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The Hardest Parable

Jeremiah 8:18–9:1
Luke 16: 1–13

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

Did you know that the original writers of the Old and New Testaments did not use any punctuation? That’s right; in the original writings there is no punctuation. That means that current day translators have to decide things like, where to put periods; where to put commas and more importantly for the New Testament, where to put quotation marks. More of that in a moment.

A few years ago there was a book about punctuation which was at the top of the best sellers list for several months. You may even have read it. It was called Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss. Imagine that, a bestseller book about punctuation! Now the book is very comical, very intriguing and a very enjoyable read.

The title comes from a little story, which goes like this: “A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. “Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. “I’m the panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry, and sure enough, finds an explanation. It reads: “Panda: Large black and white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves”. Of course the wildlife manual has a comma in the wrong place. Without a comma after the word “eats”, it means the panda eats shoots and leaves of the bamboo tree.

And there have been great debates among Bible translators over where to put a comma. Remember now, the original Greek and Hebrew texts have punctuation at all. Roman Catholic translators and Protestant translators have agreed to differ on an important comma. In the passage where Jesus is on the cross and speaks to the thief at his side, a comma makes a big difference in meaning. Notice the difference between the following:
“In truth, I say to you, this day you shall be with me in paradise.” Or
“In truth, I say to you this day, you shall be with me in paradise.”

Huge doctrinal differences hang on the placing of this comma. The first version, which is how Protestants interpret the passage, has Jesus taking the thief straight to heaven. The second version promises heaven at some later date and leaves the doctrine of Purgatory nicely in place for the Catholics, who believe in it.

Which brings me to our reading for today. The passage from Luke chapter 16 has variously been called the most difficult parable of Jesus, or the most troubling of all the parables, or the parable that has offended many Christians. What are we to make of this parable?

What is really going on here? Does Jesus really mean to say that dishonesty is to be commended? What does it mean to talk about dishonest wealth? Whom does the dishonest manager represent? Is the dishonest steward being lifted up as a model for the Christian?

Well, the first helpful decision is to decide where the parable ends. Since there were no quotation marks in the original Greek, we need to decide if the story and all the proverbial sayings at the end were the words of Jesus spoken with the parable, or maybe, did Luke add some sayings in his effort to clarify what the parable was saying. You may have noticed that I have made a decision about this reading in the way it was told. I believe that the original parable ends with the saying “and the master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly” and the rest of the sayings have been added by Luke. You see Luke loves to provide introductions and conclusions to the parables, just to make sure you get the point.

Imagine this scenario with me. Luke is sitting down at his gospel writing desk. He has just finished chapter 15, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin and ended with the parable of the prodigal son. He has a collection of sayings and parables he has not used yet, as well as notes on Jesus’ final journey towards Jerusalem. He looks over his collection of material and what does he find? He finds a whole collection of sayings on forgiveness, divorce, scandal, faith, duty and the coming of the kingdom, plus one miracle (the healing of the ten lepers) and four parables, the dishonest manager, the rich man and Lazarus, the unjust judge and the Pharisee and the tax collector. How is he to hang all this together? Well, he has just told the story of the son who squanders his father’s property and maybe this story of a manager who squanders his master’s property would fit in quite well. In fact, he notes, it has a similar theme.

While he is at it, he notes that the story is about a wealthy master, so he adds a number of sayings he has come across about dishonest wealth and serving your master. And then he notes that this will nicely lead into another parable about another rich man and Lazarus (more of that next week).

But you see the point. Luke is an author; a wonderful storyteller. He is writing about 80 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He has a number of collections of sayings and stories and he has to make choices in regards to the ordering and then fleshing out of the parables. He did remarkably well. However, maybe he was uncomfortable with this parable and so decided to add all those moral, proverbial bits and pieces.

So we have this parable, which many preachers would prefer to avoid. In fact, St. Augustine, an early Bishop of the church wrote, “I can’t believe this story came from the lips of Jesus.” But there it is, right in the middle of the Gospel of Luke. As you know, I like a good challenge, so I want to deal with this parable head on this morning.

The first thing that would be helpful to note is the opening line of the parable. “There was a rich man who had a manager and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.” The rich man is an absentee landlord, and right away all the early hearers of this story would assume that he was untrustworthy and would want his manager to squeeze as much as possible out of his tenants, to subsidize his lavish lifestyle. He probably charges an unfair interest on any debts which are owed. The owner hears rumours or gossip about his manager, that the manager is misusing his property. Without checking the facts, without a chance to explain, he fires the manager. This seems unusual!

Is the master upset because the manager is keeping too much of the profits for himself? Is he living too high on the hog and squandering some of the profits? Is he not getting a sufficiently high return on the investments? We do not know. We are not told. But the one thing, which would be evident to the earlier hearers, is that the master has been embarrassed by his manager, his honour has been tarnished. To ancient audiences honour was at stake if a master could not control his servants, or if things were happening of which he was not aware; it all reflected on his honour. To save his reputation, he fires the manager. “What is this I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” The embarrassment, the loss of honour caused by the manager’s actions is removed by his dismissal.

