In our gospel a week ago, Jesus answered the grumblings of the scribes and Pharisees with two parables one about a lost sheep and the other about a lost coin. Regrettably, our reading stopped there and we missed the story of the two lost sons. This story is often called the parable of the Prodigal Son. For now, we’ll set that story aside, other than to say that it presents to us two lost sons. One who comes to know he is lost and is then found by his father, and the other who doesn’t know he is found and is therefore lost.
Our gospel passage from this past Sunday comes to us in this context and must be understood with this in mind. On first blush, this parable is confusing and difficult to understand. In fact, I struggled with whether or not to leave the lectionary behind and preach on the two Lost Sons or to delve into this often misunderstood and complex passage. Obviously, I chose the latter. So let’s dive right in.
He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management 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 removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:1-13)
Now that you’ve read the passage maybe you can understand why I was hesitant.
What’s going on here? What is Jesus talking about? Is Jesus saying that we should be shrewd with money? And what does this have to do with the parables he just told in the last chapter of the Lost sheep, the lost coin and the Lost Sons?
If you’re like me you might be thinking right now that it seems about as clear as mud. To understand what’s going on here and to discern its meaning we must recall the context this parable is found in. You’ll remember in last week’s gospel Jesus began these parables to answer the scribes and Pharisees grumblings about him associating with tax collectors and sinners.
In these three parables preceding our passage on Sunday, Jesus shows the contrast between the Lost and the found.
To the lost he says, “I will find you. I will bring you back and you will not be lost anymore.” To the found he says, “Recognize that you are found and rejoice that the Lost are found as well.”
This is the key to understanding this passage.
You see the manager was found by the rich man whose money he managed. He had the trust of the rich man. He controlled his business dealings. All he had to do was to be faithful with the rich man’s money, but he became unfaithful.
He wasted the rich man’s possessions and in doing so he became lost. He lost track of what was entrusted to him. He lost sight of his master. Finally, he loses his position.
He becomes so desperate not wanting to be on the outside looking in. He knows he can’t work and he won’t beg. Faced with the urgency of the situation he formulates a plan. He becomes shrewd. He calls the rich man’s debtors to him
Verses 5-7 say:
So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.
This was a very shrewd man. He knew this would place him in the good graces of the master’s debtors. He knew they would not easily forget what he had done for them. However, he also knew this would put the master in a very difficult situation.
You see The Jews were not allowed to lend money at interest, but many people found a way around this by lending in kind with oil and wheat and other commodities. It seems that what the manager deducted from the bill was the interest that the master had been charging his debtors.
This of course elated the debtors, but at the same time it tied the hands of the master. If he reviled what the manager had done in forgiving this part of the debts, he would have to show his own impropriety in charging interest.
When faced with losing everything, faced with being on the outside, with being lost, the manager throws caution to the wind and cuts the interest off the bill to win for himself the good graces of the debtors.
Now as we continue to uncover what this parable means, it’s important to remember who Jesus is answering with this parable. As we noted earlier Jesus is addressing the Scribes and the Pharisees. Those who had been entrusted with the law of God, who were his chosen people, who are the “found” in these parables.
In this parable God is the Master and Israel the manager.
Jesus says to them don’t you see that you, like the manager in the parable, have been entrusted with the riches of God? Don’t you see that you are found? Don’t you know, you haven been entrusted with the riches of God and it’s slipping away from you?
The situation is urgent!
Throw caution to the wind! Don’t hold on! Let go like the manager let go of the interest. Let go of the laws that you have built around God’s commands. It appears Jesus is addressing those who are hearing this parable. The Jewish elite of his day. Most of Jesus sharpest criticism in the new testament is directed at the spiritual elite, the religious leaders. Those who are the “found.” He warns them not to honor God with their lips, and dishonor him with their hearts.
We find ourselves in the same position today as the religious leaders were in back in Jesus time. We have been entrusted with the riches of Christ Kingdom. We are the “Found.” As the Old Hymn Amazing Grace says: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” So what is there in this parable that we in the church can learn?
We must love God more than we love our traditions.
Don’t get me wrong I love our traditions. Our traditions are one of the things that drew me into Anglicanism.
When we focus on the minutia and being perfect we often lose the love of others. I was once reprimanded by a priest because he believed I had folded the corporal (little white towel) wrong. Our traditions are good, nonetheless we must not hold onto these things at the risk of losing the one who our traditions point to. We must not hold on to the unwritten rules that turn the lost away.
N.T. Wright said
We must “…sit light to the extra regulations which we impose on one another . . . which are over and above the gospel. The Church [he says} passes through turbulent times and frequently needs to reassess what matters and what doesn’t.
Christ calls us again to ask what matters and what doesn’t.
What are the extra regulations which we impose on one other? What things are we loving more than Christ? What are we holding on to that we must let go of? We have been found. We must become shrewd. So shrewd that we will do whatever it takes to be faithful managers. To carry the message of God’s grace to the lost. That they too may be found.