Friday, October 19, 2018

Luke 16:1-13

We go immediately from what is perhaps Jesus' most well known, most loved parable -- the parable of the Prodigal Son, as it's most often called -- to one of the least known, least understood, and frankly least loved parable -- that of the shrewd manager. Doesn't roll off the tongue quite the same way, does it?

There is an important continuity between these parables. Notice the audience. At the beginning of Luke 15, Luke tells us that the context for the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons is Jesus welcoming sinners and the Pharisees disapproving. At the beginning of Luke 16, Jesus turns to the disciples (though it's clear later that the Pharisees are still listening in) and begins to explain what it really means to be his follower. So we ignore this parable in chapter 16 at our peril.

In the parable of the lost sons and the parable of the shrewd manager, Jesus is dealing with questions of stewardship and our relationship to worldly wealth. The priority, laid out in the parable of the lost sons, is that we should know the Father's heart. In Luke 15, Jesus clearly told us that the Father is joyful, eager for relationship, determined to love sinners, running to the repentant. That is the Father's heart. In that context, we see a couple responses to wealth management.

The first is the younger son. He foolishly squanders his wealth for pleasure. No one would defend his spending habits in the parable. Yet how many of us, in more subtle ways, spend our resources for our own satisfaction? Whether it's buying a third home for our own enjoyment, a jet-ski because we want to play, or a Snickers bar in the grocery check out just because we feel like self-indulgence, how many of us set as our highest priority that we want to buy things to make ourselves feel good? That's the way of the younger son.

The way of the older son seems much better, at least at first glance. He has denied himself and kept his nose to the grindstone. Trouble is, his whole life is a resentful lie. He labors under the mistaken belief that he doesn't matter to the Father and he is in fact little better than a slave. His life is a grim, joyless existence and he lusts after -- and denies himself -- the wealth that to him is evidence of his Father's injustice. He has completely missed his Father's heart.

The shrewd manager in Luke 16 provides a third option that looks absolutely heinous at first glance. Jesus describes a despicable man without a shred of honesty who wheels and deals his way into self-protection. He cheats his master in order to provide for himself. And Jesus clearly says that his ways are the ways of the world, not the ways of the Father. Being a wheeler-dealer is not the solution.

But, Jesus seems to say -- and we must not miss this -- there's a subpoint under option three. What Jesus lifts up in the manager's conduct is that he used worldly wealth to make friends for himself because he knew a time was coming when he'd need protection. Jesus says, learn from the manager. A time is coming when you will need eternal protection. The things of this world will fade and die. So use the worldly wealth God provides in order to make friends who can help you out in your eternal needs. Who can help you in that way? God alone. So the moral of the story, according to Jesus, is that we should use worldly resources to make friends with God. Yes, it's a crass, self-centered way of looking at things. But we have to read this parable also in light of the heart of the Father Jesus has described so well in chapter 15. (Remember, again, that there were no chapter divisions in the first manuscripts -- so when Jesus is speaking and when Luke is writing, the story of the lost sons flows immediately into the story of the dishonest manager.)

The Father's heart makes all the difference. It is his longing to welcome us into his home, no matter how foolish we have been -- or how arrogant about our own work ethic. In either case, Jesus says, the Father's heart is to welcome you into his eternal dwelling, the party of the angels for repentant sinners. So, use your wealth -- rather than squandering it or serving it -- to serve the Father! Then at the end of the day the two of you -- along with the angels and so many other imperfect but repentant sinners -- can sit down, enjoy a glass of Cabernet, and talk about the day's projects.

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