The words that we heard from Jesus today are really confusing. Churches all over the world use the same lectionary that we use and that means that countless pastors have looked at those words of Jesus. Many of them looked and then decided to preach on one of the other readings for the day. The teaching of Jesus that we heard in today’s Gospel is that challenging. So we have our work cut out for us this morning.
The problem is that we who live in a twenty-first century western culture don’t really understand the community dynamics in first century Israel. Jesus told of a manager who worked for a wealthy landowner. Jesus didn’t tell the exact crime, but this manager committed some kind of a firing offense … fraud … embezzlement … whatever. Now, in order to ingratiate himself with his boss’s business associates, he brought them in one-at-a time and had them reduce their terms significantly. Now he did this after he was fired. Every transaction that he did was illegal. It’s just that his boss’s business associates didn’t know it yet. Then the landowner commended this manager for his shrewdness?! WHAT?!
In our culture, the landowner would quickly call the District Attorney and file a complaint. The manager would soon be in jail. All the transactions would be null and void. Nothing that this manager did would work out. The landowner would most certainly not commend him for anything.
The key to the difference is the difference in cultures. First century Israel was an honor / shame culture. Honor was more valuable than wealth. A person would rather suffer bankruptcy than endure any shame. The community even viewed the shame of dying on a cross as worse than the suffering and death of the cross. Death before dishonor was a literal way of life. So how does this apply to the parable that Jesus told?
[Jesus] said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’” (Luke 16:1–2) The rich man knew that the community had accurately reported the mismanagement of this manager. The nature of the mismanagement is not important. We simply need to know that it was serious enough to have the manager fired. The rich man fired the manager and told him to bring in his accounts so that he could assign them to a manager who would be honest with them.
“And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’” (Luke 16:3–4) Here Jesus simply informed His hearers that this manager was no longer able to make a living in any other way so he had to come up with a desperate scheme simply in order to survive.
“So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’” (Luke 16:5–7) In each case, the value of the reduction was about five hundred days’ wages.
Now there are a few things we should note about these transactions. First of all, they are entirely illegal, but the debtors don’t know it yet. That is the reason the manger called on them one-by-one. If he called them all in together, they might think that something was up.
Second of all, the debtors were not suspicious. This indicates that this sort of bill reduction was something that the wealthy landowner might do from time-to-time.
Third of all, although Jesus told about two of the debtors, the implication is that there were others. These two were merely examples of what the manager did.
In the meantime, the community began to believe that these reductions came straight from the wealthy landowner himself. They began to praise his generosity. In modern terms, his poll numbers went up. His popularity and therefore his honor increased. Soon the whole village was singing his praise.
The manager had the landowner in a bind. If the landowner rolled back the deals that the manager had made, his popularity and honor would crash and burn. The landowner would rather take the financial hit than lose all that honor. Furthermore, if the landowner told anyone about how this manager had outsmarted him, he would also look foolish and lose honor. When the manager went looking for work elsewhere in the area, no one would learn about his mismanagement from the landowner.
“The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” (Luke 16:8) In the end, this manager was still a crook, but he was a smart crook. The landowner did not praise him for his integrity. The landowner still knew that he was a crook. Instead, the landowner acknowledged his skill as a con artist. He had no choice but to admit that the dishonest manager knew him well. He knew that that landowner valued his reputation as a generous and merciful lord above all his wealth.
The point that Jesus made is not about the criminal scheme of the manager. Instead, it is about the character of the landowner. The landowner is very honorable, generous, and merciful. So much so that the manager could stake his life on it.
Now, if this unrighteous manager can rely on the generosity and mercy of the wealthy landowner, how much more can we rely on the generosity and mercy of God? The unrighteous manager knew that he did not have the ability to save himself. Instead, he had to rely on the character of the wealthy landowner. The unrighteous manager gambled his entire future well-being on the character of the landowner. So, we can also rely on the honor, generosity, and mercy of God.
We can readily see the mercy and generosity of God in that the Son of God came to this world to take our place under the law. Jesus lived a perfect life of utmost honor. He did absolutely nothing to bring shame on himself or on His Father in heaven. Never the less, He surrendered His honor for the shame of death on a cross. In the most unfair transaction of all time, the Son of God took all our shame to Himself and gave His honor to us.
But He did not remain in the shame of death by crucifixion, but He was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead. (Romans 1:4) Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11) Jesus Christ has risen from the shame of His death and ascended into heaven where He now rules all things in infinite honor. He has promised all those who believe in Him that they shall be where He is.
In the parable that Jesus told, the crooked manager said, “Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty,” and “Take your bill, and write eighty.” (Luke 16:6–7) Jesus Christ does not look at our debt of sin and say, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ He does not even say, ‘Take your bill, and write fifty.’ The moment before He died on the cross, He said, “It is finished!” In the original Greek the phrase, “It is finished!” is just one word, τετέλεσται. This word also has another meaning. When a merchant wrote τετέλεσται on a bill, it meant “paid in full.” When we sit down with our merciful Lord and He looks at our debt of sin, and, He says, “I have died for that. Take your bill, and write paid in full!” Amen
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