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. So he summoned him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it 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.’ 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.
“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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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 and wealth.”
Stewardship is a word with many associations, especially when it is talked about in the church. When I think of stewardship, I associate it with autumn, annual pledge drives, parables about money, discussions of tithing, and the little boxes of envelopes that you take home and try not to lose over the course of the next year. Stewardship is a topic that we’ve heard about so many times, that we generally assume that we know what it means. We assume that stewardship is about caring for the resources entrusted to us, which in our minds means establishing good financial practices, being fiscally responsible and cautious, and as much as possible, not spending money.
It is because of our understanding of stewardship that we find today’s parable so disquieting. It is a sleazy story filled with sleazy characters that seem to embody the exact opposite of stewardship. It begins with a manager accused of squandering his master’s wealth. Afraid of what will become of him when he loses his job, the manager then seems to go from bad to worse as he starts giving away his master’s money, forgiving his master’s debtors so that he might gain friends. In a surprising twist, when the master learns of his manager’s actions, he is not angry, but actually rewards his behavior!
I’ll be honest, when I get to that part of the story, I find the master dropping a bit in my eyes, going from an honorable and wronged employer to someone as morally questionable as the manager he employs. To top it all off, Jesus commends this shocking and scandalous story to his disciples as an example by which to live! Even the author of Luke seems to be a bit puzzled by what to make of this parable; the story ends with a seemingly random string of quotes from Jesus that we might imagine the author strung together as if by way of explanation. I don’t think that they were successful in their attempt, as I find these explanations even more confusing than the parable itself.
The first thing that stands in our way of getting at the meat of this story is the specter of squandered wealth the looms so large in it. Jesus says that the manager was accused of squandering his master’s wealth, but goes no further into what that meant, and so we are left to fill it in ourselves. In a world where we hear so many stories on a regular basis of corruption and embezzlement, stories of wealthy CEOs of major companies receiving obscene amounts of money and abusing it, that it is hard not to imagine the absolute worst. We can quickly envision this manager being caught with vacation homes, expensive cars, or extravagant trips that seem well beyond the means of his wages.
However, Jesus does not specify how the manager mismanaged the money. While it could certainly been any of the above, squander can also mean inaction that leads to lost opportunity. It is equally possible that the master learned that his manager was simply sitting on all his wealth, letting it accumulate and collect, doing nothing at all with it, squandering any opportunities that the master’s wealth might have brought about. In fact, when we take into account other parables told by Jesus, this interpretation seems more than equally valid; it is the most likely scenario.
Now we find that this is a parable about a manager who is brought before his master on charges of squandering money, not through embezzlement or risky behavior, but by being cautious, amassing it, not taking any risks with it. It becomes a story of an employee who gets into trouble with his employer, not for criminal behavior, as we would recognize it, but by doing what we might consider good and prudent stewardship.
This probably doesn’t sound any clearer yet, and if anything, it makes the parable more troubling. Instead of a confusing story about a criminal, this parable has become a story about someone who has behaved very much like we might when dealing with our own money and the money entrusted to us as a community. But there is one last stumbling block that stands in the way of our understanding—the virtue of shrewdness.
The second part of the story is given to the manager’s plan to gain friends who will aid him when he loses his job. In a very calculated move, the manager stops sitting on top of his master’s wealth that he has so cautiously maintained and starts using it to forgive the debts owed to his master by others in the community, debts that might seem to us as not being his to forgive. In doing so, the manager seizes the opportunity that his master’s wealth has presented—the opportunity to forge new relationships. In short, the second half of this parable tells us how the manager behaves in a way that is the exact opposite of what we would typically consider to be good stewardship.
It is as though the manager has an epiphany after he is given notice of his impending termination. He stops treating wealth as something that must be maintained, protected, horded, and increased as though it were something that had value on its own. In his epiphany, the manager starts behaving as though the wealth as having no value at all except for the opportunity it creates, the opportunity for greater relationship. In a single moment, the manager has a shift in his relationship to money and wealth, and seeing his change to a shrewder understanding of wealth, the master commends him.
We start to see that this is a parable that challenges us to question our own relationship with wealth. Matt and I certainly try to maintain and grow our wealth, even if it is a slow process. We dutifully set aside money for savings every month, work to pay off debts as quickly as possible, and try to be mindful of our retirements, as far off as they may seem right now. In many ways, I imagine that I behave like the manager did in this story. Even though I don’t think or believe this, my actions reveal my relationship to money; I act as though it is my own, something that is valuable on its own, that it is something that can be stored up and amassed for the future.
This parable challenges me and forces me to face a very difficult question; is it my wealth to squander away like this? Is it my wealth to sit upon like a great egg, protecting and preserving it from outside forces? Is it my wealth, or is it the master’s? If it is God’s wealth, then to what end have I been entrusted it? Am I set as a manager of some of God’s wealth so that I can save it up and tuck it away, or am I trusted with it to make sure it gets used for God’s purpose, to use it for God’s work lest it be taken away? Is my relationship to the wealth or to the one who trusts me with it?
I wonder how you would describe your own relationship to wealth? Is it similar or different than how I described my relationship to wealth? I wonder if this parable challenges and troubles you as much as it does me?
I wonder if this parable is causing you to reconsider your understanding of stewardship? If this is a parable that challenges our relationship to wealth, then it is also a parable that turns our understanding of wealth on its head, because our relationship to wealth informs how we go about trying to be stewards of it. If our relationship to wealth is one of trying to preserve and protect it, then stewardship means being fiscally cautious and as much as possible trying to increase the wealth. If our relationship with wealth is more like the manager in the second part of the parable, and we treat it is a means to opportunity and new relationship, then our approach to stewardship will be different.
Though stewardship season in the church will continue to include talk of pledges and financial support, and though vestries and clergy will still be concerned with budgets and expenses, if we are open to the radical message of this parable, then stewardship will not ultimately be about money, but about building relationships, strengthening the bonds of community, and rising to the opportunities that God has equipped us to take.
That is the good news of this Gospel story today—we are not beholden to wealth, it is not our god and it is not even our own. It is the good news that God entrusts us individually and communally with wealth, whether it is money, talents, time, or relationships so that we might be equipped to meet opportunities that arise in the world around us, the opportunities to participate in God’s work. So let us celebrate that we are not beholden to wealth, but to the one who entrusts it to us for good use; let us rejoice that we are beholden to God who wants us to be partners in God’s mission in the world.
Preached by Adam Yates