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. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 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.” 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. 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. ‘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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
Having just given us one of Jesus’s best known and loved stories, Luke now turns to his most puzzling! What on earth are we to make of it?
I’ve noticed one word that is central to both stories: “squander”. The son in the first story could have used his premature inheritance more carefully, and perhaps built bridges with his hurt father. Instead he blew it all. And here we find the manager, acting as middle man between patron and clients who are uncomfortable dealing directly with one another, destroying his chances of a good and steady income. Both central characters face the same dilemma of how to put things right.
Only in this case, it’s hard to think that the wronged party is going to be in a forgiving mood. That’s not the way the world of finance and business usually works! And even if Jesus’s hearers were peasants unlikely to side with the rich man, they can surely see that the manager’s so-called shrewdness is really dishonesty. And that the debtors are every bit as bad as the manager himself.
But what does Jesus say? “Make friends by means of dishonest wealth.” There surely has to be irony here. And since he compares the “children of this age” with the “children of light”, it’s pretty clear that manager, debtors and the rich man himself are all tarred with the same brush. It’s leading up to the conclusion we all dread: we can’t serve God and serve wealth.
It’s hard to get all the nuances of the text, but we shouldn’t miss the little detail of what happens if we do try to make friends through “dishonest wealth”. There’s the promise of being welcomed into “the eternal homes” – only note that the word translated “homes” is really “tents” . And even with today’s best water-proofing and UV blocker materials, tents don’t last for ever!
Good and generous God help us not to squander our richest opportunities in life. Beyond the conflicting claims of this world may we glimpse the promises that do not fade and give of our very best in serving you. Amen
The Rev’d John Durell, retired minister and member of Waddington Street URC, Durham