TEXT: Luke 16: 1-13
“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.” (Luke 16:8-9)
You know, that parable Jesus told about the dishonest manager reminds me of a story that’s sort of akin to it. It goes like this:
A man bought a donkey from an old farmer for $100.00. The farmer agreed to deliver the donkey the next day.
The next day the farmer drove up and said, “Sorry, but I got some bad news. The donkey died.”
“Well then,” the man said, “just give me my money back.”
“Can’t do that,” said the farmer. “I went and spent it already.”
“Okay then, just unload the donkey.”
“What ya gonna do with him?”
“I’m gonna raffle him off.”
“Ya can’t raffle off a dead donkey!”
“Sure I can. Watch me. I just won’t tell anyone he’s dead.”
A month later the farmer met up with the man and asked, “What happened with the dead donkey?”
“I raffled him off. I sold 500 tickets at $2.00 apiece and made a profit of $898.00.”
“Didn’t no one complain?”
“Just the guy who won. So I gave him his $2.00 back.”
It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think that there are only two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t!
As tongue-in-cheek as that is, it contains some real truth. There are always plenty of people around who view the world as if it were a western movie in which all the good guys wear white hats and all the bad guys wear black hats. From such a perspective, everyone is either completely on the side of good or completely on the side of evil.
Many of the people who see the world in such black-and-white terms are Christians. And of course, they are eager to co-opt Jesus to their cause. They are quick to associate the values of Jesus with their side, and to claim that God is therefore on their side and is totally opposed to the other side. They would have trouble imagining that God might feel anything but judgment and anger towards those on that “other side.”
In reality, the words of Jesus are seldom helpful to the cause of those who wish to paint the world in such stark contrasts. We all know that Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” and it’s hard to imagine any way of doing that that does not involve trying to find some redeeming features in your enemies. Once you start down that path, the lines get blurry. The story we heard Jesus tell in today’s reading is another one that’s going to be hard to swallow for those who want to shun those infidels who are not on the side of goodness and light.
It is a perplexing story indeed. Jesus is trying to teach his disciples something about how they should live and act, but he’s doing it from a story in which none of the characters are examples of moral integrity.
There are two main characters: the rich boss and his shady business manager.
Now, a quick survey of all the times that Jesus identifies a character in his stories as “a rich man” would lead you to believe that you should always assume the worst of such characters. They’re the ones who could get a camel through the eye of a needle sooner than they could be deemed fit for heaven.
And then there’s the business manager. At the beginning of the story, he is described as having squandered his master’s assets. And then, after describing the way he defrauds his boss, Jesus labels him as dishonest. But then, Jesus turns around and tells his disciples that on at least one count they don’t measure up to this dishonest manager, and that they would do well to take a page or two out of his book.
Notice that Jesus makes no excuses for the man’s behaviour. Instead, he makes it quite clear that this is an example of a person from “the other side”—one of the “children of this world” as opposed to the “children of the light.” But he is still clear that he wants his disciples to learn something from this story: he wants us to be as shrewd and creative in our thinking about how to do the works of light as the shady manager was in doing works of selfishness, greed and deceit.
This is a challenging text upon which to preach or blog! It’s a troubling passage. And I’m not at all certain that my poor efforts will be entirely satisfying. Still, I want to propose something. I want to suggest the possibility that what Jesus does here just might be something that he would call us to do a lot more often. That is, to recognize that there may be things to admire and allow ourselves to be challenged by even in those whose actions we would usually deplore and condemn.
I’ve already suggested that this might be related to the call to “love our enemies.” And that’s tough to do. I know that for me—and I suspect for most of us—it is much easier to perpetuate the demonizing. Once someone’s actions have angered me or disgusted me or terrorized me, I tend to focus only on what is abhorrent about them. I don’t want to admit that these people have some qualities that are highly impressive, and which I would have trouble living up to. But if I’m really committed to the truth, and if I’m really going to see people through the eyes of Jesus, then I’m going to have to face up to such uncomfortable truths.
And immediately, an example occurs to me which illustrates just how supremely difficult it is to apply this approach. Earlier this month—just last Sunday, in fact—we observed a grim anniversary; and of course, I’m speaking of the “9-11” commemorations marking the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York on September 11, 2001.
Perhaps today, Jesus would have us take a look at the terrorists who destroyed so many innocent lives on that day, and ask ourselves whether—like the dishonest business manager—they exhibited any qualities that we Christians should emulate. I want to apologize right away for saying that. I realize how offensive it is. Yet, I can’t help but wonder: Do those people—those terrorists, those fanatics whom we rightly describe as “children of evil”—point out some inadequacies in the “children of the light?” And I put it to you that they most certainly do.
Without in any way seeking to downplay the horror and the evil of what they did, I nevertheless think that we would do well to ask ourselves whether we would be willing to be even half as self-sacrificing for the cause of love and peace as they were for the cause of terror and destruction.
Am I as committed—body and soul—to advancing the reign of God as they were to advancing the reign of fear? Is there anything that I believe in so much that I’d be willing to leave my family and country and spend months or years preparing for and then give my life for? And if my answer is “No,” what does that mean? Does it mean that—compared to their belief in their cause and their passionate hatred—I just appear wishy-washy? Do I end up, by comparison, looking like I’m trying to serve two masters?
These are not pleasant questions. They are confronting and painfully hard to face. But facing them may be what’s needed if our world is ever going to break out of the endless cycle of conflict—of dividing up into opposing factions, and demonizing each other, and trying to obliterate each other.
Now, I’m not suggesting that any of us should beat ourselves up over this. Christ is infinitely loving and forgiving, and he is not going to boot us out of discipleship because of our failings. But neither is he going to be happy for us to rest on our laurels instead of continuing to grow and risk and stretch beyond our comfort zones.
Week by week, as we gather to worship, Jesus addresses us—and challenges us—through stories like the one from today’s gospel passage. He also addresses us through the intersection of those stories with our real life situations, as well as through the example of his own self-sacrifice. And as much as his challenge may disturb and discomfort us, especially when it comes to us from within the lives and actions of those deeds are reprehensible, Jesus still owns us as his disciples and as the “children of the light.”
Jesus is a good rabbi—a good teacher—and he expects us to make mistakes. He expects us to learn from our mistakes, but he also understands and accepts our failings. The good news is that he will never abandon us, and that he continues to walk with us on the unknown paths that lie ahead.
May God grant us wisdom and courage and discernment as together we journey through this less-than-perfect world. Amen.