Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year C)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on September 23, 2007. 
Based on Luke 16:1-13 (Proper 20, Year C).

Some people like to refer to the Bible as “God’s instruction book.” The idea being that if you have a problem or a perplexing spiritual issue, you can just turn to the right page and “presto!” problem solved. Our friends at Gideon’s International play right into this. The next time you’re in a hotel room, turn to the back of your Gideon’s Bible and you can find passages indexed by spiritual conundrum. The heading reads “Where to find help when” and then they list things like: bereaved, sick, afraid, lonely, doubting, desperate, and my favorite given their placement – sleepless.

While I’m sure this has made a difference in the lives of many people over the years, there’s also an inherent problem with this approach. Life and its various spiritual crises are much more nuanced than this. And I also have to believe that if the Bible is merely God’s instruction book, you’d think God’s instructions would have been a bit clearer.

This morning’s gospel reading is confusing. I can’t imagine Gideon’s pointing anybody to this one. So before we start pulling out lessons from it, we need to spend a few moments figuring it out. This passage, known as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, isn’t self-explanatory. It’s the kind you’ve got to read over and over again and then dig up some background before it starts to make sense.

The story Jesus tells his disciples is about two people, a rich man and his property manager. The rich man, most likely an absentee landlord, hears a disturbing account that the manager was “squandering his property.” He confronts the manager demanding an account of his actions. As Homer Simpson would put it, “Doh!” So, figuring he has nothing to lose, the manager gets creative. He summons the master’s debtors and starts bargaining with them. “You owe a hundred jugs of olive oil? I’ll tell you what, let’s make it 50. You owe a hundred containers of wheat? Let’s make it 80.”

As a lame duck manager with no authority to reduce the debts owed to his boss, the manager is acting completely inappropriately. And we know from his inner monologue that he’s trying to curry favor with the debtors so he’ll be taken in and treated well once he’s officially fired. So it’s a pretty audacious move. And, based on the cultural norms of the day, the rich man would have been bound to accept the lower amounts, unable to reverse them without losing face with the debtors.

What makes this parable so difficult to interpret is figuring out the meaning of the debt reduction. Most people believe it was a desperate attempt by the spurned manager to cheat the master out of his due. If we had access to the manager’s thoughts here, the inner monologue may have been something like, “I may be going down but I’m not leaving quietly.” And so in an “I’ll-show-him” move, he goes to the debtors before they learn of his diminished status and lessens what they owe. 

We’ve already gotten a glimpse of his character. His first thought when he’s about to be fired is to worry vainly about his future. He says to himself, “I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.” So he doesn’t have the fortitude for manual labor but he’s too embarrassed to ask for help. 

But here’s the twist in the parable: the master praises the manager for his dishonesty. He commends him for acting shrewdly. Which is amazing considering the manager just lost him about 450 gallons of olive oil and 200 bushels of wheat. There’s no doubt that the dishonest manager is clever but the praise seems a bit much. The manager does accomplish a couple of things through his actions. He provides for his future by ingratiating himself to his master’s debtors, which is what he set out to do. And, cheated or not, he makes the master look kind and benevolent in the eyes of his debtors. An unintended consequence of canceling a portion of the debt is that it’s good for the master’s image, even if it cost him financially. 

The manager in this story is not a sympathetic character. He’s a whiner and a thief. But Jesus uses his situation to make a larger point. And the point of the parable is to seize the opportunity to ingratiate ourselves to God and insure our place in God’s kingdom in the world to come. The way we do this, ironically, is to act in opposition to the dishonest manager. Because above all this parable is about faithfulness. Being faithful to God is our primary spiritual “job” in this life. There are certainly all sorts of distractions that keep us away from God – Jesus names the primary one for most of us: money. But there are many. Trying to stay faithful amid all the distractions of this life is hard. It reminds me of that scene in the movie Caddyshack where xxx is lining up a put and xxx tries distracting him by saying “noonan!” every time he’s about to hit the ball.

Jesus says towards the end of the parable, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much.” So you can take small steps toward faithfulness. You don’t have to build an orphanage tomorrow, you can start praying daily; you don’t have to sell everything and join a monastery, you can teach Sunday School; you don’t have to hand out tracts at Times Square, you can feed the neighbor’s cat. 

The Bible may not be God’s instruction book in the Gideon’s model, but it is our best guide to living a faithful life. It contains, as the Anglican Church has proclaimed since the 16th century, “All things necessary for salvation.” And that pretty much covers it.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2008

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