Wait, What Did Jesus Say?

Scripture: Luke 16:1-15

For Hollywood actors one of the biggest double edged swords is getting typecast.  An actor is typecast when they become known for a certain type of role so directors and producers only want to put the performer in that role.  On the one hand it can be good because producers will quickly look for a typecast actor when they need to fill a specific role, but it is bad because it creates severely limited options.  Often actors will seek to push against being typecast with mixed results.  It seems that if an actor wants to push against typecast then the best way to do it is get cast in a Batman project, because for whatever reason Batman breaks typecasting.  For instance, in 1989 Michael Keaton played the role.  Up to this point all of Keaton’s successful roles had been in comedies and there were some real questions if he would be able to portray the dark knight, but his performance became a fan favorite.   In the 1990s, Mark Hamill had a hard time getting cast in movies because he had so successfully portrayed Luke Skywalker that directors and producers could see him as little else.  Hamill found a way around this by focusing on voice acting, and after Luke Skywalker his second best known role is arguably the Joker.  Since the mid 90’s, if there is an animated Batman project then Hamill has become the go-to person to voice the clown prince of crime.  Then in what many consider to be the best Batman movie, the 2008 Dark Knight, Heath Ledger had his turn at playing the Joker.  Before being cast in the role of the villain, Ledger had mostly played roles in romantic comedies.  Going against typecasting is always a risk, but for whatever reason Batman projects seems to be a safe way to do it.

There are not any caped crusaders in this morning’s scripture, but this morning’s parable really does seem to break against typecasting.   In our wider culture Jesus is often cast as a “great moral teacher”, yet in this morning’s scripture Jesus seems to be applauding dishonesty as clever shrewdness.  When an actor breaks typecasting it can be a big risk, but when it works it often creates some of the most memorable performances.  In the same way this scripture goes against what we normally expect of Jesus and it can strike us as a bit confusing because of that.   Unpacking this parable we see it is about how we faithfully use what God has entrusted us with.

Because this morning’s scripture goes so against type for the type of parables Jesus tells, it is one that has troubled biblical scholars for generations and there is not a lot of agreement.  The question of this scripture is did Jesus really lift up an act of dishonesty as commendable?   The answer depends based on the two leading interpretations of this scripture.

The storyline of this scripture is that there was a wealthy landowner who instead of micromanaging the use of his land, entrusted it to a steward or manager.  The parable seems to also imply some sort of sharecropping arrangement.   Farmers worked the land and for the right to do so owed the owner a portion of the harvest.  It also seems that the owner’s cut was steep.  A single olive tree is capable of producing roughly a gallon a year, so if the one farmer owed the owner 900 gallons that means they were working a truly large plantation or giving the majority of the crop to the owner.

While we are not given the details in the story, this wealthy landowner has reason to believe that the manager was not doing a great job.  Knowing that he was about to be fired and knowing that he did like his future prospects, Jesus tells us this manager devised a plan to gain favor with the farmers who owed the land owner.   This is where biblical scholars disagree upon what is happening here.  The most straight forward interpretation is that the manager is slashing what the debtors owe, cheating the land owner, but getting on the right side of the people he did a favor for.

Another theory is that that goods owed were a debt, so season after season the farmer would use a portion of the product to pay down the debt owed.   In this theory, the landowner charged interest and the manager is cutting off that portion so that the debtors only had to pay back the original amount.   In this interpretation the manager is not cheating the manager but instead making stuff right.  The third understanding that some bring to this parable is that the manager is cutting his commission.   The thought here is that the manager’s income was a portion of what was collected and he was cutting out his take.  In essence, the manager was sacrificing potential income to make friends and get on the good side of the debtors.

These second two interpretations of the parable are enticing because it seems to give us an out.  It lets us read the parable in a way where what the manager is doing might actually be good.  However, as R. Allen Cullpepper points out in his commentary that is part of the new Interpreter’s Bible, “The simplest solution and the one that gives the parable the greatest punch, is to take the first alternative: The steward is dishonest.”

The parable ends with Jesus having the land owner commends the steward for his dishonesty and celebrates him as shrewd.  This message does seem to go against type for Jesus, it does seem to life up a message that is antithetical to Jesus’ normal message.  That would be true if Jesus stopped at verse 8.  Normally in the gospels Jesus tells a parable and does not give any further explanation, it is left to the hearer or reader to reflect upon it.   The way that Jesus really goes against type in this morning’s scripture, is that he explains the parable.  The further explanation that Jesus gives shows that while the land owner commends the dishonest manager that does not mean the dishonest manager is an example worth following.   As Jesus explains why this is the case in verses 8-13 I think there are three main points that are extremely relevant to us today.

