It is a difficult parable before us now. If you’ve read it, of course you already know that.
Indeed, as I kept returning to Jesus’ words over these last several days, I have found myself thinking perhaps this is a sermon illustration gone awry.
Preachers, you know what I mean. I can’t count the number of times I have told a story trying to make a particular point, only to have people leave worship having heard something entirely other than what I was trying to convey.
So I can’t help but wonder now if this is what happened here. Or did Jesus actually say something different than what was actually later recorded? Was he trying to get something across which was just too complex for his listeners to comprehend and later pass along to us?
It’s hard to say. What I do know is this. Most weeks I glance through my commentaries and if I’m stuck I might dip into the thoughts of other preachers in their blogs to see if something might spark my imagination. This week? Everywhere I look, everyone agrees that this one is tough. And then everyone seems to head off in a different direction. It is tempting to jump to the end of this Gospel reading and simply expand upon one of what appears to be Jesus’ explanation of the story before us now. It wouldn’t be so hard to preach on the one verse where Jesus asserts that we can’t serve both God and wealth. In fact, as I look through my old sermon file, I see that’s precisely what I’ve done before. This time though, the story Jesus tells just won’t let go of me. Even if I don’t understand exactly why he tells it…
And so I read it and I read it again and I keep trying to find a parallel somewhere in my life experience and everything I come up with doesn’t seem to quite work. Even so? Let me share where my memory has taken me this week — back to a time when I felt a little like the ‘dishonest manager’ before us now.
My summer job in college was working the night shift at a local cannery. I worked pea pack and corn pack both and like a lot of college students, I relied on that work to help put me through college.
During a class my freshman year I learned that the very company which was helping me pay for college expenses was also exploiting workers in Mexico.
In a very real way at the age of 19 I felt like I was a part of this great wrong. And yet, this was good work and such opportunities were limited for 19-year-olds. I struggled greatly with this, believing if I were somehow strong enough I would quit. But then what? Not unlike the main character in today’s parable I told myself I was not tall enough to de-tassel corn and I was too proud to not work at all. In the end, I convinced myself that I was only 19 after all and I was on the lowest end of this massive, complex corporation. More than that, I reasoned that one day when I had more resources, more power, more voice, I would do try to something about this — that I would try to make right what I knew was so wrong. I offer this now, not entirely certain that I have followed through with that pledge at all…
Indeed, as I sit with the story Jesus shares today, there is but one thing I know for sure. Every single one of us does try to serve both God and wealth. How can we not? Wealth of one sort or another is essential for life — at least in the world I live in. And like the manager in the story today our relationship with wealth is complicated. Sometimes we squander the gifts, to be sure. At other times, we make it work for us in whatever ways we have to. And sometimes, like this manager, in some small way we realize that these gifts do put us in relationship with one another and we try to make right what can often be wrong. But even then, like the manager, our motives may be at least partly self-serving.
So I have to say that I don’t think the manager in the story Jesus tells really got it right and I don’t really think Jesus is commending him even as he comments on his shrewdness. And no, I don’t really know why Jesus tells this story, but I do know this. Two thousand years later it is still pressing in on us and is raising important questions about the place of wealth in our lives. And maybe that alone puts us on a path of repentance and renewal as it forces us to at least examine what we might otherwise take for granted.
A college class did that for me more than thirty years ago. Whatever else may be true, I have never seen things simply again. Oh, I expect I get it almost right from time to time. Often I don’t. Either way, even if I am only asking the questions, somehow I expect that is getting me closer to the place where Jesus is calling us to today. But even then, at least for me, it all begins and ends in self-examination and repentance and seeking to start anew. And maybe that is where Jesus finally intended to take us all along.
- What do you make of the story Jesus tells today? What is his point?
- What questions does this story raise for you?
- Do you see yourself in the manager in the story? What is that like for you?
- How do you think Jesus’ statements in verse 10-12 regarding wealth relate to the story of the dishonest manager?