Proper 20…Series C
Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (September 17&18-2016)
Title: The Crooked Manager…
Text: Luke 16: 1-13
If your first reaction to the Parable of the Crooked Manager (our Gospel reading for this 18th Sunday after the Great Feast of Pentecost) is confusion…well, take heart…you are certainly not alone! Even the Evangelist Luke wasn’t exactly sure what to make of what many have described as Jesus most puzzling parable. You see, Jesus’ original parable actually ends with verse 8a (“and his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly”). Luke, in a commentary on the parable, goes on to offer four possible (but not entirely satisfying) interpretations:
#1. Children of the Light should act MORE shrewdly/prudently than children of Darkness
#2. Christians should “make friends with dishonest wealth” (whatever that means)
#3. If you are not faithful with dishonest wealth who will trust you with true riches
#4. You cannot simultaneously serve God and Mammon (an Aramaic word for wealth and material possessions)
So, if you are confused and puzzled by Jesus most puzzling parable…you are in very good company scholars and preachers have been trying to make sense of it ever since Jesus first told the story more than 2000 years ago! But this almost universal confusion over the meaning of Jesus’ parable has caused me to think about how confused many of us are from time to time (and I certainly include myself in this category) about the proper use of and our relationship with our wealth and material possessions…our MAMMON. Confusion about how much we should give away and how much we should keep for ourselves; how much we should spend and how much we should save…confusion about our Christian obligation to relieve the suffering of the poor and the needy in our midst…confusion about our relationship with our wealth and material possessions (do they serve us and our interests or do we, unwittingly, serve them)…confusion about using our wealth to invest in the building and advancement of God’s Kingdom of justice and peace.
And friends, it is this confusion which has opened my eyes to a new way of hearing and understanding Jesus’ most puzzling parable.
I think it is safe to ultimately say that the most puzzling and confusing aspect of Jesus’ most puzzling parable is the fact that the Master (and, by implication, Jesus-the storyteller) congratulates his crooked and disreputable manager for his dishonesty (which he describes as SHREWDNESS). How could he…why would he applaud this crooked manager who makes deals with his master’s debtors??
Well, think about this. Think about how the crooked manager…the dishonest steward, when faced with the crisis of his impending unemployment-has a rather dramatic transformation…a remarkable “change of heart”… in terms of the way that he uses his Masters’ resources. Instead of dishonestly and fraudulently misusing his master’s wealth for his own benefit (to line his own pockets), he now uses his Master’s wealth to build relationships with his Master’s customers…relationships which will, in the long run, benefit everyone…the customers…the dishonest manager and, when you think about it, even the Master! I have a friend and colleague, Fr. Rick Morley (Rector of Saint Mark’s in Basking Ridge, NJ) who writes a weekly blog (A Garden Path) which focuses on the Gospel. In this week’s blog, Rick suggests that maybe this was the Master’s intentions all along…that his steward invest his resources I n building relationships with his customers. And it is only when confronted with the crisis of his impending unemployment that he (the steward) finally begins to do what he was supposed to be doing all along! And this is what the Master (and our Master) applauds…not his dishonesty, but his decision to use the Master’s wealth to build mutually beneficial relationships!
Friends, I am convinced that the parable of the Crooked Manager is a Stewardship Parable…a parable which calls and invites us to consider how we are using the gifts which our generous God has given to us. Are we hoarding our wealth (our MAMMON) in a futile attempt to try to secure an ambiguous and uncertain future or are we using it to build relationships which will benefit/build/advance God’s Kingdom here and around the world??
I want to conclude my homily by sharing a story from my own spiritual journey. It was the summer of 1996 (20 years ago) and I was invited by my Bishop to apply for the position of Sr. Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Worcester, MA. This was a significant honor for a young pastor because, at the time Trinity-Worcester was the largest, most prestigious and wealthiest parish in the New England Synod. So, I traveled to Worcester for my first interview and all went well, and I was invited to come back for a second interview (they were seriously interested). During the second interview I was told that the church had a sizable endowment (in excess of $6 million) and I was asked, if I were called to be their Sr. Pastor, how I would manage this endowment. I told the search committee that I would look for new and creative ways to invest this treasure in the local community (which happened to be one of the poorest and most depressed neighborhoods in the city). At the time Trinity’s endowment was growing but it wasn’t being used to minister to and serve the people of the neighborhood. Well, the next week, I received a letter from the chair of the search committee thanking me for my interest and wishing me well in my future ministry…apparently they were not impressed with my plans for their endowment!
Friends, we have been richly and abundantly blessed at Saint Andrew’s with an endowment which has grown over the years to nearly $3 million. This is not our money…this is God’s money given by God’s faithful people. The endowment is a tool for mission and ministry…a tool which can generate resources that can be used to take advantage of mission opportunities which we would otherwise not be able to exploit and develop. The endowment is not an end…it is a means to an even greater end (the fulfillment of our mission here in Mount Holly and around the world. And, if I understand the message of the Parable of the Crooked Manager (also sometimes called the Parable of the Shrewd Manager) then I believe it is our duty/obligation/sacred responsibility not to hoard these resources but to shrewdly/prudently/wisely invest this treasure so that we can be even more compassionate and generous in our response to our neighbors in need…so that we can be even more effective in our proclamation (by word and example) of the Gospel of Grace…so that we can do even more than we are currently doing in Christian formation and the “making of Disciples”… Friends, I am convinced that to do anything less would amount to poor stewardship (pause) poor Stewardship, indeed!