15th Sunday after Pentecost: The Shrewd Manager

First Reading: Amos 8:4-7

4Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
  and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
5saying, “When will the new moon be over
  so that we may sell grain;
 and the sabbath,
  so that we may offer wheat for sale?
 We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
  and practice deceit with false balances,
6buying the poor for silver
  and the needy for a pair of sandals,
  and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
7The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
 Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

Psalm: Psalm 113

1Hallelujah! Give praise, you servants of the Lord;
  praise the name of the Lord.
2Let the name of the Lord be blessed,
  from this time forth forevermore.
3From the rising of the sun to its going down
  let the name of the Lord be praised.
4The Lord is high above all nations;
  God’s glory above the heavens.
5Who is like the Lord our God,
  who sits enthroned on high,
6but stoops to behold
  the heavens and the earth?
7The Lord takes up the weak out of the dust
  and lifts up the poor from the ashes,
8enthroning them with the rulers,
  with the rulers of the people.
9The Lord makes the woman of a childless house
  to be a joyful mother of children. Hallelujah!

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7

1First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. 3This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5For
 there is one God;
  there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
 Christ Jesus, himself human,
  6who gave himself a ransom for all
—this was attested at the right time.7For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Gospel: Luke 16:1-13

1Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And 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. 9And 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.
10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

CHILDREN’S SERMON;  Shrewd

Today’s parable is about a shrewd manager who got himself in trouble. As I tried to think of stories that we know about shrewdness, I remembered the story of two shrewd men told by Hans Christian Anderson.  Once upon a time there was an emperor who loved his clothes more than anything.  Two men came to him and claimed they could weave material so beautiful and so colorful the emperor would be admired by all.  AND the beauty of the material could only be seen by his honest and trustworthy people, not by fools.  The two men started weaving, and measuring, and cutting, and sewing.  The emperor’s officials came in but could not see the material but dared not confess so to the emperor who would think them foolish.  When finished, the emperor organized a great parade to show off his outfit.  As he swaggered along, a child watching shouted out, “The Emperor has no clothes on!”

         Turn to your neighbor and share what you think was so shrewd about the two men’s scheme.

Let us pray.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.

CONTEXT

         Let’s get our context straight as we delve into this very interesting parable.  We are in Pentecost and reflecting on how our God who incarnated, died and rose, impacts our lives.  Do we hear these parables as old familiar history tales or are these parables impacting our lives as we make history? Luke is sharing a series of parables about the kingdom of heaven.  He is not just sharing fables like Aesop and making moral pronouncements.  Luke is reporting parables Jesus shared with his followers to teach them and us about the kingdom of heaven.  Are we listening?

         The kingdom of heaven is like being invited to a banquet at the king’s palace but we will be tempted to be distracted by family (a wife), possessions (a cow), and fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum.  We will be tempted to think we can put off till tomorrow our relationship with God.  “Please hold me excused, I cannot come.”  Jesus also advises us to wait on God to reveal our seat at the banquet table and not grab the best seats only to be embarrassed when others are given that seat.  Humility is the attitude to learn.  As we give banquets are we investing in a future when we will be repaid or just trying to impress others and pay back social debts?  Last week Jesus compared God to a good shepherd who goes after his sheep who are lost or like a woman searching for a lost coin.  We are invited, we are sought after, and we are rejoiced over when we turn to God.  Today we skip the parable of the prodigal son and turn to the following text that challenges us because it is counter intuitive.  I would suggest that our text today is a direct counter comparison to the preceding parables.

         A rich man hears rumors that his manager is misappropriating funds and so calls him to account.  Did your heart skip a beat at this picture?  Some groups of Christians picture meeting God as a court room scenario where the angry judge is accusing us of all our sins.  We are only saved because Jesus steps in and says he has paid the price on the cross.  Like the man in the parable we know our future is a bit unknown and potentially disastrous.  We cannot work.  We cannot work our way into God’s favor.  Our failures threaten unemployment and rejection. 

