Sermons

VicarSharonRichterSermon for 18th Pentecost -

Parable of the Shrewd Manager
By Vicar Sharon Richter -

 

When I was 16, I was working 15 hours a week at the old W.T. Grants department store, and I started college at Cal State Long Beach.  I was making minimum wage--$1.60 cents an hour.  If you whip out your smartphone, you can pretty quickly Google that and learn how old I am.  I’ll thank you to just keep it to yourself.

But to give you a little more context, Nixon was president—it was just before Watergate.  It was the year the voting age dropped to 18 and Apollo 14 landed on the moon.  FedEx, Greenpeace, Amtrak, Internet chat rooms, and Walt Disney World all came into existence that year.

I remember Cesar Chavez was leading a United Farm Workers strike against grape and lettuce growers in California. He came to Cal State Long Beach to speak, and I reached into my pocket and dropped a $1 bill into his collection bucket.  At least that’s what I thought I did. 

When I got home, I discovered I had accidentally given the UFW a $20 bill. That was 12½ hours of work at $1.60 an hour. It was 50 gallons of gas, at 40 cents a gallon.

God evidently had other plans for that money than to gas up my old Corvair. That’s because “my money” is not really mine.  Even if it came as just reward for my hard work, it still came from God. 

quote discountsOurDebtsIt’s disconcerting, I know, but the same is true for you. Your money is only in your keeping. It’s not yours.

Many people, scholars and lay people alike, find the Parable of the Shrewd Manager to be the most difficult of Jesus’ parables.  (Oh, that’s a good joke, let’s assign it to the intern!)  What on earth is Jesus talking about?  He seems to be praising the shrewd manager for his dishonesty, and recommending that we be dishonest too!  Jesus says, “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.”
 
 How can we understand this? First it helps to understand both the socioeconomic system of the Roman world and the audience to whom Jesus is speaking.  It’s not necessary to really get into the weeds, but simply remember that Roman society operated by patronage. As I described in my last sermon, everything got done by pleasing the patron above you, who might then grant you favors, and by expecting services from those underneath you, who already owe you for favors previously granted, or who you wish to have in your debt for future purposes.

Second, be aware that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and they are who he calls “the children of light.” But as Luke explains at the beginning of this series of parables (in chapter 15) the audience also includes tax collectors, sinners, and Pharisees. They are who Jesus calls “the children of this age.” What Jesus has to say will be heard differently by the children of light and the children of this age.

In the parable, the dishonest manager is about to be fired for squandering the master’s money.  One interpretation is that this is Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees that they are about to be fired for squandering God’s money.  Instead of being gracious to their debtors, or instead of helping the poor, they are enriching themselves with what is not properly theirs.

Now, the manager thinks, what shall I do?  I’m too weak to dig ditches and too ashamed to beg.  I’ll discount the debts that are owed to my boss so that people will be grateful to me and take me in when I’ve lost my job. 
This could mean that the manager is simply not taking his normal commission.  But even if he is slashing the money that owed to his boss, perhaps slashing a usurious interest rate, think about what that means in this patronage system.  Ask yourself, why does the master commend the manager for acting shrewdly?
It’s because it is the master to whom every debtor will now be doubly indebted—not monetarily, but socially.  Whatever they might owe the manager, they owe more to the patron.  They can only interpret that the manager is doing what the patron has told him to do, and that it is the patron who has been so generous to them. It’s a win for the head honcho.
 
In the same way, God—who, by the way, discounts our own debts—will indeed receive proper credit if the Pharisees (“the children of this age”) hear and heed Jesus’ warning and now do with their misappropriated wealth what God aspires for them to do with it: Help the poor, forgive debts, and be generous with God’s bounty.
How do we bring this home to us, today?  Well, you do have free will—you can thwart God’s aspirations for “your” money: You can squander it, or use it for lavish living, or hoard it to the extent that it doesn’t do much good for anyone. 

Sometimes, even then, it will go where it needs to go.  Remember how I was an unwittingly generous donor to the dignity and well-being of exploited farmworkers. 

But here’s what the disciples—“the children of light”--would have heard in Jesus’ parable:  All gifts come from God, and God will receive the glory when we are intentionally generous with the money God has placed in our keeping.

Jesus seems to have told this parable for multiple purposes, one of which was to help people past the hurdle of spending what they think is theirs on something outside of themselves. Just as it was easier for the steward to spend the master’s money to help people, it may be easier for us to realize that it’s God’s money we are using for good in this world.

I know that it helps me. If I have been considering a donation to a worthy cause, or giving more to support God’s work through the church, or helping some of the homeless people I see on the streets every day, it helps me to remember that this is God’s money, placed into my care, to be used for God’s people and God’s creation.  And when I still have trouble doing this, God, who is endlessly generous, and eternally gracious, will help me to do it.  I know God will help you, too, if you ask.

Let us pray: 
Heavenly father, we, too, are children of the light. Let our light so shine before others, that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. 
Amen.
 

Vicar Sharon Richter
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California


Parable of the Shrewd Manager
Sermon for 18th Pentecost
Written by Vicar Sharon Richter
August 18, 2016
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California

 

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