16 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
Is there a parent who has never said to their teenager, “If you spent half the time doing the job that you spend avoiding, you’d be done by now”? Their creativity and enthusiasm for avoiding that lawn mower or those dirty dishes is truly noteworthy.
Perhaps they have something to us.
When we see the phrase, “rich man” in Luke, we instantly know that there’s trouble. A rich man tried to build bigger barns in order to hoard his abundant crops. A rich man had a poor, sick man sitting outside his gate, the dogs licking his wounds. When they both died, he couldn’t understand why the sick man, Lazarus, was seated at Father Abraham’s side and he wasn’t. The famous tax collector, Zacchaeus, had a come to a Jesus meeting with, well, Jesus, and repented. He vowed to use his money for the good of all.
So when we hear the phrase, “rich man,” in this parable, we can assume that the first hearers immediately thought of the wealthy “loan sharks” of that day. Their loans came at high interest rates (25% to 50%) and hidden charges. Eventually, many of them lost the land that had been in their family for generations. The rich men took it over for their own use, while the poor were forced off the land and ended up looking for work in the larger cities, usually with not much luck.
The rich got richer while the poor got poorer. Did you notice the amount of debt the two men owed? The rich got richer on the backs of the poor. Think today about high interest student loans or predatory pay day loans.
Meanwhile, the steward, who had probably added his own interest to the debts of those in his care, did something to get himself fired. For some reason he fell out of favor with the boss and had to do something quick.
To his credit, he was honest about his situation. He wasn’t strong enough to dig; he was too proud to beg. So he used his ingenuity to gain favor for himself for that day when he would be out of work. So he pulled them in one at a time and had each of them lower his debt by 20% to 50%. Perhaps it was the amount of his commissions. It’s hard to say, but he didn’t do it for that reason. He did it to curry favor.
So when the rich man perused the books and discovered the discrepancies, we expect that the steward would have been arrested. After all, that’s the way things work in the real world, don’t they? However, this is a parable and Jesus is telling it, so we know there’s a surprise on the horizon.
Sure enough, we learn that the rich man commended the steward. “That’s what the world is all about,” he said. “You don’t get anything for free. Everything has a cost. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Yep! That’s what makes the world go ’round. You may be fired, but you learned a big lesson. I have to hand it to you.”
And he brought his attention back to the books to figure out how to trick those illiterate peasants out of more money.
In 1961 the musical, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” began it’s long run on Broadway. J. Pierrepont Finch is a window washer, who gets hired by a major corporation. He starts in the mail room and works himself up to chairman of the board in two weeks. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Succeed_in_Business_Without_Really_Trying)
In one particular scene, Finch arrives at his desk a bit early, scatters papers all around his desk, fills his ash tray with used cigarettes and messes up his hair. When he hears the boss coming, he quickly sits down and pretends to be asleep at the desk. When the boss asks him what he’s doing, Finch apologizes profusely and explains that he spent the night at work working on a report. The boss is so impressed that he’s promoted, yet again.
Think about it. How might the world be a better place if Finch had used his talents and skills to advance the kingdom rather than himself?
When Jesus’ ministry first began, he read from the prophet Isaiah his mission statement: “to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)
So far in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has preached it, taught it, done it. Now he focuses in on that final line — the year of Lord’s favor. In other words, the Jubilee. That time every seven years when debts are released, when land is returned to the original owners, when no one is hungry or indebted.
Jesus is pointing out the toxic atmosphere of his day. The poor desperately need release. The rich thought they were rich because God had blessed them.
Jesus uses this to point at the kingdom. In the midst of unjust structures and unfair economic relationships, Jesus points out our mission as “children of light.” He points at the “children of this age” (like the steward) who are street smart and savvy about how the world works. “Learn from them, he says. Why are the poor getting poorer? Why are we graduating college students with a debt load of $100,000.00 or more? How are our buying decisions affecting the global market?
Jesus says, wise up! Just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean we’re not part of the problem. Wise up and learn so that you can use the wealth of this age to make life better for those bent under a crushing load of debt; who can’t make the ends meet no matter how hard they work?
Jesus also reminds us that those who are faithful in a little can be trusted with much more. And the opposite is true. And when we use the wealth of this world to make our part of the world just a little bit better, we reap a huge reward. More than that happily-ever-after reward of the after life. We can stand taller and see God’s Truth against the backdrop of greed and hubris and lies and deceit.
But we have to decide. Do we serve God or look out for ourselves? Do we hoard our talents and skills or use them to serve those bent under the pressure of poverty? Do we turn away from the hurting or reach out to help them?
We can’t really do both. One will tear us up while we accumulate worldly wealth. The other frees us up to live this life in joy.
Is it easy? Not necessarily. Am I suggesting you empty your check book into the coffers of the nearest homeless shelter? Not unless you want to be homeless yourself.
What I am suggesting is that we pick something that bugs us: poverty or a justice issue. Then get involved by bringing your best mind to the table and learning what the “children of this age” already know.
All glory and honor be to God.