         The fear of unemployment is a fear we all know.  Having to regroup lives because of the pandemic is affecting many Americans today.  Having to regroup lives because of war is affecting many all over the world.  Having to regroup lives because of environment as in Pakistan’s floods or droughts or famine is the reality of many.  Having to regroup lives because of sickness touches my life.  We know the despair the manager in our story grappled with.  He is too old to work and too proud to beg.  It does not sound like he could turn to his wise investments, but was turning to “social” security, the security that comes from developing relationship with the social system at the time.   Friends, we know this man.  He is us.

         In direct contrast to this scene that is so familiar to us are the preceding parables picturing a God who invites us to a banquet regardless of our social class, regardless of our accomplishments, regardless of our ethnicity or language. Our sins need not be held against us.  The Shepherd goes out and looks for us if we are lost.  The woman lights a lamp to dispel darkness and sweeps away the cobwebs that hide us in a corner.  There was no sense of judgment last week.  We need not scramble to make friends who will stand up for us when we meet the judge.  Our social security is not with other people but with Jesus, God incarnate.

         Need I remind us of our confirmation verse:  Ephesians 2:8-9.  Let’s say it together.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  We are saved by grace, not works.  We are saved through faith, not by our works.  Salvation is a gift of God.

Shrewdness vs. Humility

         Knowing that he is being called to account by the master, creates a crisis for the manager.  He has a moment of truth.  He must make a “course correction.”  What he is doing is not getting him where he wants to go.  He develops a plan.  He cuts the debts of the tenants.  Perhaps he eliminated his share of the profit.  Often the manager, like the tax collector, would add a percentage to the cost and the extra went into his pocket.  The plan also makes the owner look forgiving and generous.  This guy was shrewd!

            “8And 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.” The world praises shrewdness, cleverness, education, power, wealth and talent.  Those are the values of this world.  In the parable of the banquet Jesus values humility.  The guests are told to be humble and allow the host to seat them.  The hosts of heaven are rejoicing over the lost sheep found, the lost coin found. They are not praising a shrewd sheep!  The kingdom of heaven does not value what the kingdom of earth values.

And so…

         We know the anxiety of being called to account for our actions, the doubts and fears that plague our thinking.  We know that someday we will all die and face the God of the universe.  Jesus’ parable of the banquet paints a very different picture than this parable.  Like the emperor, we want to look good and be considered worthy of eternity.  The world suggests that shrewdness and cleverness is the road to success.  If only we had clothes that made us appear wonderful, clothes that the world offers – clothes, houses, degrees, medicine or beauty products.  Unfortunately these earthly accomplishments are “invisible clothes” that wear out and fade and do not impress God.  Faithfulness and trustworthiness in little matters we are given tell the true story of how we might handle bigger tasks.

         Jesus advises us to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  What is Jesus advising?  May I suggest that Jesus is advising us to use our wealth, that is not really ours but a gift from God, use our wealth to build God’s kingdom.  Creating spiritual relationships now with whatever wealth the Lord entrusts to us, creates eternal relationships that will greet us when we enter the banquet hall.  How we handle our trusts here on earth reflects our eternal values. The text ultimately challenges us to have a moment of truth about what kingdom we serve.     “13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one         and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

The kingdom of earth calls us to account on how we handle the talents we are entrusted with and threatens us with unemployment, rejection, if we have failed the standard.  God’s kingdom is ruled by grace and forgiveness based on relationship with the host, the owner, the God of the universe.  We need only accept his invitation. 

The kingdom of earth admires shrewdness and cleverly developed plans to protect ourselves and ours.  God’s kingdom, the kingdom of light, values using our wealth not for self-protection but for developing friendships that will last into eternity.  Jesus advises humility.

The kingdom of earth sees us as slaves to bosses who evaluate our worth by our faithfulness in small matters.  The kingdom of heaven sees us as “friends,” as “servants,” and as God’s sheep.

We cannot serve two masters.  We must choose between God and mammon.  Who do you serve today?

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