I continue to be troubled by last Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, which of course is half the point of parables.
A parable is intended to whack the reader up the side of the head. It aims to catch our attention, wake us up, cause us to ponder, make us confront deep questions, and perhaps be a little bit troubled. There is no one right answer to any parable. Answers are not the aim of parables. They intend to cause the reader to struggle and look in the mirror of the story to find the truth that resonates in the heart.
Luke 16:1-13 does not easily settle into any one interpretation. It is important to confront the story Jesus tells,
1Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”
3Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.”
5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7Then 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.”
8And 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. (nb: “shrewd” fro-ne-mos – wisely, prudently – 15x’s NT always translated “wise” except here)
9And 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.
10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.
11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
13No slave can serve two masters; 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 wealth.’
The story is stark – a dishonest manager is cheating his boss, stealing what belongs to the boss for personal pleasure. When the dishonesty is discovered, the boss threatens to fire the manager. Instead of repenting, begging for forgiveness, and promising to do better in the future, the manager goes out and further swindles the boss in an attempt to gain friends for himself who will stand by him when he is cast out.
Surely, the boss will now not only fire the manager but have him thrown in jail as he deserves. But no, in this story, the boss commends “the dishonest manager.” On the surface there is no justice, no fairness, and no morality in this story.
The story however is not a story about justice, fairness, or morality. Jesus has another issue in mind. The dishonest manager is a picture of the human condition. At the beginning of the parable the dishonest manager is living as if his boss did not exist. He is failing to take into consideration the presence of the rich man. He is treating his boss’ wealth as if it were his own possession to be used as he wishes.
The fundamental problem of the human condition is that we live in the midst of a life which is all gift, without much awareness or acknowledgement of the Giver.
The core of this parable lies in the contrast between a way of life that is characterized by those who live as “the children of this age” and those who live with their primary concern being their “the eternal homes.” “The children of this age” live as if the horizontal dimension of life is the only reality. Those who acknowledge the reality of “the eternal homes” seek to live in the awareness that there is a vertical dimension that exists and can be experienced in the midst of this time bound, material realm.
What Jesus wants us to confront here is how much time, effort, energy, and resource we pour into living as “the children of this age” and how much focus we are putting into building “eternal homes“. Most of us put a lot of energy into making life work on the physical plane. This parable wants us to examine, how much effort we are putting into being conscious of the vertical, hidden, subtle dimension.
The problem we face is that we cannot have it both ways. Jesus points out,
No slave can serve two masters; 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 (the vertical) and wealth (the horizontal).
This parable wants me to ask:
Who is my master?
Where do my priorities lie?
What does the way I spend my life suggest about the primary commitments that govern my life?
How much of myself am I putting into opening my consciousness to the reality of God’s presence in all of life?