You see, in the ancient world honour was very important. In fact, it was more important than money. To lose face, to lose honour, to be embarrassed was an important issue in Jewish society. In fact, honour was tied together with power and status, and was understood as the ability to exercise control over the behaviour of others. So the landlord saves face, regains his honour by dismissing his manager.

Now what is the manager to do? He is in a crisis. He has no other occupation. He is not strong enough to join the day labourers who get hired from the village square each morning and he is ashamed to go begging. No other rich landowner will hire him, since he has embarrassed and dishonoured his current employer. He devises a scheme. He must do something to prove that he is not the kind of manager who dishonours his master. He develops a brilliant solution. He forgives part of the debt owed by each of his master’s debtors. Now you might think that this makes no sense. The master will be even more angry with his manager, he will throw him in jail. How is this going to help him keep his position or acquire another position? But remember, the issue here is not money; it is honour. The rich man is very rich as is noted by the quantity of the produce. A hundred jugs of olive oil and a hundred containers of wheat were huge amounts.
Before the debtors find out that the manager has been fired, they learn that the master is being very generous. The master is forgiving part of the loan, maybe part or all of the extra exorbitant interest, which has been tacked on to their debt.
In the local village there is partying, a big celebration. The celebration honours the master as the most noble and most generous of all the men who ever rented out land in their district. Think of the parallels this has with the party over the return of the prodigal son.

The manager has devised a delightful scheme which places the landowner is a peculiar bind. If the master overrules his manager and changes what he has done, he risks serious alienation in the village, where they would have already been celebrating his astonishing generosity. If the master allows the reductions to stand, he will be praised far and wide as a noble and generous man. His honour will be restored. This is the reaction the manager counts on. So the master commends the manager, because the manager has made him look good, has made him the talk of the town!
However, it is interesting to note, that in the end, we do not know if the manager gets his job back. We are not told. Just like in the story of the Prodigal Son, we do not know if the elder son enters the house and joins the party, or stays out in the pasture all night sulking. As often happens, Jesus leaves us hanging, we need to decide how the story ends.

But what does it all mean? You see Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He is aware that conflict and death lie ahead. He uses parables to prepare his followers for what will happen. Luke is preparing the early church and us, especially us, for what will happen in Jerusalem and beyond. This series of parables is about the kingdom of God and God’s ways. They illustrate how we are to be faithful as disciples in God’s world. They really are about discipleship. This particular parable is about the need to act in radical new ways as disciples in God’s impending, imminent kingdom.

You may recall one of Jesus’ well-known sayings. Remember when he said, “be wise a serpents and innocent as doves”. Well, this is the same message here. When Luke adds to the parable the saying, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light”, he is inviting the early church to learn from the world. If the dishonest manager was able to assess the reality of the crisis facing him and formulate a plan of action to deal with it, should not those concerned with the kingdom of God, also act just as shrewdly in the cause of God’s love and justice.
Jesus, you see, is not commending dishonesty, he is commending prudence, wisdom, thinking ahead and planning on behalf of the kingdom of God. If the people of the world are able to put all their energies, all their resources in the effort of getting ahead or to save their skins, should not the people of the kingdom of God, use all their resources, all their creativity, all their abilities to advance God’s kingdom and serve the one they follow, Jesus, the Christ?

Luke even expands this thinking with his list of proverbs or sayings. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much”. It is true, isn’t it, that life consists of a series of seemingly small opportunities. Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, dine with the Queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely, the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, visit someone in prison, deliver meals on wheels, write a note, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, write a cheque, drive a neighbour to a doctor’s appointment. But the thing to remember is that these are actions of the kingdom of God. They are not geared to your own betterment, but are in the service of others.

The random acts of kindness, the unexpected goodness of strangers can be signs of God’s kingdom. I came across this story in the newspaper a few weeks ago: Amanda Locke was rushing to the subway station, late for a meeting. She was digging in her purse for a subway fare, when she realized she didn’t have it. She yelled to a friend who was walking ahead of her that she didn’t have enough change, when an approaching man stopped her.

He said, “Did I hear you say you didn’t have enough money to get on the subway?” She said yes, not paying much attention to him as she continued rummaging through her purse. When she finally looked up, she found herself face to face with a homeless man, who offered her a token. He gave it to her and told her to have a good day, and just like that, the encounter was over. Amanda said afterwards, “He didn’t ask for anything. I would never have expected someone in his circumstances to help with something like that. His kindness truly touched me and reminded me not to judge people based on their circumstances.”

The signs of God’s kingdom come in unexpected and strange ways. Let me end with one more story. I heard this story at a presbytery meeting last year. A church had a youth centre in their basement with a pool table. Three or four teen-agers used to regularly beak into the church and play pool. They would try to leave things as they found them and then leave, hoping no one would notice they were there. Well, of course, their presence was noticed. One night when they were in the basement playing pool, the minister came into the room and caught them. They thought that the police would be called and they would be jailed. But instead, the minister handed them a set of keys and said, “Here, you can come and play whenever you want, and there is no need to break in.” Two of those children later on joined the church and went on to become prominent ministers.

You see, that is the kind of radical, kingdom behaviour Jesus is commending. So let’s get on board! Let’s join the kingdom parade! Let’s live as if the kingdom of God is a present reality in our lives, our community and our world. The world is waiting. Let’s go!

Amen.

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