Last minute lectionary (Proper 20C / Ordinary 25C / Pentecost +18)


“Last minute lectionary” is a series of brief thoughts on the week’s narrative lectionary reading.

Luke 16:1-13 (NIV)

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

16 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’

3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

6 “‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.

“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’

7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’

“‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.

“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’

8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

This week’s reading presents the challenge of being both difficult to interpret literally and difficult to spiritualise and use as a metaphor for something more palatable than money. But when you read the parable end to end and understand it in context – wedged as it is between the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11-31) and the story about Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) – you realise there’s a greater thread running through these teachings: the disparity of wealth in this world, and the incarnational character of our faith.

If you’re a bookworm or a Reddit addict (ahem), then you understand the foolishness of trying to read while eating, especially if the book is large or unyieldy. Actually eating falls by the wayside as you concentrate either on reading your book or on wrestling it into a position so that you can read it. Our relationship with money and possessions and our relationship with God seems to follow the same pattern: you can pursue both, certainly, but one always loses out, and it’s rarely money!

That’s the bottom line of this parable: Jesus was talking again about keeping hearts faithful to God in a world that can be ruthless in demanding its affections. But more than that, Jesus was also urging his followers to keep their heads in the world. Our faith is a “feet on the ground” kind of faith. While our hearts should pursue only God and his love, our heads are to action that love into the world, without forgetting which kingdom it is we’re working for.

We sometimes tend to view God’s kingdom as something removed, as something “after”. But earlier, in Luke 12:35-48, Jesus spent time teaching about the imminence of his return, the imminence of the kingdom of God. There he gave the same warning he gives his followers after the parable of the shrewd manager: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (v48b). Thus the kingdom of God is not something distant; it is something to be expected and lived for every (worldly) moment, and it’s in living this way (the way that Jesus did) that the kingdom “comes near”.

I think the questions we need to ask ourselves and our congregations with this parable is about priorities and motivation. I was recently discussing tithing with someone and she talked about how some of her co-workers considered tithing ten percent a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule. This got me thinking about tithing in general: ten percent is a relatively small sum; why do we feel we can give less or should give more? Either attitude suggests to me that money takes precedent and not God. God neither demands guilt nor supplication. These are patterns we fall into when our head space for the world outweighs our heart space for God.

But we might go further than that. This is an easy parable to push points across about tithing. But the harder questions to ask will be about those “true riches” in v11: how are we managing our abundance of grace, love and salvation? Are we stingy with it? Do we attach clauses to its distribution? Do we lend it out and charge interest? Are we “shrewd managers” with it – calling in debts because we still feel indebted? Inevitably how we manage these riches will determine how worldly riches are used, because it reveals our priorities and our motivation.

Blessings for your sermons.