"These wisdom sayings are ... advising us to deal astutely with this world fully as it is, on its own terms, but also knowing full well that it is temporary and failing. We are to reach through this passing world to embrace the coming world of God's kingdom."
Season of Pentecost
Sunday Between September 18 and September 24 Inclusive
Proper 20, Ordinary Time 25
September 19, 2010, Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Click here, Luke 16:1-13, for an easy to print or email Adobe PDF version of this note.
Over the last few Sundays, the "audience" has shifted from "large crowds" (Luke 14:25), to "Pharisees and the scribes" (15:2) to now, "the disciples." (16:1) And, apart from the story of the prodigal and his father and brother (Luke 15:11-32), the content of Jesus' teaching is primarily wisdom stories and concluding sayings. (And often the concluding sayings are only loosely connected to the actual content of the stories. For example, the sheep and the coin are lost but do not sin nor repent. The sayings about joy in heaven would more logically follow the story of the prodigal son.)
And so, what are we to make of the story of the manager (or steward or agent) and the concluding sayings?
Bruce Malina (Pages 292-294, see footnote below) debunks the suggestion that the manager is simply returning an unjust excessive charge. This interpretation does not make any sense in the historical context, nor in the literary context of the story itself.
Malina also suggests that in the context of the story, the manager has been treated generously by the master at the outset since he was only fired instead of being more severely punished.
And. Since the manager represents the master (even after being fired since the others were not aware of this change), in the eyes of others the master is now in a pickle.
If the master renounces the actions of the manager and demands full payment of the debts, he will lose honour both for reneging on a deal made by his agent and for not properly controlling the actions of his agent. On the other hand, if he accepts the actions of his agent, he will gain honour for his generosity in forgiving a portion of the debts. The master (shrewdly) opts for increasing his honour and publicly praises his manager for his actions.
What are the disciples of Jesus, then and now, to make of this story? The variety amongst English translations of verses 8 to 13 suggest that the point of the story is not straight forward.
I take it that this text is a wisdom teaching and not a kingdom teaching.
By that I mean that the kingdom teachings of Jesus are intended to help us understand the nature and character and purposes of the Kingdom of God which is already at hand but not yet fully realized. But as disciples of Jesus, we are simultaneously occupying two spaces at the same time: We live in this world which is passing away, AND we also live in the Kingdom of God which is coming into being. Given this dual reality, how then shall we live? Wisdom teachings such as this text address this crucial question.
In simple terms, Jesus is saying, "Don't be stupid. "Mammon," the wealth of this temporary world, WILL fail you, but in the meantime use it for eternal, unfailing purposes - build relationships that will endure."
Verses 10, 11, and 12 give some pretty straight forward advice about developing and testing one's character. And Verse 13 returns to, and sharpens, the point of Verse 9:
There are two worlds. This life, which is temporary and passing away; and the Kingdom of God, which is eternal and is coming into being. You must be committed to one or the other. You cannot serve both. Instead you will use one to serve the other.
Jesus' questions to us in Verses 11 and 12 are particularly sharp for all Christians and congregations:
Are we being trustworthy (and shrewd and wise and astute) with the wealth given to us by others? If we cannot properly care for the spiritual riches we receive from others, how can we be trusted with the spiritual riches that belong to us?
Are we being trustworthy (and shrewd and wise and astute) with the goods of this world and thereby demonstrating that we can also be trusted with the riches of eternal life?
It seems to me that too often churches believe they can make a shambles of managing their earthly property and yet somehow still be good stewards of heavenly riches.
These wisdom sayings are NOT advising us to be cynical or duplicitous in our dealings with this world.
They ARE advising us to deal astutely with this world fully as it is, on its own terms, but also knowing full well that it is temporary and failing. We are to reach through this passing world to embrace the coming world of God's kingdom.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce Malina, et. al., Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
Permission is granted for non-profit use of these materials.
Acknowledgement in oral presentations is not required.
Otherwise, please acknowledge source as, "David Ewart, www.holytextures.com."