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Adjusting the Bottom Line

22 Sep

(a sermon for September 22, 2019, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 16:1-13)

(A podcast version of this message can be found here)

Let’s just say this up front: our text for this morning is by no means “easy.” In fact, let’s just go with what a whole lot of biblical commentators over the centuries have confessed in one way or another: that of all of Jesus’ parables, this so-called story of the “Dishonest Manager,” is perhaps the most “notoriously difficult.”

And it’s easy to see why:  I mean what we’ve got here is a parable that’s chock full of immoral, unethical behavior from beginning to end!  We’ve got this property manager who’s called out on the carpet by his wealthy boss for “squandering his property” – presumably cheating said boss out of his money – and demands an audit of the books before he’s fired.  So this “dishonest manager,” realizing that his days are most certainly numbered, immediately goes into crisis mode (after all, he reasons, “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.”) and decides to go around to at least two of this master’s renters and tells them to reduce what it is they owe; this to ingratiate himself to these people so perhaps he might have a place to stay after he’s out of work!

So, basically what we have here is a shady character involved in some very shady dealings, a swindler engaged in the act of swindling his soon-to-be ex-boss, “adjusting the bottom line” to his own advantage and to save his own skin!  There’s nothing here  the least bit inspiring or commendable; this man is a scoundrel and most certainly a criminal, someone who if justice were served would be convicted of fraud and tossed into jail! And yet, it turns out that not only is the boss impressed with the guy’s shrewdness but worst of all, it seems, so is Jesus!  In fact, says Jesus to his disciples on the heels of this story, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” adding, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Or, as it’s paraphrased in The Message, “I want you to be smart in the same way” as this unjust, crooked manager!

And you and I, together with generations of biblical scholars and faithful disciples, are left with the same question:  what’s that all about?  What is Jesus even thinking here?  It’s bad enough for him to be suggesting that God’s people might have something to learn from such a criminal, but could Jesus really be suggesting that as his followers we ought to be engaging in such unethical, not to mention selfish, behavior?  It’s no wonder that there have been those biblical scholars over the centuries who have wondered aloud if Jesus actually did tell that particular parable, or if maybe, just maybe, Luke got it wrong in the telling!

I think, however, if we dig a little deeper into this parable, and Jesus’ assessment of it, it actually makes a lot of sense.  And as so often is the case when we look at scripture, it comes down to language and context.  First of all, we need to understand that when we’re told that “charges” were brought against this manager, the Greek word there is probably better translated as “slandered,” which suggests that perhaps this manager wasn’t as dishonest as we were led to believe (granted, just about every Bible in the world refers to him as the “Dishonest Manager,” but it’s worth noting here that as often is the case with any accusation there might just be a rush to judgment… just sayin’!).  And the charge itself, that the manager had been “squandering” his property, in the Greek language has more to do with spreading it around rather than wasting it; literally in sense of sowing seed!  To quote Richard Swanson, could be that “the manager was investing.  Or he was diversifying.  Or he was stimulating the local economy.  Or he was making allies for his master against a time when allies would come in handy.”

Could be… or maybe not.  But can you see how a particular choice of words would serve to make a heretofore thoroughly dishonest manager a shrewd manager (oh, and by the way, the Greek word used for shrewd is phronimos, which also suggests wisdom and prudence)?

It’s also important for us to understand that Jesus tells this particular story immediately after he’s told a trio of other very familiar parables: that of the lost sheep, the lost coin and of course, the parable of the prodigal son.  Remember, those three stories were in response to the scribes and Pharisees grumbling and complaining that Jesus was welcoming tax collectors and sinners, of all people, and eating (!) with them (15:1-2).  So these stories about how God reaches out to those who are lost and draws them back into his loving embrace; about how even the worst of the worst and lowest of the low could be welcomed back home by the father who loved and forgave him actually flows very nicely into this next story about a supposed low-life criminal who is commended for his incredible shrewdness!  And isn’t it also interesting that the next thing Jesus says is a reminder to his disciples and to us that “whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much?”   Or, to quote The Message again, “If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?”

Kind of changes our whole reading of what Jesus is saying in this parable, doesn’t it?

No… I don’t think that Jesus is actually suggesting we go out into the world and seek to mismanage other peoples’ money for the sake of the Kingdom of God, nor is it for us to take undue and unfair advantage of a particular situation in which we find ourselves.  But it does seem to me that the point that Jesus is making here is that God calls us to make use of the resources that we’ve been given; to make an assessment of all that God has provided us, in trust, to care for and invest; doing the absolute best in whatever way we can with that which we’ve been given so that when that final day of accounting comes for us we also might be commended for our shrewdness, our prudence and our wisdom.

