Stop digging yourself a hole

Week of Sunday September 22 - Pentecost 18  See also on this text: Which way off the bridge? (2019)
Gospel: Luke 16:1-13

Luke 16:1-26
Then 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. 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.’

14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. 15So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

16 ‘The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. 17But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.

18 ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.* The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 

Why do we tell stories?
Why do we tell stories? We tell stories to gain attention, to entertain, to fill a quiet spot, to make a point, to communicate an idea, to help understand a situation; all sorts of things provoke the telling of a story.

Jesus is telling the story of the dishonest steward to make a point.

When we tell a story to make a point the best stories will hold together as a real story. They will be believable, not artificial or obviously made up.

If we choose well, the story will also relate very clearly to the point. People will make the connection. They may need to have the connection pointed out— some stories are "sneaky"— but once pointed out, the connection is clear.

But this week, in our context, the connection between the story and the point of the story is not clear. Bill Loader says there have been "hundreds" of interpretations since its telling.

Was Jesus having a bad day? This is one possibility: he told a story that did not really work well to make the point. But because people valued his words they kept on repeating the story, convinced there was some kind of hidden meaning. It would hardly be the first time folk attributed more meaning to something than it deserved.

Or is it that Jesus was 'at the top of his game,' and we still need to have the connections pointed out? Is there something so scandalous about the nature of God, and the kingdom of God; something so "upside-down-turning," from our perspective, that we still don't 'get it?'

This is not unlikely. Twenty minutes after preaching the scandalous stories of Luke 15 about the God who leaves the flock in the wilderness and goes after the lost sheep, and the Father who longs for and loves the unlovable, I was fielding complaints  about one of the lost sheep! We all do this. Sometimes I think we miss the point as often as we see it!

The Story
Let's assume the story made sense to the listeners as a story. How did it work?

The way to make sure bills and loans were legitimate at the time was to have the person who owed the money write out the agreement. The purchaser wrote the invoice, not the seller. If there were any later dispute, the seller could say, "But it's written down here in your handwriting! How could I possibly be cheating you?!" That's why the dishonest steward gets people to alter their own bills. It makes the fraud look legitimate.

In our world Miley Cyrus gains celebrity by being dishonourable. A world where being famous for being notorious is honoured! struggles to comprehend the world of Jesus, where honour and shame were conceived very differently. John Petty writes that

In the first century world, a person's wealth was connected to "honor."  In fact, wealth was not necessarily an end in itself, but rather a means to get honor.  Money could buy respect, or so it was thought. [Perhaps not so different from us!] A person could be "dishonored" for any number of things, but two of them included having an unscrupulous servant, and taking back a gift. 

So the rich man hears on the grapevine that his steward is squandering his resources, tells him he is being sacked, and demands to look through the books. The steward works his fraud "quickly" before the rich man arrives at the farms. If worst comes to worst, the people he has helped and drawn into the fraud, are now obligated to support him.

When the master leaves his life of luxury in Jerusalem and goes out in the countryside to assess his situation, he finds that the steward has put him in a position where, if he fires the suddenly popular steward, he himself will be dishonored. 

The steward's ingenious and counter-intuitive "paradoxical" approach has placed the master in a quandry.  Firing the steward will have confirmed that his steward was dishonest in the first place, and, if he cancels his steward's agreements, the master will be seen as one who has gone back on his word [because the steward's actions are, in this society, the actions of the master.]

The story 'works.' It was quite possibly an actual event being retold by Jesus.  The story has its own power. People would enjoy the spectacle of a rich man being trapped by his honour. And a rich man, like a politician, can appreciate the skill of someone who outmanoeuvres him, even though he does not enjoy the experience. I imagine the steward, if he did preserve his job, was on the lookout for another job, all the same!

What is the point?
What is the point Jesus is seeking to make? We appreciate the story; the point is harder for us to grasp.

Loader points out this week that Chapter 16 in Luke is all about wealth.  Indeed our story begins with the words, "There was a rich man who..." the same words which begin the next story at Luke 16:19. In our story, the steward is squandering the property of the rich man, the same Greek root as the squandering of the younger son in the Luke 15:13.

It's all about money, status and kingdom. And the point goes beyond Chapter 16.

