relationship to the poor and its eternal implications, has a much sharper focus than if we try to read these verses back into the preceding parable.
At its core, the teachings in vv. 10-13 are about the inward motivation of the disciple. Verse 11 gives us a hint as to what the “very little” and “much” are in v. 10. The “very little” is the “dishonest wealth”—the worldly resources at our disposal—while the “much” are the “true riches”—that which has true value in the kingdom of God. If you are faithful with your worldly resources then it stands to reason you will be faithful with the true riches of God’s kingdom. But if you are dishonest with your worldly resources then it also stands to reason that you will be dishonest with the riches of God’s kingdom.
I often hear the question asked, “What would you do with $1 million?” Regardless of what people may say, the reality is they likely will do the same thing they are doing with the resources they already have, just on a larger scale. If someone already is a disciplined saver, then they likely will save and invest that money for the future. If someone already is in the habit of spending every cent of their discretionary income on “toys,” they likely will do the same with $1 million (much bigger toys, of course). If someone consistently tithes and gives to organizations that provide social services to the poor and marginalized, there is a good chance they will do the same with $1 million.
Our inward motivation and disposition plays a significant role in our actions. We may be able to suppress our motivations from time to time, but eventually they will always show through our actions. And our motivations are no more evident than in the way we utilize our resources—regardless of how small or large our bank balance. Whether we like it or not, Jesus seems to be taking this very seriously. If you are faithful with a little, you will be faithful with much. But if you have not been faithful with a little, who in their right mind is going to entrust you with more? It’s as if Jesus asks, “why would I entrust you with the kingdom of God when you have not done what I commanded with the resources you already have—resources that are almost worthless compared to the true riches of the kingdom?”
Time for a quick detour… A prized skillset that has emerged over the past few decades is the ability to multitask. It seems those who have this ability to engage in multiple activities in quick succession are held up as super efficient and productive people. However, new research over the past several years is beginning to debunk the “myth of multitasking.” Neuropsychology is finding that our brains are actually more efficient and are able to learn and retain information better when there is a singular focus. When we bounce from task to task, there is a reorientation process that has to occur in our brain before we can begin the new task, thus slowing down the overall process. And this bouncing back and forth can, at times, have a long-term affect on our ability to focus for an extended length of time on even a single task.
Despite the complexity of the first twelve verses of the chapter, Jesus ends with a very unambiguous admonition, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” In other words, you can’t multitask! We are lying to ourselves if we think we can bounce back and forth between serving God and wealth when it is convenient. No matter what we say, the reality is we can only serve one master. We can only have one motivation, one disposition. We cannot turn toward God and turn toward our self at the same time. The teachings of Jesus in vv. 9-13 provide us a kind of litmus test to determine whether our disposition is turned toward God or self. Jesus is saying, “show me how you have used your material resources to help the poor and marginalized and I’ll show you whether you’re a slave to God or a slave to wealth.”
This of course is not to say that wealth itself is an issue. If money is used for the good of others, then it is a tool used to carry out the work of our master. In service to God, material resources can be used by kingdom-citizens to enact the very hospitality, compassion, and justice of the kingdom of God. It’s when the purpose of money becomes self-gratification, that we slowly become enslaved to it as our motivation and disposition turn from God to self.
As Jesus concludes this passage, he certainly is not mixing words. Some may find the passage a bit troubling in that it could sound like those who do not show concern for the poor through the faithful use of their resources may miss out on the kingdom of God (“who will entrust to you the true riches?”). In order to avoid sounding like works-righteous, we may be tempted to water down the serious tone of Jesus’ admonition. We may be tempted to say something like, Jesus won’t really take away the kingdom from you if you are a slave to money. After all, we are saved by grace through faith, right? While that is true, let us not forget the vivid example waiting for us next week, the consequences of someone who neglected the poor sitting at his very doorstep.