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Sermons

”Jesus’ Debt-Reduction Plan”

Sept. 18, 2022 Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost The text is Luke 16: 1-13.

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1 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.’  7Then 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.  9And 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.
10 “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. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 1 2And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 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.”

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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In this morning’s gospel reading from Luke, we hear Jesus’ Parable of the Dishonest Manager, as it is called.  He is sharing this parable with his disciples, shortly after telling the stories about the lost sheep and lost coin.  And this morning’s verses are decidedly different from what he has been sharing the last several weeks; and to our ears, somewhat distressing.  Luke has recounted Jesus’ parables dealing with humility, hospitality, discipleship, and the joy of finding a sheep and coin which were lost.  But this morning we hear Jesus commending a decidedly dishonest manager for his shrewdness; other possible translations for shrewd include wise or prudent.  And as we consider the soon-to-be unemployed manager’s actions, his behavior couldn’t be described as humble, hospitable, disciple-like, or joyful.  This morning’s parable seems so out of place compared to what Jesus has taught about before.

At first glance it would seem that the manager is simply being dishonest; he is depriving his master of what is owed to him by others.  And he appears to be an opportunist; by lowering the bills owed, he is striving to ensure his personal security for the future.  But as is often the case when examining the historical or cultural context in which the Scriptures were written, other factors frequently come to light.  Although the charging of interest was prohibited by the Torah, the custom of adding exorbitant fees to debts owed was widespread in Jesus’ time.  This was especially prevalent when wealthy landowners would severely overcharge a largely illiterate peasant population.  Thus, the dishonest manager may have added hidden charges to the bills of those who were in debt to his master.  Some portion of these the master would have received; and perhaps even further overcharges would have been added by the manager himself, for his own personal enrichment.  So, was the manager reducing the debts that were owed in order to curry favor once he was out of a job?  Or, was he merely lowering the bill balances to what would have been their original amounts?  We don’t know for sure, but this possibility does tend to shed a rather different light on the issue of Jesus noting that the master commended the manger for his actions.  Perhaps the master thought that the lowering of the bills to their actual amounts also served to make him look good in the eyes of his debtors.  And, he’s not really losing out; only the true amounts remain unpaid.  Reduction of the balances owed; everybody wins!  The debtors, the manager, and the master to whom the debts are owed.

In the end, while the manager lowered the bills owed for olive oil, wheat, and whatever other balances were outstanding, in order to assure himself assistance in the future, he may also have been “making things right”, whether intentionally or not.  Did he take a less dishonest approach in his dealings once he realized he was no longer in a position to enrich himself unfairly?

So far this morning it seems that all I’ve accomplished has been to offer up potential reasons why the people in the parable behaved as they did.  I’ve noted the stark difference between today’s parables and the ones that preceded it.  And I’ve not yet come anywhere near to providing any real insight into Jesus’ purpose for the telling of this rather disturbing story about deceit, dishonesty, and the connection between wealth and faith.  Jesus concludes the parable by commending the shrewd dishonesty of the manager and suggests that making friends through dishonest wealth may, in fact be prudent.  And, of course he makes the final statement that one cannot serve two masters, God and wealth.

I first preached a sermon on this very same gospel lesson exactly three years ago, when these verses appeared as the readings for the day.  And on that Sunday I confessed to you that rather than try to sermonize effectively on this parable, that I considered faking my own death.  That way, I could ignore this lesson completely; but there would have been the messy explanation of how I would have been able to preach the following Sunday, on a less distressing gospel lesson.  So once again, three years later, the difficulty remains.

In fact, two of my clergy colleagues admitted earlier this week as we gathered together to review these texts, that they were relieved that they were not scheduled to preach today.  But since I appear to be alive and well, I’m left with the task of finding perspective in Jesus’ parable, and discovering where in it may be found the “Good News”.  For this is the goal of each and every sermon a preacher voices, to dig into and unpack the often-obscure message of the Gospel; the grace and mercy of God.  What does Jesus want us to learn from his teaching?  And how do the lessons we learn help us to live into the abundant life that God wishes for us?

Well, if we focus on Jesus’ admonition that reads, “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?, the message actually becomes quite clear.  Jesus is most definitely not encouraging, or even condoning unscrupulous business dealings.  It takes a while to get to this teaching, and first we have to muddle through all the discourse about the reduction of bills owed, the manager’s actions, and the seeming approval of the master.  But Jesus makes his point right at the end; it’s the forgiveness of the debts that is at the heart of this parable.  He doesn’t commend the manager because of the sketchy way he went about reducing the amounts owed, or whether or not the debtors deserved the reduction of their bills.  The lesson taught through the parable does in fact celebrate the Good News; Jesus forgives the debts of humanity and God approves and praises the forgiveness of these debts.

The debt-forgiving manager has gone rogue, no matter his reason for his actions.  And the allegory is that Jesus has come to forgive the debts of humanity, knowing that this is unexpected, and isn’t in line with how we humans perceive payment being made.  Business obligations in this world are settled very differently from the way salvation from sin is accomplished in the kingdom of God.  The manager forgave debts that he was likely not permitted to; Jesus Christ, the Son of God forgives all the sins of creation precisely because that is the task for which he came among God’s people.  When the apostles ask Jesus “how should we pray?” in Matthew 6:12, he responds with, “forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors”.  We are admonished to ask that our sins be forgiven and also that we might be encouraged to show that same forgiveness to others.  Just like the so-called “dishonest manager” did, and just like Jesus did.

And, in securing for us the forgiveness of our debts, our sins, Jesus once again proclaims that it is life abundant that is God’s wish for us.  We are admonished to live lives of faithfulness in our dealings with others, and in the way we purse riches in the world.  If we allow ourselves to be devoted solely to the acquisition of material goods, we diminish our desire and our ability to be open to being recipients of God’s grace.

It is all too easy to be lulled into the false sense of security that we think wealth will provide us.  Jesus reminds us that the true riches of this life, that which brings us real abundance, are the commitment to serve others, to have faith and trust in God, and the willingness to acknowledge that the value of God’s grace is immeasurable.  No amount of goods or money can secure righteousness with the Father.  By the work of Christ on the cross our debts have not just been reduced, but eliminated.  Our sins have been forgiven and in thanksgiving for this gift we are admonished to pay heed to Jesus’ command, that we don’t try to serve two masters.  We cannot serve God and wealth.  But it is through our serving God, and our neighbor, that abundant life is secured.  In this world, and in the kingdom to come.                     

Will you pray with me?  Good, and gracious, and holy God, we acknowledge that we are often not faithful with little things.  And we have not been faithful with what belongs to others.  Grant us the will to be faithful with all that you provide us, so that we may be entrusted with the true riches of your kingdom.  And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose faithfulness grants us forgiveness of all our debts.  Amen.

God is good, all the time.  All the time, God is good.

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