This is an unpleasant way to start a story. As someone who has, over the years, had various persons on staff who have managed assets for me, and not always managed them well, this is indeed an unpleasant way to start a story!
If you’re a person like me, who is equally capable of reading a BAS statement that’s written in English as one that is written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, you depend on specialist wizards of accountancy to interpret figures and, with a wave of their magical pen, to produce statements and forecasts and all things required by the Australian Taxation Office!
I had a call from the ATO this week! They left a message on my answering machine, addressing me by name and requiring me to call them immediately! I sweated on it for a day before I made the call, suspecting that I probably owed the taxation department more than I had and was facing a possible prison term.
“You haven’t given us your June BAS or your 11-12 return”, they told me! That was a relief! “Tell your accounts person to get them in immediately” they said. And so I called up the senior wizard of accounts and entrusted her with this sacred duty, not really understanding why it hadn’t been done already.
You see, you’re totally dependent on these people, and that’s why it’s such an awful scenario when the person you trust to do all this work for you and look after your property and your assets and all the things you are responsible for turns out to be lining his own pockets with the goods you entrusted him with, and this, sadly, is a scenario our church is hauntingly familiar with!
I remember when the Archbishop personally calling me up the last time this happened. He said “I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve been betrayed by your own church accountant”. I said “that’s OK. This is the third time for us, and this time there was a straightforward confession and no suicide attempt. This is our best embezzlement experience to date!”
So he [ie. the boss] called for him [ie the accounts manager] and asked him, ‘What’s this I hear about you? Give me a report about your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ (Luke 16:2)
I’m not going to relive the details of my own experiences in this regard – those horrible crunch-time confrontations when your accounts manager realises that ‘the jig is up’ and that the well-worn excuses as to why bills haven’t been paid and why reports just don’t seem to add up just won’t wash any more!
You don’t always get to have that meeting, of course. Sometimes the manager makes a run for it. Sometimes he opts to take ‘the easy way out’ (which is never easy on anybody of course). In Jesus’ story the boss, strangely, gives his accountant a bit of wiggle room! Instead of confronting the manager directly and asking him for immediate answers, the boss gives him some time to prepare a defense. He asks for a report. Perhaps the boss is not fully convinced of the man’s guilt. Either way, the accountant, still left in charge of his master’s assets for a little time longer, makes the most of his stay of execution!
“The manager said to himself, ‘What should I do? My master is taking my position away from me. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg. I know what I’ll do so that people will welcome me into their homes when I’m dismissed from my job.’ “So he called for each of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ The man replied, ‘A hundred jars of olive oil.’ The manager told him, ‘Get your bill. Sit down quickly and write “fifty.” Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty’” (Luke 16:3-8)
This is where the story goes in an entirely unexpected direction!
In my (admittedly limited) experience this the point at which the police get involved and the shenanigans of the accountant come to a crashing halt. In this case though it seems that the fun has just begun!
The accounts manager calls up each of his master’s debtors and starts offering each of them massive discounts on their debts! It’s not entirely clear exactly how he is doing this! Was he entitled to give this discount? Some who have reflected on this story suggest that he’s probably only removing his own commission. Others think it’s his master’s money that he’s wasting and that he’s gambling on the fact that the goodwill of the man who gave him wiggle room will extend his generosity a good deal further. What is unambiguous is that the aim of the game, so far as the accountant is concerned, is to assure a future for himself by building up a lot of goodwill at his master’s expense!
And you can’t imagine that this was common practice. And I can’t imagine that Jesus’ hearers were anticipating where this story was going!
In a lot of the parables of Jesus you can surmise what His audience was thinking. With the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (which are recorded as being given directly before this story) you start to get a sense of where the stories are going, and by the time you get to the last story you indeed have a sense of what is going to be the outcome for the lost son.
I’m not suggesting that the outcome is any less wonderful because it’s predictable. Sometimes you can guess the punch-line of a joke. That doesn’t necessarily make the joke any less funny. But do you think anyone guessed the punch-line of this one?
And it’s not as if this parable is being given in response to a specific issue or question that helps make sense of it. This story isn’t a response to people grumbling about sinners or asking whether they should pay taxes to Caesar or whether an adulterous woman should be stoned or anything like that. This parable seems to come straight out of left field, and I envisage Jesus’ hearers as all sitting there very silently, scratching their heads.
“I’m not sure I understand what this manager is up to? Where is the Lord going with this story?” Well … we find out soon enough!
“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in 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.” (Luke 16:8-9)
Let’s be honest – that was not the conclusion anyone expected! I think I would have anticipated that this was going to be a parable about judgment!
Of course there is a judgment involved, but it’s not the judgment we expected. The accountant is not judged guilty but wise – “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light”.
