Dear Working Preacher,
If you’re not sure what to make of this parable, take some comfort — I’m not sure Luke was either! Consider that there are at least four interpretations offered immediately after the parable proper ends in verse 8a:
- The children of the light need to act more shrewdly.
- Christians should make friends by “dishonest wealth.”
- If you’re not faithful with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with the true riches?
- You cannot serve two masters.
Yikes, talk about confusing!
Part of the problem is that terms like “dishonest wealth” and “true riches” are not made clear. And how we are to make friends with dishonest wealth that will lead to a welcome into the eternal home is left unsaid. But perhaps most vexing of all is the question of why the rich man commended his dishonest manager. It’s here, I think, from which we may hear, even if somewhat faintly at first, the heartbeat of a good sermon on this passage.
While I can’t claim with confidence to know exactly why the owner commends his dishonest manager, it occurs to me that one of the prominent themes in Luke is the proper use of wealth. Except that it’s not just the use of wealth; it’s more like Luke is concerned with our relationship to wealth and how that affects our relationships with others. With this in mind, we sense a profound change in the rather interesting, if not terribly admirable, character of the dishonest manager. For while he once acted in a dishonest way to enrich himself, he now acts to enrich others and thereby establish a relationship of mutual benefit.
Granted, he does this out of a sense of desperation. Granted, he’s still acting in a rather fishy way, given that he’s cutting the debts that people owe his master, not him. But he has caught on to the fact that money can be used to engender relationship, even if it’s relationships of mutual obligation. And so perhaps the manager commends him for just this shrewdness, that in a moment of desperation he is able to use his financial savvy to make friends rather than enemies (for it is his co-workers who initially turn him in).
Whatever we may think of the manager, might we recognize that there are better and worse ways to use money, and using money to establish relationships is better than hording it? More to the point, might we use this parable as a chance just to talk about money and, more than that, about our relationship to and use of our wealth?
Once you bring up money, some may feel you’ve moved from preaching to meddling.
There is a strong cultural taboo regarding talking about money with others, and yet most people I know — including myself — struggle with questions about money: how much is enough, how much should we give away, how can we raise children who are both wise and generous, and so on. While I’m not sure this parable gives clear guidance to any of these questions, is does present characters who also struggle with money, characters with mixed motives and yet who change over time in relationship to their circumstances. Characters, perhaps, not unlike ourselves.
Perhaps we could first invite our people into conversation about this parable — what questions do they have, what in the story stands out, how does it shape the way they think about money. If folks seem puzzled or confused, assure them they are not alone. But then move to also ask them about whether we are not similarly confused at times about what we should do with our money. What is our responsibility to those with less? How might we use the money we have to build relationships? What might our congregation look like if it became a place where we could help each other think more clearly about our economic lives in light of our faith, and how do we help each other use money well without ultimately serving it?
Or if you don’t want to engage the whole congregation, might we take this Sunday as an opportunity to hear from several parishioners about their own views of money in relation to their faith. You undoubtedly know folks who seem particularly wise. Perhaps a business person who has a reputation for using money well. Or perhaps someone who has lived with little and yet been content. Perhaps a young person who is not yet immersed in the world of dollars and cents and yet is already thinking about these things. It might be powerful for you to gather a few people together ahead of time and enter into a conversation about this parable and our lives of faith in relation to our money. You can then share what you learned through these conversations or have them speak for themselves. However you might decide to go, you will certainly start a conversation that, over time, will bear fruit, as we cultivate a community that practices applying our faith to all of our lives.
I know there’s some risk here, Working Preacher, as once you bring up the subject of money some in the congregation may feel you’ve moved from preaching to meddling. But the thing is, if the only time we talk about money is when we need some to balance the church’s books, we reinforce the view that the church has nothing to add to conversations about money and perpetuate the gap between our faith and our everyday lives.
Not an easy passage this week, Working Preacher! But, then again, who ever said preaching was supposed to be easy? 🙂 Know that as you wrestle with these issues you’re not alone, for Christians since Luke’s time on have wrestled with similar questions. And know as well that as you join this holy struggle you are in my prayers.
Yours in Christ,
PS: I put a post earlier this week on my blog “In the Meantime…” that mentioned this parable and asked the question of whether we can talk about money in church. If you want to look at or join in the comments, you can find it here.