The Rev. Josephine Robertson
All Saints, Bellevue
Sept 22 2019, Proper 20C
Ah Jesus. He’d give Yoda a run for his money for inscrutable teaching.
So. What are we to make of today’s Gospel? We could in fact picture Luke sitting down at his writing desk with a stack of Jesus’s sayings and stories and trying to cobble them together and just tossing a bunch of “money stuff” all into this bit because it didn’t fit anywhere else.
That makes about as much sense on the surface as Jesus’ parable that praises a dishonest manager, and seems to imply Jesus’ followers should be dishonest too, except no, in the next breathe Jesus is condemning that kind of stuff.
So, I think this is a passage that could be helped by stepping through bit by bit and reading it in the greater context of Luke’s narrative.
Before this (in Chapter 15 of Luke) Jesus told a parable of another fellow who squandered what wasn’t entirely his: the prodigal son. That is a story with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. Characters grow and develop and getting a nice Aesop’s fable meaning out of it is easy. Which makes is really different than this one.
In both there is a rich man.
In both there is someone who has been given charge of part (or all) of his wealth. The son has been given his inheritance (before his father dies, so it is still his fathers’ sort of) and the manager is in charge of the master’s estate. Both frankly, screw up.
The son realizes his mistake, and comes home ready to confess and repent. He is willing to accept the position of a servant in his father’s household. His father meets him with forgiveness and reconciliation.
The manager however does no such thing. He is confronted with his actions and he doubles down on his duplicity. He got in trouble for wasting his master’s resources. So now he wastes them even more, changing the debts of his neighbors and shorting the master who is firing him. And he doesn’t do it because of generosity, or as an act of repentence, he does it to get something out of it, he wants to be lay a sort of honor debt on them that he can call in later. He wants to worm his way into their homes. (Greek: oikous)
And then Jesus has this inscrutable and weird saying about the children of this age and the children of light. And tells us to make friends by dishonest wealth so we can be welcomed into the eternal homes, but hold on the word used there is not oikous. Nearly every translation out there renders the word here “homes.” The same as the parable just before. But it isn’t the same word. Jesus says “so you can be welcomed into the eternal tents.” (Greek: skenas)
And that is quite a difference.
A tent isn’t stable. It rather implies that you will be moving around, changing, traveling. The steward sought the stable home of one who has possessions, security, and place. Jesus doesn’t promise that, his choice of words might even imply that to have that sort of stability goes against the Kingdom his followers are meant to seek.
Jesus’ promise is the home of a refuge, a nomad, a wandering Aramean. He promises a life of traveling light. (A lot like his.)
The steward got buddy buddy with the rich by doing them a sneaky favor on the side, in hopes of getting something out of them down the line. (Those debts he was making smaller were pretty hefty, not something you’d lend to a person without means.) Parables are meant to not be easy to unpack, they can be read from many angles and teach many things.
What if the issue was what the manager wanted for himself (stability, certainty, and safety)? What if instead he had scattered around that generosity without any thought of being repaid? What if it he called all the poor people who owed what seemed like nothing and canceled their debts (knowing they couldn’t pay him back)?
In the wilderness Israel ate the bread of angels, but when they tried to hoard that treasure it became a curse, moldy and rotten and filled with maggots. Again and again throughout scripture we are shown that God’s gifts are meant to be held gently, given freely with no thought of return. Like Jesus’ instructions in Luke to invite the poor and the sick when throwing a party. Like his instructions to take for ourselves the lowest place, instead of the highest.
We live in a world of money, so did Jesus’ followers, and the churches for whom Luke wrote. There’s no way around that.
But Jesus wanted to be sure they understood what mattered.
Jesus wanted to be sure it was clear that we tend to have our priorities backward: seeking from money and social standing safety and stability that don’t exist in this world. In the end Jesus states it plainly: we cannot serve God and follow the ways of wealth. The two are incompatible.
And so it may be that we, who are called to be children of light will indeed be seen as unsavy, as squandering resources, because if we’re following Jesus we won’t be spending our money in “smart” ways. We won’t be making it at all costs. We won’t be playing by the rules of the Master in this story.
And when the day comes that the master reacts we will have two options. The option that Jesus chose, which looked like failure and foolishness to the practical people of his age; or the dishonest manager who sought to play the master’s game and pad his landing.
In the end: money does not buy us security.
Only God provides that, and God seems to expect us to be unwise by the world’s standards with the gifts that we have been given. Lest in hoarding they turn to rot.