(Irregular updating schedule is my fault. Hope to be back on track Friday.)
If you ever want to watch someone pick a verse or two from a passage and focus on it while ignoring a bunch of the rest, this parable is a good one to use.
“And Jesus said, ‘No one can serve two masters. You can’t serve both God and wealth.’”
“Hey, that’s interesting. I had a question though, about this part where Jesus tells us to make friends for ourselves with dishonest wealth. Is he telling us to be dishonest?”
Pause. “Yes, Jesus definitely said, ‘No one can serve two masters…”
We have a problem, of course, because it seems like Jesus has done exactly what the questioner asks about. It looks very much like Jesus has told us to use dishonest means to win friends for this world, and that doesn’t match at all with what we know about Jesus from elsewhere. He calls himself the Truth, which would mean dishonesty has little place with him. And he tells us that we should seek first the Kingdom of God, not the things of this world.
Well, while I don’t believe Jesus advocates cheating, I do think he wants his listeners and us to look at the shrewd and dishonest steward and see something he did that we also should do. Let’s look at the story and I’ll see if I can dig it out.
We have here a steward or money manager who’s been caught with sticky fingers. His master tells him to bring the books up to date because he’s going to get fired. Now the steward doesn’t like the idea of working for a living – or maybe it’s like he says and he really can’t do manual labor, although taking him at his word seems a bit foolish. He doesn’t want to beg.
He needs to make certain he’s taken care of when he loses this job, so he thinks up a shrewd plan. He calls in all his master’s debtors and reduces what they owe. In those days, people frequently pledged commodities for payment as well as money, so he marks down bills for olive oil, grain and the like.
We have several theories about the amounts he cuts from the bills. One suggests he removes the interest from the debt, which follows Moses’ law. Under that law, no one can charge interest when they lend money. Imagine the empty storefronts where the quickie-loan places are if we lived by that law today. He also might have cut out his commission on the deal – no sense in the master getting a little richer with money that was supposed to go to him, right? In fact, some suggest his job was in jeopardy in the first place because he charged excessive commissions. And we also have the notion that he just whacked whatever amount he felt like from the total.
Either way, he’s set himself up with some new friends he can count on for some favors if he gets let go. And he’s got the paper records to prove the master is owned only the new, lower amounts, which means the master himself can’t do much against him anymore.
The master notices this when they meet and is impressed. We don’t know if he decides to fire the manager or keep him. Although my money is on keeping him, because he’d probably rather have the guy stealing for him than working for someone else and stealing from him. Either way, he’s impressed.
Jesus tells his listeners his parable shows the shrewd dudes of this world are better at dealing with each other than his people will be. And then he makes his weird suggestion about making friends with dishonest money.
I believe Jesus wants us to see that the shrewd steward did something we should do – not cheat people or cut corners. But he saw danger ahead and he planned for it. He arranged matters so he was taken care of.
How many of us do the same? I don’t mean in terms of our worldly wealth, because we know what Jesus thinks of that. But how many of us who claim to follow the Lord have really prepared for what is to come in our lives? How many of us have prayed for strength so we can face trouble when it comes? How many have prayed for and worked for compassion in our lives so we can comfort those in need?
We know those things and others will come, just as sure as the manager knew he would lose his job. And yet it seems we – and believe me, this “we” includes “me” – just sort of move on through life without too much thought of God until we actually face a crisis or a need.
Jesus’ first message followed John the Baptist: Repent, for the kingdom is at hand! We as Christians have the tasks of making ourselves and our world ready for that Kingdom of God breaking in among us. We should probably give at least as much thought to what that means as the shrewd steward did to his future.