Luke’s gospel reading today is a bit of a puzzlement. The rich man’s manager has done a poor job managing. The rich man summons the manager and dismisses him but does not take any other action against him. Under traditional Israelite law, a manager was expected to pay his owner for any loss caused by the manager. The rich man could have tried to collect. The rich man could even have imprisoned his manager to force the manager to pay up. Instead, the owner simply wants an accounting to know what is left of his wealth.
We hear the manager’s thoughts, his conclusion that he is in a bad way without this job. Suddenly, he arrives at a solution. Before word can spread to the rich man’s debtors that the manager has lost all his authority, the manager summons those debtors. He drastically cuts the enormous amounts each debtor owes the master. The manager, living in a world in which reciprocity mattered, seeks to make these debtors his new patrons, men who will care for the manager in the long term as payback for the great favor the manager did for them. In this way, the manager will survive his dismissal.
These debtors were either men who had borrowed money from the rich man or were his tenants, whose rent they paid with the fruits of their harvests. If they had borrowed money, the original amount the debtors owed the rich man would have included a sum to take the place of interest on the loan. The rich man was prohibited from charging interest, so the interest had to be disguised. In other words, despite the prohibition on interest, it was common for lenders to be very well-compensated for lending. Whether a loan or rent, the manager would also charge a fee for himself, a commission, which added to the debtors’ burden. That commission was how the manager profited.
By erasing twenty or fifty percent of a debt in the master’s name, the manager has put the rich man in a predicament. The manager has earned his now former master praise from the debtors from the master’s unintended generosity. The manager has made the rich man an honorable person. The debtors would see both the manager sacrificing his commission and the rich man forgoing a portion of what had been owed him, including any forbidden interest.
If he reversed the actions of the manager, the rich man would lose face; he would extinguish the praise of the community for his generosity and he would admit he had no control over his manager. In the end, it is better for the rich man to accept the loss of some of what was due him but gain the respect of the community. It for this reason that the rich man admires the shrewdness of the manager. Through dishonest means the manager has provided for himself while leaving the rich man with no good method to reverse what the manager did.
Jesus’ parable is not a fable designed to teach us how to take clever advantage of our employers. Instead, this parable makes us think. Through this parable, what is Jesus teaching his disciples? What is he teaching us?
Yesterday, my mother agreed to sell her house of fifty years to a young couple hoping to start a family in the home where my mother and my father raised theirs. Even before my father’s death in February of this year, my sister, brother, and I have wanted our parents to move from Washington, DC to assisted living in Raleigh, North Carolina, near my sister’s home. This sale is a milestone in all of our lives, the end of an era.
Now the work to finish the downsizing has new urgency: the distribution of dishes, silverware, framed prints and paintings, books, sentimental objects, and other items to children and grandchildren, the items my mother will not take with her. Some items my parents accumulated during their years overseas; some were passed down from their families, especially from my grandmother Claudia. It is impossible to distribute all of these items to the children and grandchildren as all but Holly, our eighteen year old college freshman, have their own households. Many of the personal objects that made my parents’ home their home, many with memories from the decades I thought of that house as my home as well, will be sold or donated or thrown out.
Some of you have gone through this experience. Many have it in their future. As I ponder an item to decide if I will take it, I have started thinking about the reasons for taking it. It is because it is practical, something I could use but do not have, such as some of my parents’ LP records? (Kids, ask your parents what an LP record is.) Is it impractical but still desirable, a framed print or a decorative box perhaps? Is it sentimental for me, like the stone paperweight/pen holder I made for my dad that now sits on my work desk, the word “Dad” crudely carved on the front and the words “From Me” scratched on the back? Or are they items that simply remind me of my parents and through which I may seek to recreate some of what I had in their house? How badly does it hurt to take the item into my house? How badly does it hurt to let it go?
The experience has been the best lesson I have had on stewardship. I may be in possession of an object for a while, but I never really own it. One day it will leave me. It will go to a family member or be sold, donated, or thrown out. My parents never truly owned their house. They had the deed to the land, but really, they were its stewards for fifty years, preserving it and improving it for the next couple. The concept of stewardship is familiar to farmers, ranchers, and family-owned businessmen and women. Left an inheritance from those who came before, it is their duty to pass it on to those who come after them in as good or better shape. Preserve it, and improve it.
We are not the rich man. We are the rich man’s manager. The question we should ask is whether we are good managers or whether we are squandering our master’s property.
As followers of Jesus, our duty is greater than that of a farmer. First, our duty is to God, not merely to our parents and children. Our god is a jealous god. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. That leaves no room for love of money and possessions. If we are to love and follow God, money and possessions cannot become ends in themselves. We cannot serve both God and wealth.
Our second and like duty is to love our neighbor as ourselves. For us, everyone is our neighbor; everyone is our family. Our neighbors’ children and grandchildren are our family too. Our call is not one to abandon all money or possessions but rather to ensure our attitude to wealth and property is God-oriented. Are we using our wealth, our advantages, our skills, and our time to help our neighbors, particularly those in need? Do we measure our success by what we are we doing to make others’ lives better?
Or instead, are we using our wealth, advantages, skills, and time just to accumulate more wealth and more advantages? Is more wealth the end goal? Is that how we measure our success?
Whom or what do we serve?
These are hard, uncomfortable questions, at least I find them hard and uncomfortable. Just as I ask myself questions about my parents’ property, whether to keep it and for what purpose would I keep it, I need to ask myself questions about how I use my property, my income, my time, and my advantages. Because none of them are mine. I am just the steward of them. And since I am the steward of them, am I squandering my master’s resources?
It is easy to hold back. It is comfortable not to engage. It is safe and smart to limit commitments. We can make ourselves feel better by saying that someday when things get easier, then I will get involved. I know because I have done all these things. God does not entrust each of us with gifts so that we will hide those gifts. God means for us to use our gifts to help others, particularly those who need help the most.
Last week we had a wonderful Rally Day. The many organizations of the church were represented. Next month at Oktoberfest, organizations involved with the community outside the church will be present. Each of these organizations, inside or outside the church, offers a way to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation. Within each organization, we can give our time, talent, and treasure in service to causes greater than ourselves, for purposes that will outlast our lifetimes.
Nor are these organizations the limit of ways to use the gifts God has lent each of us. Even in seemingly small ways—a donation, a hand written note, a telephone call, a prayer, an ear that listens—each of us can make a significant difference in the lives of others. None of us will know the full impact of the kindness and generosity we show others. Each of us can share the love that God has shown us.
As we ask God in one of the post-communion prayers, “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord.” It is a bold prayer. Often we need that strength and courage in order to love and in order to serve. But this is our call, our mission. And it is our legacy to improve and pass on.