Lectionary Reflection—18 September 2016
Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What’s this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’
“The household manager said to himself, ‘What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.’
“One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you’ll be welcomed into the eternal homes.
“Whoever’s faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who’s dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who’ll trust you with true riches? If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who’ll give you your own? No household servant can serve two masters. Either you’ll hate the one and love the other, or you’ll be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You can’t serve God and wealth.”
A lot of people misunderstand this passage. At first, some assume Jesus is telling us that God’s the “Master” in the story. The story, then, is about what God would have us to do with money and our relationship with the world of finance — that the best way to get ahead in this world is to take on the fraudulent characteristics of the business world. I don’t know about you, but that just doesn’t line up with the image of God Jesus paints in the Gospels. It’s just the opposite, in fact.
Another problem is the translation of the word αἰώνιος (aiōnios) as “eternal” in verse 9. Here, it seems that Jesus is saying that one might possibly buy oneself into “heaven” by following those “dishonest” business practices. Is that really what Jesus is saying?
Later on, Luke tells us —
The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus. He said to them, “You’re the ones who justify yourselves before other people, but God knows your hearts. What’s highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God” (verses 14-15; adapted).
Clearly, Jesus isn’t telling people to adopt dishonest business schemes to ensure they have an “eternal” home in heaven.
So what’s going on?
Before we can address this passage directly, we have to remember Jesus wasn’t talking to us. He was talking to his contemporaries, i.e., first century Israel. Israel had been given a vocation — to be the light of the world; to show the world what it looks like when people follow Yahweh, the world’s true God. All throughout the story in the Gospels, it seems quite clear to Jesus that Israel was failing in their mission. Instead of setting the world free, Israel was adding more bondage to it, especially among their own people.
And getting rich in the process.
The problem was that Israel’s leaders were acting a lot like the leaders of the rest of the world. They’d already adopted those dishonest practices. The Law stated that one couldn’t charge interest on loans:
Leviticus 25.35-37 (adapted): If one of your fellow Israelites faces financial difficulty and is in a shaky situation with you, you must assist them as you would an immigrant or foreign guest so that they can survive among you. Don’t take interest from them, or any kind of profit from interest, but fear your God so that your fellow Israelite can survive among you. Don’t lend a poor Israelite money with interest or lend food at a profit.
Deuteronomy 23.19 (adapted): Don’t charge your fellow Israelites interest — whether on money, provisions, or anything one might loan.
The “master” in this story, then, isn’t God but the leaders of Israel. Jesus’ warning to them was that, when trouble comes (and it would in the form of the Roman army crushing down upon them), they might want to make sure they’ve made friends with their enemies or they’ll get crushed just like all the rest.
But, Jesus warns, know this — one can’t serve God and money. Pick a side. If they’re going to be friends with the enemies of God, then they’re not friends of God.
This whole passage, then, is an indictment upon the nation of Israel in the first century. They’d already colluded with the practices of the world instead of showing the world a better way of being. Jesus’ point is that there’s still time for them to change sides — but they can’t have it both ways. The real issue is that playing both sides against the other leaves one “hating” this one but “loving” that one; having “contempt” for this one but being “loyal” to that one.
Again, notice the response of the leaders, “The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus.” They really thought they could play both sides and come out on top. But, as we know, later on, their true colors come out when they bring up false charges against Jesus and exclaim, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19.15)!
So, what does this have to do with us? A lot, I think. When we look deeper we can see that a lot of us may have places in our lives where we’ve played “both sides” thinking we can skate by somewhere in the middle and then quickly jump to the “winning side” when the dust settles. There are parts of our lives where we need to more like Christ and let go of our own ways of being. This could be in our job or home life. It could be in our prayer life. It could be in our business dealings or the way we act towards others. We’ll have to look deep — praying that God will reveal those places to us where we’re playing both sides. It will take courage my friends, but Christ is with us. And in Christ, we will overcome.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC