"The most perplexing of Jesus' parables"

Scripture — Luke 16:1-13 (NIV)

Thank you, Vern Nelson, for that intro! In case anybody didn't recognize the tune, it was The Preacher, by a great jazz pianist and composer named Horace Silver.

I make no claim of being a Preacher. I'm just a somewhat confused senior citizen who will try to share some of his own thoughts with his brothers and sisters. I must confess that I became even more confused when I read, and tried to understand, the Scripture you just heard.

These verses from Luke are recommended by our United Methodist lectionary to be read today. Last week, we heard the passage from Luke 15 which describes Jesus eating with tax collectors and other sinners and telling the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Next week, our Scripture, and Pastor Tom's message, will be from Luke 16, and will deal with Lazarus and the rich man.

When Pastor Tom invited me to bring the message today and told me what the suggested scripture was, I searched for commentaries which might help me understand it better and be able to make sense of it. I asked my friend Google for help and found dozens of commentaries which tried to explain this mysterious passage. It seemed as though no two explanations were alike! I read John Calvin's commentaries from five centuries ago and quickly got lost. I never quite understood Calvinism anyway! At a site called The Working Preacher, I came across a commentary by a guy named Greg Carey, a professor of Theology, who began by saying that this passage "stands among the most challenging texts in the New Testament, [commentators] often regarding it as the most perplexing of Jesus' parables."

So I thank this possible distant cousin for at least providing a title for this morning's message! And Greg also points out that the crooked manager was smart enough to recognize his situation and to understand that he was about to lose his lucrative job and be forced to rely on the kindness of the customers he had been dealing with. Greg says that "we inhabit a cultural moment at which some people, Christians just as much as anyone else, regard themselves as more deserving of society's benefits than some of their less worthy neighbors." So let's not just think that because we've lived what we consider just and virtuous lives, we deserve a better break than more worldly people, or that we'll never face misfortune or adversity.

Sometimes, reading a Scripture in a different language can provide insights we can't get in English. After all, aren't the structures of the Spanish and French languages supposed to be just a little more like the original Greek than our own English is? But this time, that approach didn't help much, although I do think the Spanish description of the master's corrupt servant as a mayordomo, which is sort of like a foreman or overseer, was slightly better than steward or manager, which is the way he is described in English versions. And I believe the French Bible's quoting him as saying he couldn't "travailler comme ouvrier agricole", or "work as a farm hand" is a little clearer and more vivid than just having him say he "couldn't dig". I'd be very interested in knowing how Pastor Nathanael Canlas, who helped translate the New Testament into the Pampango language, understood and dealt with this passage.

So, after I had glanced through several dozen commentaries in a bunch of different languages, I felt even more confused and perplexed than when I started out. But I would like to share one Bible version which I found somewhat helpful. It's from a 20th Century English translation, or paraphrase, called The Message. Here's what The Message says, where the steward is mulling over his situation:

"I'm not strong enough for a laboring job..." That's sort of like the French version, isn't it? And at verses 8 and 9, where Jesus is summing things up, it has him saying:

"Now here's a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you'll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior."

And I think that, by praising the crooked manager's actions, Jesus was just reminding us that we should be kind to those who are less fortunate, and that our kindness may be returned. The people whose debts were forgiven may never have been able to repay them anyway, but they were given an opportunity to live a little better life, and just might have returned the kindness of the manager, who made it all possible. The fact that the rich master complimented the manager just might tell us that these were debts which might never have been repaid if they hadn't been deeply discounted.

What Jesus says in verse 9 contains some good advice:

"I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings."

So, let's spread that worldly wealth around some. Let's use it to help those people who might be going through hardships or who might be stumbling and staggering around, weighted down by crushing burdens of debt. You won't regret it!

While trying to come up with ideas for this message, I contacted somebody we all remember from her days at OUMC, Pastora Teresa Santillana. She sent me some good "food for thought", which I would like to translate and paraphrase and share with you this morning...

  1. There's always a chance to start anew, just as happened to the manager in this story. This can happen when a crisis occurs which causes us to be unable to enjoy whatever we like and enjoy most. Such as when a very intelligent teacher with many years of service is suddenly diagnosed with Alzheimer's, or when a good and loving father sees his son destroying himself, or when a great athlete suffers a crippling injury.
  2. In the parable, the manager has just discovered that he is being fired. He has failed in all the duties with which his rich master had entrusted him. Everything in which he had invested his time and energy over the years will no longer bring him satisfaction or security. All is lost! He has swindled the public, the people who had confided in him.
  3. Now this administrator decides to dedicate himself to helping others. He decides to show love and to help his neighbors.
  4. It's best to begin anew by giving ourselves generously and completely for the good of others.
  5. This time, the manager will be able to start anew, without being anxious or stressed out. He'll be able to work to build the kingdom of God here on earth, and to see that he can build it with the neediest and poorest of his neighbors. Instead of living to steal and hoard, with selfishness and jealousy, we need to see what brings peace, harmony, joy and unity among all.
  6. Friends last longer than money!

¡Muchísimas gracias por estas contribuciones, mi pastora!

Aren't there unfortunate people all around us, such as those we see at Agape Café, or Hot Meal Ministry, or the food distributions, whom we might be looking down upon, but who might, "with a little help from their friends"— us — arise and be able to take part in all the blessings and joys of everyday life? These poor are like the unfortunate debtors in the parable, whose debts were partially forgiven by the "crooked" or "shrewd" manager and who were then able to resume some semblance of a normal life.

In conclusion, I would just like to remind all of us that, when we're reading the Scriptures, we need to remember that there are often many different ways in which we can interpret them. We need to be open to new and different meanings which we may not have learned in Sunday school a long time ago and which we may not have considered before. If at first, a simple or obvious interpretation doesn't occur to you, don't be afraid to search for hidden meanings or for other opinions.

I know that Pastor Tom is planning to conduct an Advent Bible study once again this year. Watch for announcements of it and, if possible, sign up for it so that you'll have a chance to study and discuss the Scriptures with fellow Christians.

Chuck Carey
September 2013

After presenting this message, I read the following commentaries on this morning's Scripture in the bilingual newsletter of our neighbor church, St. Philip Benizi:

En el Evangelio, Jesús describe el intenso esfuerzo de un astuto sirviente que ve aproximarse un "recorte" de personal. Jesús lo admira y se pregunta por qué tanta astucia se limita al mundo de los negocios. Jesús no entiende por qué quienes buscan "posición" en el Reino de Dios no son tan ingeniosos y tan recursivos.

In the Gospel, Jesus describes the wholehearted effort of a crafty servant who sees "downsizing" heading his way. Jesus finds him a marvel and puzzles over why such cleverness is limited to the world of commerce. Jesus wonders why those who seek a "position" in the reign of God lack such wit and wherewithal.

¡Muchísimas gracias, hermanos católicos, por este comentario!

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