If that all still sounds a bit suspect, let me put this another way: in a world that ever seems to be shifting beneath our feet, it would seem to me that a greater sense of responsibility as regards our faith is paramount in importance.  In this seemingly outrageous parable of Jesus we are being admonished that in times of crisis, when all the other securities of this life have either fallen short or crumbled altogether, our actions as God’s people need to be decisive, bold, creative and above all, faithful, even if some personal risk is involved; because the future, as uncertain as it might seem, is ever and always God’s future, and we who would call ourselves believers are stewards of it.  The steward in the parable takes a rather precarious and bleak situation and works with it; he  wheels and deals and does whatever he can, “adjusting the bottom line,” literally and in faith that somehow, someway some good will come out of it.  Likewise, you and I are called to take what we have, this treasure which is the hope and love and peace and joy of God Almighty, working with it in and through all the joys and challenges of this life that by our efforts and God’s grace, it will become transformed into something sacramental and miraculous.

This is what Jesus is getting at, and it’s a crucial understanding of the Christian life for you and me, and a challenge as well. Maybe it’s not tantamount to the shady dealings of a soon- to-be unemployed property manager… but the point is, if he was able to do this why can’t you and I, as the children of God and stewards of something infinitely precious, show the same vigor and determination in preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom?  Likewise, if you and I who seek to follow Christ cannot use to our best advantage the resources of this life and this world, then how can we ever be expected to be good managers – that is, good stewards – of the true riches to which God wants to entrust us?

I think that what all this means for us in these days of confused and challenging situations is that now, perhaps more than ever, where our lives as Christians and as the church is concerned it can never be “business as usual,” if in fact there ever was such a time.  As stewards of all that God has given us in such abundance, we can no longer merely rest on a safe and easy “bottom line;” that is settling for a “warm and fuzzy faith,” basking in what’s comfortable and easy and convenient about our relationship with God, daring not to risk ourselves on what one Celtic hymn refers to as “the steep and rugged pathway,” the way which requires from us courage and some struggle, not to mention wisdom and prudence.  Our bottom line needs adjusting, friends; we need to be stirred out of the comfort zone that keeps us from being bold stewards of God’s future.  And that’s true for us both individually and collectively: you have often heard me say from this pulpit what I’ve long believed, that the best thing that the Church can do in these times is to actually be the Church; well, I’d like to add to that.  If we truly hear Jesus’ words in this parable, perhaps the best thing we can do right now as the Church – and each one of us here as part of that sacred body – is to be all that we can be… and more.

Of course, along with being bold and courageous and occasionally outrageous in doing so, we also must be… cautious.  Don’t forget here that Jesus makes the point of reminding us that “no slave can serve two masters,” because “you’ll either hate the first and love the second or adore the first and despise the second;” [The Message] all this to say that you can’t love God and wealth, any more than you can employ the ways and means of the world in your faith without risking becoming sucked into that kind of a life rather than one that’s wholly centered on Christ and his kingdom… so maybe Jesus wasn’t advocating the life of a scoundrel, after all (and also, by the way, if you read the next verses in Luke, you discover that the scribes and Pharisees, “who were lovers of money,” ridiculed Jesus for what he was saying about this… which just sort of proves Jesus’ point)!  The point is to be bold, yes; but it matters how… and that’s what you and I need to remember as we seek to live out the ways of God’s purpose and plan in this life.

I remember how, on the days following 9/11, a few of us who were pastors in our community decided to hold an ecumenical prayer service in the aftermath of that horrible day.  As I recall it now, it all pretty impromptu,  there was little or no time to promote it, and really, we weren’t at all sure what we were going to do or say once we got there!  But word got around, and come the evening of the service, that sanctuary – which was at the Catholic Church, the largest in town – was filled to overflowing – standing room only, fact (!) – with just about every congregation in town represented and including a whole lot of people who’d rarely, if ever, had darkened the doorway of a church until that night.  It was surprising and humbling, to say the least; and what I will always remember is that our host pastor, a wonderful priest by the name of Fr. Jim Morrison, stood before these literally hundreds of people who’d come out that night and simply said, “Well, at least one good thing has come out of these terrible events.  It got us all together.”  We were together… in faith, in fellowship and above all in prayer… and we sang and we wept and we embraced one another in that moment as one people of God, relying on the power and grace of God to sustain and lead us. It was a truly holy moment, one that I know with every fiber of my being was good, and right, and acceptable to God.

It’s often said that on 9/11, the world changed forever, but the truth is that our world is always shifting and changing; and so are we in our lives and living. Each new day, each new event, each new change brings with it a new challenge for you and me as people of faith.  But whatever happens, whatever changes come our way, one thing remains the same:  God’s future is sure and God’s kingdom is forever.  And because of this, we can move into God’s future with hope, confidence and strength.

So let us not be afraid to adjust the bottom line of our lives in faith, proclaiming this sure and certain hope boldly with wisdom and all shrewdness that we might be entrusted with the true riches. Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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