A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on September 19, 2010.
There is widespread consent that this is the most intriguing parable Jesus told. It leaves almost everyone who studies it scratching their head wondering what Jesus meant, which is the purpose of a good parable, according to C. H. Dodd. Parables are meant to tease us and evoke active thought, Dodd believed. If this is true, then this parable certainly succeeded.
So bewildering is this parable that Luke added other statements by Jesus about the proper relationship between a believer and his possessions. You almost get the feeling he did so as a way of protecting Jesus from his critics, which were probably as vocal when Luke was writing as they were when Jesus told this parable. Let’s look at this thought-provoking parable and see how it speaks to us today.
It opens up with charges being brought against the manager of a rich man’s business. He was accused of squandering the resources assigned to him to manage. Surely you hear echoes of the actions of the Prodigal Son in the previous parable. He, too, squandered his wealth.
When the manager was called in to give an account of his decisions, he was told that he was going to lose his job. This struck fear in his heart as he wondered what he was going to do.
Again, like the Prodigal Son, he talked to himself about his options. He knew he was not physically able to dig and he had too much pride to beg, so he had to figure out something else.
In his desperation, he decided to reduce the debt of two of his master’s clients while they thought he was still in the service of the rich man, thus gaining their favor. It appears he was banking on one or both of these debtors befriending him after he was fired, providing him with a new job.
Once again, this story is similar to the previous parable in that the response of his master was as surprising as that of the father of the Prodigal. When the owner discovered what the manager had done to take care of himself after he was fired, he did not turn red-faced and angry. He did not even condemn or arrest the manager. Instead, he seemed to be quite impressed with what this manager had done and praised him for his clever scheme. You have to wonder if he reconsidered letting this manager go.
All seems fairly understandable at this point in the parable. Desperate people do desperate things. We know this. It is the next part of the story that gets rather sticky.
“And his master commended the dishonest business manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in their 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.”
What’s this all about? We’re not even sure if this is a part of the parable, the words of Jesus or Luke’s interpretation.
To be honest with you, I’m not sure how to interpret this. The scholars I consulted raised more questions about it than answers. I understand the confusion. It is baffling.
Perhaps it is a commentary on the importance of relationships as a hedge against adversity and the need to make good friends, not buy them. Seize every opportunity to build a support system for this world and the next. That’s my attempt at explaining it.
Let me tell you what I do understand a little more clearly and how this parable speaks to me today. What does everyone in this parable have in common? Each one is looking out for number one. It is obvious that the manager is doing this and I am confident that the two debtors he approached were eager to cut a deal. Even the owner seems to get what he wants. Everybody is taking care of himself at the expense of others.
This leads to some intriguing questions. Is it OK to think of ourselves and plan ways to meet our needs? Is it possible to look out for more than ourselves in this world? Can we take care of ourselves and others at the same time? If so, how do we know when we are not doing it, or at least not doing it as well as we could? What can we do to change this? Let me offer some ideas for you to consider.
Is it OK to think of ourselves and take care of our needs? Yes. Just as we don’t want to live in a world where people care only about meeting their needs, neither do we want to live in a world where people don’t take care of themselves, if they are capable.
The world works better when people take responsibility for their lives, have ambition, work hard and are productive. This helps communities thrive and prosper. I believe the Bible supports this kind of responsible living.
The question, though, is this. Can we take care of ourselves and others? Can we address our needs and help others along our journey?
How would Jesus answer this? He would tell us what he told his disciples. “Love your neighbor as yourself …and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” According to Jesus, being a concerned, compassionate and generous member of society is as important as taking care of ourselves. It is also possible.
How do we know when we are out of balance and not taking care of others as we should? I think there are several indicators.
We hoard what we have and do not share.
We do not hear the cries of those who are struggling and do not see the plight of the poor.
Our self-indulgence is out of control and we buy things we do not need or will never use.
We trample over others to get what we want.
We put the price tags on the wrong things. We value and pursue what is not most important.
We have certainly seen this in recent years as Americans have lost trillions of dollars in wages, savings and wealth in the Great Recession. Many of these losses have been due to people taking care of themselves or feeding insatiable desires at the expense of others, as it was in this parable.
What do we do when our lives are out of balance and we are neglecting others or putting their lives at risk? We need to acknowledge that our values and priorities are not where they should be and we are serving “mammom,” not God.
We need to ask for God’s forgiveness and help in order to make some difficult, but necessary changes.
We need to have a talk with those around us and ask for their forgiveness and help, too.
We need to be a part of a loving community that will encourage and pray for us, as well as hold us accountable.
Is there a better example of this kind of turn-around than Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in another of Luke’s parables? He certainly took care of himself at the expense of others. He was anything but honest and generous.
However, all of this changed after he met Jesus. After their private conversation, Zacchaeus emphatically informed Jesus that he would give half his possessions to the poor and if he had stolen from anyone, he would repay four times that amount. That’s a real change of heart and behavior.
What do you think Jesus said to Zacchaeus over dinner? We don’t know, but I suspect Jesus might have looked in him the eye and voiced the words, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you. Let’s talk about who should be number one in your life and the difference this will make for you and others.”
Is this what you need to hear this morning? Like Zacchaeus, do you need to make some changes in your attitude and behavior? I encourage you to let the Lord help you as he has so many others. I don’t think any of us wants to live in a world where people look out only for themselves. Let’s do our part to see it doesn’t happen.