If the dishonest manager is not an example we should follow, then that leads to the question why was he commended as shrewd?  The most straightforward answer is that the land owner himself is also dishonest.  Jesus immediately concludes the parable by saying, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”  Jesus makes it clear that the land owner commends the dishonest manager, because game recognizes game.  Jesus immediately makes the distinction between the people of the light that is the people who seek to live righteous, and those who do not because this parable illustrates that the world tries to blend those lines.  In this parable dishonesty is commended, and Jesus points out that even though that happens it is not a good thing and it is something to look out for.   Similar practices happen today.   Corporations and wealthy people find all kinds of ways to dodge taxes, exploit loopholes, and avoid paying their fair share.  There are no shortage of questionable business pundits who instead of calling out this behavior as dishonest will praise the dodge practices as smart business.  Perhaps one of the main points that Jesus is making in this parable is illustrating that because of a love of money, the world celebrates dishonest practices but as followers of the light we should walk a different path.

Second, as Jesus explains this parable, he hits on a theme that is common in many of his teachings.  In the kingdom of God success is measured differently than it is in the world.   It is the way of the world that more is better, and whoever has the most is the winner.  Yet in verses 10 and 11 Jesus makes clear quality is far more important that quantity.  Jesus said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will be dishonest with much.  So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth who will trust you with true riches?”

The land owner commended the dishonest manager, because the dishonest manager focused only on the end result, but the point Jesus makes is that integrity matter.   It is more important that we are righteous in our action and dealings, and less important how successful we are by worldly standards.   This is important, because this is a message that our culture still presses hard against.  It is still a common line of thinking in our current culture that being poor is due to a moral failing.  It is not hard to find people who will make this claim.  For instance a 2019 study found that Americans believe the leading cause of poverty is due to poor life choices over any other factor.  The flipside to this belief then, is that wealth collection must be a virtue due to shrewdness and hard work.  The message of our culture is that being wealthy is a virtue and that being poor is a failing, but that is not what Jesus states.  It is not about what we have, it is about how we use it.    Wealth for the sake of wealth is not a virtue in the kingdom of God, our worth is not measured by the number of zeroes in our bank account but by how we use what we have to bless others, meet the needs of others, and glorify God.

One of the reasons why this parable is against type for Jesus is because he tells a story not to illustrate what we should do or what the kingdom of God is like, but rather this is a story about what not to do.  As Jesus explains the parable he makes this clear especially when he gets to his final point, “You cannot serve both God and money.”  When we serve God we value compassion and looking to the needs of others, just as God does for us.   When we serve money we value shrewdness and making sure we are taken care of.   When we serve God then wealth is just another gift like our time or talents that we can use to share the good news or make the world a more kind and loving place, but when we serve money then we are very concerned about getting and keeping what we consider to be ours.

When we consider what it likes to love God as opposed to money, we only need to look to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement.  John Wesley was an extremely pragmatic individual.  Fairly early in his professional life calculated what he needed as a livable income, and he donated excess to charitable causes.   John Wesley was very wise in how he used, saved, and invested money so his means grew.   However, he continued to live off what he calculated as his livable income.  At the height of Wesley’s career he earned what would equate to 1.4 million in a year.    He lived on 2% of that (about 28,000) and gave the rest a way.   He tithed 98% of his income!  He used the rest to fund orphanages, missions, hospitals, and other projects that shared the love of God.  John Wesley was extremely efficient in doing this to the point, that when he died his worldly wealth consisted of a few odd and end coins and two silver spoons, he had given away the rest.

By the standards of the world, John Wesley would not have been considered very shrewd or wise, but that is the point.  Not all of us can make working living off of two percent work, but all of us can be faithful with what we have been entrusted with.  Instead of loving money our heart can love God.  When we allow our love of God to be what dictates how we use our worldly wealth, then we are being faithful with little and we are showing that we God can entrust us with things that matter far more than money.

In this morning’s scripture Jesus tells an odd parable that goes against type in a lot of ways, but it is a parable that’s ultimate point is well in line with the teachings of Jesus.   May we follow those teachings.  May we reject the message of the world that says more is better, but may we instead be faithful with what God has entrusted with.   May our lives be marked by decisions that show when it comes to God and money.  We have chosen our master, we have chosen the one we will love.   And May our lives show that we have not chosen the almighty dollar, but instead we have chosen the Almighty Father who sits on his heavenly throne with all honor, glory, and power, now and forever. Amen and Amen.

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