Formations: October 14, 2018
Scripture: Luke 16:1-9
This is a scandalous story. The gifted English scholar William Barclay describes it as “a difficult parable to interpret.” Its meaning is further complicated when you leave out Jesus’ words in verses 10-13, as has been done with the scripture for this lesson. Understanding is lost when you try to identify the rich landowner as God, yourself as his representative and the workers as the lost people of this world. There is nothing simple in this text, just as there is nothing simple about real life. But there is a very important concept in this story, in the Christian life and in our challenging world: accountability.
This parable is recorded between the story of the Prodigal Son (Lk.15:11-32) and the story of Lazarus at the rich man’s gate (Lk.16:19-31). All these parables encompass the element of wealth. The problem we face in today’s text is it seems to recommend dishonesty as acceptable to God. No one in this story is admirable. The landowner cares nothing for his manager, the manager seems to be padding his pockets by charging extra as he balances the workers’ accounts, and the workers were happy not to pay as much as expected. We seem to have a parable about a dishonest world and how to work the system to get life’s rewards!
Here is a picture of a world structured to celebrate wealth, with people locked into a system that rewards the rich and keeps everyone else just trying to hang on. The manager is trapped in the middle and the workers are surprised to hold onto what little they have. Is the wheeler-dealer manager really the hero?
Jesus often turned the accepted structures and prejudices of his day upside down by telling stories that featured characters from outside established respectability. And who did Jesus generously give God’s love to that shocked people? Consider Zacchaeus the tax collector, the Samaritan woman at the well, the Good Samaritan in the parable who helped the man left beaten in the ditch beside the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, to name a few. Jesus warned that wealth could be a very destructive god. Jesus warns repeatedly that we cannot serve both God and the world’s riches (Lk. 9:13).
Is Jesus saying that if a man who cares only about his own safety and prosperity can be wise enough to use a disaster to help out others while saving himself from ruin, why can’t we, as God’s grace people turn the conflicts of our world into an opportunity to share God’s priceless love? The rich man in this parable was impressed that a conniving manager could benefit him as well as the laborers. “His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. Then Jesus warns, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light” (v. 8). This is more than a caution about the spiritual perils of wealth. What do we show the world as lasting value, integrity in actions, affirmation of personal wealth and a life shaped by God’s love?
What the manager in Jesus’ story gained for himself was a temporary reprieve. As God’s people, what we seek to accomplish is to show the world a life secure in God’s love and to offer them God’s grace. We do not want to be the manager in this curious story. We want to be motivated to bring a new life to all those around us, no matter their social standing, ethnicity or economic position.
In Luke 19 we read about Zacchaeus, the tax collector who found a new foundation for life in Jesus, returned his wealth to those he defrauded and began a new lifestyle. Does this Jesus story help you sort out your priorities and relationships as a follower of Jesus? Perhaps this parable can help you see work as more than just work. When I was a teenager the predominant thinking in churches was that serving God meant being a minister or missionary. (Well, there was the additional option of being a wife to one of those two.) Today we are better at seeing ministry far beyond those limited parameters into wherever you live every day. The world can be very unjust, difficult and selfish, as in Jesus’ parable. I used to tell church friends that on the job a Bible on your desk can start a conversation, friendship and encouragement may point a fellow worker to Christ, mediating a conflict can become your witness, and a suggestion may improve work conditions as well as improve productivity that will help everyone. Consistent work may lead to your testimony that you are serving God wherever he leads you.
Jesus was talking to people who could write the definitive book on work, poverty, injustice and wealth. He uses language from their world. We don’t like the manager Jesus tells about, but we can learn from him. He did something good for others, but only because he needed a bailout. Our motivation is not to save our own skin, but to offer those around us God’s love and a life beyond the selfish desperate challenges of the world. You are accountable for your life. Jesus clarifies that key truth: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Lk.12:34).
Retired after almost 50 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
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