You can see that I am moving from a single story told by Jesus to the way Luke has arranged a group of stories; Luke and Jesus may not always have exactly the same purpose in mind!

In Chapter 12 Luke begins compiling a lengthy critique of money and status as a way of entering kingdom, or as some were saying; achieving righteousness with God. In the Greek, the steward is unrighteous, and wealth is unrighteous.

In this critique Luke presents Jesus overturning the conventional wisdoms about righteousness and its connection to wealth and status. Jesus scandalises people.

Don't trust money, (12:13ff) don't worry about money; (12:22ff)
the Master serves the slave, (12:41ff) and heals on the Sabbath; (13:10ff, 14:1ff)
the little less honourable things (13:18-20) and the costly discipleship of humility and hospitality (14ff) lead to the kingdom;

and the kingdom is incomplete without the lost and the unacceptable and the sinners who are the ones who complete us. (Luke 15) They are the ones most valued!

If we preach this as a critique of the rich and powerful; if we preach it to highlight how it implies social change; if we don't 'spiritualise' it into platitudes that require no action of us, then it causes outrage and Fox fuelled cries of "Communism!" and "Heresy!" (What does our silence say about us!? —  and about our preaching!?)

Chapter 16 continues the controversy Jesus has been deliberately stoking.Not only is the world completely astray in understanding money, status, and kingdom, but in this upside-down finally right-side-up world, Luke is making the point that  the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation [or worldview] than are the children of light... [in dealing with their generation or worldview.]

Like the rich man, we may not approve of the behaviour of the steward, but recognise his shrewdness. How shrewd are we "within our generation"; that is, within our milieu as people of God? Are we making purses that do not wear out ...unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys?  For where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. (Luke 12:33-34)

Are we making friends for ourselves by means of unrighteous mammon (the Greek of dishonest wealth) so that when we are called to account we will not be found to be rich fools or dishonest stewards, but people who are worthy of the kingdom; that is the "eternal homes?"

Could it even be that we have learned the lesson of Matthew 6:1-8 too well? Are we so rich, and is it so easy for us to make a show of our charity and generosity, that we cannot see that wealth is for giving? Are we so desirous of keeping our wealth that we 'spiritual ones' can only see using our money to do good works to 'get into heaven' as pathological and a theological mistake? Matthew 6 is correct; good works can be pathological; do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. And there is a danger that we can try to work our way into heaven.

But is there something here we are missing? Might it be deeply, authentically spiritual, to seek out ways to actively give away our money and possessions so that they do not become a cause for our missing the life of the Kingdom?

"The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him." (Luke 16:14) By contrast, we are so blind in our affluence that we do not see the problem! Yes, the story of the steward is far removed from our time, but the problem with getting the point both Jesus and Luke make is mostly that we do not see how deeply we are comprised by mammon. We say "You cannot serve God and mammon," and we mean it, but we do not know what this means.

I remembered, as I wrote this, that a refugee said to Bishop Hurley, "You cannot understand freedom until you have lost it." In the same way, I suspected, we cannot understand the danger of wealth until we have lost it...  and been free of it.

My being able to type this online post, and your being able to read it almost guarantees we do not understand what it means not to be bound by wealth: "what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God." (Luke 16:15)

And then... I looked up a reference for the Bishop's letter and found my memory was faulty. The young man actually said, "Father, if freedom is all you have known, then you have never known freedom." And if wealth is all we have known, then we have never known wealth.

The Pharisees, maligned on every side, are pushed into service again. They are ones who "justify themselves in the sight of God."  When we prize our possessions we are no different; people longing to be holy, but setting ourselves apart and seeking to justify ourselves.

Later in Chapter 16 a rich man seeks mercy.  Abraham says, "... between you and us a great chasm has been fixed... no one can cross...." (Luke 16:26) When we mine the riches of earth and call them our own, we dig a chasm between ourselves and others; the others with whom Abraham and Jesus sit. Luke warns us it can become un-crossable. Be shrewd.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Online resources I found helpful for this study include:
Bill Loader: First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary Pentecost 18
John PettyLectionary blogging: Luke 16: 1-13
Brian StoffregenLuke 16.1-13 Proper 20 - Year C

I have previously covered this text in The Money Manager. Since I begin fresh with each of these studies, I may even disagree with myself!



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