This accountant is a wheeler and dealer, and Jesus judges him as clever! OK, it’s probably not because he wheels and deals, as such, that he gets Jesus’ stamp of approval, just as it’s probably not because he lied and cheated and feathered his nest at his master’s expense, but if it’s not for those things then it must be for the one remaining thing that we can credit him with – namely, that he realised that the best thing you can do with money is to buy friends!
And so it turns out that this is not a parable about judgment just as it is not a parable about the Kingdom of God as it’s not a lesson about the foolish love of God (as were the ‘lost and found’ parables that preceded it). It’s another parable about money – another one!
We had the parable of the rich fool a little earlier. The stunning parable of Lazarus and the rich man lies just ahead. Jesus told stories about money all the time, and they’re all about the dangers of having it and how to get rid of it, and right in the middle them all is this story – the most bizarre of the lot – about an embezzler who wises up and realises that the best thing you can do with money is buy friends for yourself!
I remember back in my school days there was one guy who was always buying lollies for all the other guys. We always figured he had lots of money, but you look back when you grow up and realise that he probably didn’t have any more than the rest of us. He was just a guy with very few social skills who found it hard to make friends and so he used whatever resources he had to ingratiate himself to his classmates.
When I was at school I thought this guy was great. I looked back years later and he appeared as a tragic figure to me. I look at him now in the light of this parable and I hear Jesus’ judgment on him – brilliant!
Indeed, this approach to ‘buying friends’ has multiple schoolyard applications that I can think of.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had to deal with bullying issues at your son’s school. If so, you know that there are certain protocols you go through. You approach the headmaster or headmistress. The head calls in the bully and points out that such behavior is unacceptable. The other boy’s parents are then called in. Eventually the two boys are released back into the wild (so to speak) and your son holds his breath!
After reading this parable, a much simpler approach occurs to me. You give your son fifty bucks. “Here, give this to Mr Bully and you won’t have any more trouble with him. Instead of being your enemy, he’ll be your best mate!”
If you want to push the envelope even further, consider giving him fifty bucks a week and he’ll probably happily go around bullying other kids on your behalf!
I appreciate that this is not a very ethical suggestion, but there’s nothing particularly ethical about the behavior of the dishonest manager either!
It’s not a parable about ethics. It’s a parable about money, and the manager may be wild and reckless and even a little crazy in the way he handles money but he seems to understand that money is only a means to an end and that the things that last in this world are not dollars and cents but human relationships!
I was watching Mary Poppins the other day (as you do) and those who remember the movie will no doubt remember that very significant scene where the young boy (Michael) wants to use his tuppence to feed some birds but his father urges him to instead invest his tuppence in the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely and Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.
And there’s a wonderful scene where the directors of the bank form a chorus, urging the boy to do the wise thing with his tuppence!
If you invest your tuppence
Wisely in the bank
Safe and sound
Soon that tuppence,
Safely invested in the bank,
And you’ll achieve that sense of conquest
As your affluence expands
In the hands of the directors
Who invest as propriety demands.
Now of course that wouldn’t happen nowadays as bank fees would eat up your tuppence long before it compounded, but even if that was not the case, I have a feeling that we know full well which option Jesus would pick if it was a choice between feeding the birds and investing as propriety demands!
Jesus might seem like a crazy investment advisor but it is really our approach that is crazy! We have so much wealth that we are constantly having to break down our barns to build bigger ones, and why? So that when we get to the ends of our lives people will say of us “My God, do you know what he is worth?”
I have no idea what I’m worth, but I am sure that it’s not something that can be measured in monetary terms. And my hope is that when I die, what I will leave my family exactly the same thing that my father left me – a good example and lots of good memories!
“No slave can serve two masters”, Jesus concludes, “for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:13)
I remember Kierkegaard preaching on this passage. He said that what we hear Jesus saying is that “no one should serve two masters”. Jesus doesn’t say that you shouldn’t serve two masters. He says that we can’t – that it’s not possible! We want to think it’s possible. We’d like to think that we can balance both – a love of God and a love of money – but we simply can’t do it! It’s not possible. We have to choose!
And so our passage that began on an unpleasant note ends on an even more unpleasant one. Indeed, this week’s reading is unpleasant throughout, for it presents us with a shameless embezzler who cheats his master, lies to his clients, and is not the guy we want lecturing us about discipleship!
In reality, of course, it’s just one unpleasant passage amongst a great number of such passages that make exactly the same unpleasant point! It’s as if Jesus knew we weren’t listening to Him the first one hundred times He told us to shed our possessions, so He had to keep working on us!
If only a small percentage of Christians would take Jesus’ approach to money seriously what a different place this world would be! For the way we handle our money can, believe it or not, be of cosmic significance!
Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” (Luke 16:8)
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 22nd of September.