Today's Gospel is a challenge. Many scholars consider it to be the hardest parable to understand in the Bible. If we read it too quickly, we might think that Jesus actually commends theft. After all, Jesus tells us that this manager robbed his boss of several hundred gallons of olive oil and several hundred bushels of wheat. Furthermore, we get the impression that these were just two examples of the steps this steward took to ingratiate himself with his boss' business partners. Surely he managed more than two accounts for his boss. Yet, at the end of the story, his boss praises him for being shrewd. This seems especially out of character when we look at today's Old Testament lesson from Amos that condemns people for cheating in the market.
One of the things we can do to clarify the meaning of today's Gospel is try to eliminate the differences between the twenty-first century western culture and first century Middle Eastern culture. A time difference of almost two millennia and a travel distance of thousands of miles can make a big difference in the way people think.
One of the great differences between our cultures is our attitude toward the individual. Our culture elevates individuality both in its fiction and in its history. We praise the self reliant pioneer who settled the west. We tell stories about the Lone Ranger - the hero who rode silently off into the sunset. Even in our team sports we tend to elevate the individual. Many of us remember Joe Namath, but how many remember the center who reliably snapped the ball to him? How many of us remember the rest of the line who protected Joe so that he could get off those passes? How many of us remember the rest of the team that made it possible for the Jets to win the Super Bowl? No matter how hard we try to promote team work, our culture values individual achievement even more.
The attitude in the first century Middle East was just about the opposite. Family and community were more important than the individual. People thought about how to bring honor to their extended family and community. People took comfort in knowing their place in the family and community structure. Although the culture understood that God created every individual in His image, those individuals were to gather together and promote family and community. Thus we expect the citizens of first century Israel to seek out honor even before they seek out wealth and power.
When Jesus introduced the wealthy man at the beginning of the parable, His listeners would understand that this man would use his wealth to bring honor to his family. The manager also should be seeking to bring honor to his family and to his master. The problem is that the manager is at best incompetent and at worst a shameless thief. The rich man has to fire him. 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.'
The manager's poor work habits not only cost him his livelihood, but also brought shame on his family. Now he had to find another source of income. Unfortunately, he is too weak for manual labor and begging would bring even more shame on his family. Finally, the manager came up with a very daring and risky plan.
If he could get to his boss' business associates before his termination became public knowledge, he could make points with them so that they would owe him. Then he could live on their good will until he could get back on his feet. He quickly called them in and reduced their bills. He had to do it quickly so that they would believe that he was still acting as an agent for his old boss.
Now here is where the cultural difference comes in. If this were to happen today in our culture, we would call in all the business associates and tell them that this manager had been terminated and was no longer allowed to act for us. Therefore the reductions were null and void. Everybody would go home grumbling and the manager would probably go to jail.
In first century Israel, a man who could not control his employees would lose face and bring shame on his family. It would not be good for the rich man's family if it became public knowledge that this manager had swindled him. Secondly, it is very shameful to take back a gift. Therefore this rich man could not go back to his business associates and take back the reductions without bringing shame on his family. The only thing the rich man can do is ratify the debt reduction and reap the honor associated with being a generous and forward thinking land owner.
In a way, the dishonest manager forced his boss to show mercy to his business associates. In the end, both the manager and his boss come out looking good to the community. The rich man must give credit where credit is due. This manager had taken a big risk on a daring plan and pulled it off. He had to commend him for his shrewdness. Does that mean that he wanted this manager back on the payroll? I don't think so.
The point that Jesus wanted His disciples to catch was that the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. The "sons of this world" are unbelievers and "the sons of light" are those who believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus is telling us that the unbelievers work much harder at spreading sin than the believers do at telling the story of salvation.
We see this in the news every day. The world pursues its sinful goals with an incredible devotion. Consider the intricate planning it takes to smuggle illegal drugs into this country. Think of the incredible skill it takes to hack into the computer network of a bank, an airline, or even the Pentagon. What about the billions of dollars that hard working citizens pay to the entertainment industry in order to satisfy a lust for the corrupt things of this world? Sometimes people will even camp out on the street over night just to get a ticket to an event that will corrupt their soul. People will work day and night to earn their way into hell.
On the other hand, many of us who say we believe and hold God and His Word to be beyond price - who say with our mouths that faith in Jesus Christ is the one and only key to eternal life - remain unproductive in divine matters. We are apathetic and negligent even though we know that God has served us with the life and death of His Son. Some of us are actually bored by the message that all who believe in Jesus Christ will have eternal life.
The rich man in today's story had to be tricked into being merciful. God is already merciful - in His very nature. The manager in today's story had to come up with a scheme to save himself financially. God's plan of salvation was already in place when the world began. Both the rich man and the manager were struggling to keep their honor in today's story. Jesus Christ surrendered His honor for the shame of death on a cross. The rich man commended the manager for his shrewdness. God the Father commended Jesus for His perfect life and sacrificial death. The manager saved himself financially. Jesus Christ saved us eternally.
[Philippians 2:9-11] God has highly honored Jesus and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
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. This is good news and an honor beyond all honors. I wonder what would happen if we confessed this faith with the same enthusiasm that the world denounces it. Amen.
Please quote from my sermons freely. I expect people to copy my sermons or I wouldn't put them on a site like this. I only ask that you quote accurately if you attribute anything to me.
Should you decide to contact me, I would be very interested in knowing where you are. Please include the name of your city, state or province, and country when contacting me.
Send James T. Batchelor an email.