Sermon for 19 September 2010
Luke 16: 1-13
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the foremost theologians of the 20th century, wrote in his book, ‘A Testament to Freedom’, “One simply cannot read the Bible like other books. We must be prepared to question it. Only in this way is it revealed to us.” Some people would find those words startling, but I find them reassuring. Sometimes the Bible presents us with such puzzling ideas that we cannot help but question the meaning. Today’s gospel passage with the parable of the dishonest manager is a good example. What is Jesus teaching his disciples?
Most often we concentrate on the words at the very end of the passage. “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Is this as straightforward as it sounds? If you serve God, you cannot be wealthy. If you serve the god of wealth, you do not serve God. Therefore, the wealthy are godless and only the poor are God’s people. We all know that is far too great a generalization. Unfortunately, scandals of fraud and greed in the business and investment world confirm that some people serve the god of wealth regardless of the harm caused to others, but we know that dishonesty, greed and miserliness can be found at any level of society.
The criticism of wealth in this gospel is consistent with the attitude toward wealth in the writings of St. Luke. In Luke’s time, people believed that wealth could only be obtained by making other people poor. Since few people were wealthy and many people were poor, wealth was synonymous with cold-hearted greed. Luke writes about wealthy people as godless because they seem aloof to the suffering of others.
We may say to ourselves, ‘I’m not wealthy, so this parable does not apply to me’, but is this parable of Jesus really about money and material possessions? Jesus says, “whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you true riches?” What are these true riches? What does Jesus mean? From the way Jesus lived his life, we might guess that true riches for him can be summed up in love for God and love for our neighbours. True riches are justice, love and compassion. With this parable, it may be that Jesus is teaching his disciples about the true riches of life as opposed to the superficial success of material wealth.
At first, the parable is puzzling. Why does the dishonest manager receive praise from his master? Jesus often turned conventional wisdom upside down. His disciples would expect him to criticize the dishonesty of the manager who falsified financial record and cheated his employer. In our society, we would expect such a person to be charged in court and punished. The dishonest manager seems to succeed in avoiding punishment and in providing a comfortable future for himself.
However, he might be welcomed into the homes of grateful debtors, but would he ever be trusted? Jesus says, “if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” In other words, who will be generous to this dishonest manager? Who will show him respect and compassion knowing that he is shrewd and self-serving? The dishonest manager may believe that he has a secure future, but the cost may be his integrity.
I wonder if Jesus is being ironic in this parable. He says, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” ‘The children of light’ is a Hebrew phrase describing those who live according to God’s commandments. Perhaps Jesus is saying that if you desire wealth and success in the world, learn the ways of the world, but if you want to walk in God’s way, you may find yourself outside worldly society. God asks for honesty, compassion and generosity, which worldly people often consider naïve. It depends on what you believe is valuable in life.
There is great wisdom in this parable, but we need to dig deeply to uncover the layers of meaning. The parable is not only about the temptations of wealth to turn us away from God, the parable is about the mistaken belief that we can shut God out of our lives and shrewdly take care of ourselves, justifying whatever means we use by pointing to our own success. Jesus is guiding his disciples toward the true riches in life – the riches of integrity, justice, compassion and love.
In our baptismal covenant, we renounce all that draws us away from God and we turn toward God through the guidance of Jesus. We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbours as ourselves. We promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We make those promises, but always we remember that we need God’s help.
We all want to be successful in life, to enjoy accomplishments and to have respect and love for others. Those are good goals, but often we need to ask ourselves if we have invited God to be with us and whether we are willing to be guided by the wisdom of Jesus. Amen.