“A Shrewd Decision”
Sermon on Luke 16:1-13
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
The parables of Jesus can be provoking, demanding, and hard – this one, though, is just plain confusing. Here is Jesus telling a story about a boss who praises his employee for cheating him.
If nothing else, the parable is evidence that Jesus has a sense of humor. I can imagine his enjoyment at seeing the shocked, befuddled expressions on his listeners’ faces. Jesus may have been playing with a popular folkloric tradition, in which a clever trickster ends up being commended by the very people he has duped. And the story does seem to fit a certain pattern we see in the Bible, in which God favors swindlers and cheats: think of Jacob, who deceived his father, cheated his brother, and stole from his father-in-law – and still received a blessing.
In Jesus’s story a wealthy landowner has apparently leased his land to tenant farmers who have agreed to pay him a fixed return in grain or olive oil. The landowner has hired a manager to deal with the tenants and manage his accounts. Someone, probably another employee, tells the landowner that the manager has been mismanaging his property. The manager may have been taking a cut of the interest on the tenants’ debt, a common practice of debt collectors of the time. The boss calls the manager into his office and summarily fires him, demanding that he turn over the books to be audited.
The manager, faced with unemployment, examines his options. He is ill-suited to manual labor, and begging is out of the question, so he quickly comes up with a simple plan. He goes to each of his boss’s debtors, tells them to pull out their bills, and then orders them to falsify them by reducing the amount owed on each one. The wily manager is setting up a trust fund in “people capital” – the tenant farmers now have a debt of gratitude to the manager, ensuring they will receive him into their homes when he is out of work. And once the boss discovers what has been done, he won’t be able to do anything about it without alienating his tenants. So in tacitly approving the manager’s “generosity,” he comes off looking generous, too.
The truly bizarre note of the parable is the boss’s praise of his crooked manager. Christians have struggled with this for twenty centuries, beginning with Luke himself, who keeps adding verses, apparently trying to salvage an edifying moral lesson from the story.
The only way into this parable, I think, is to suspend our moral judgment of the manager, and note what he did that was worthy of praise, not only by his boss, but also, implicitly, by Jesus.
What the boss is praising in the manager is his clarity about his own situation. In a moment of crisis, he acts boldly and decisively to secure his future. And Jesus says, “If only the children of light acted with as much concern for their future as this grifter did for his!” The kingdom of heaven is near, he kept reminding his disciples. Pay attention! Determine your priorities and make a decision, and once you’ve made it, commit to it! Your future depends on what you do now, so be bold and don’t settle for halfway, lukewarm measures. The kingdom of heaven is near, present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. There is no time to lose.
Luke, like the other Gospel writers, wants us to understand that an encounter with Jesus Christ is an inflection point, a crisis that demands a decision. That decision, once made, is an all-in commitment. If you are going to be my disciple, Jesus says, you are going to have to be single-minded about it, and you are going to have to make some choices.
Some years ago the Princeton professor Anne Marie Slaughter made a media splash with an essay in The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” She described the pressures that keep so many women from reaching the top of their profession, not least of which are the demands of motherhood. Slaughter herself had resigned from her high-level, high-intensity job at the State Department to be able to give more attention to her 14-year-old son; she had made the unpleasant discovery that that “having it all” was not possible in many types of jobs.” She lamented the fact that it is women, disproportionately, who have to make these choices. She then concluded the article by outlining changes that could be made in our social and economic structures to allow women to indeed “have it all.”
First, I should say that I am wholly in favor of changes in policy and employment practices that will give women more equal opportunities in the workplace and increase their earning power relative to that of men. I support such changes with my voice and with my vote. But the idea that any person, male or female, could “have it all” is stunningly naïve. Every choice made has its cost. There is always a price to be paid, a tradeoff between competing benefits.
In spite of its basic emptiness and spiritual poverty, the idea of “having it all” has become a cultural expectation for women and men of the wealthier classes in this country. The idea that a person would have to forego one thing in order to have another is considered negative, defeatist thinking. “Having it all” is fundamentally a consumerist approach to life, in which the gratification of a multitude of desires becomes the goal and the highest good.
The writer Garret Keizer remembers a retreat he made at a monastery when he was in his twenties and trying to make a decision about his own vocation. What struck him was the monks’ refusal of the ethic of “having it all.” “However a monk came to be there, his coming had meant a giving up of something – and that made…the brothers fascinating and in some ways awesome…all of them were challenging [the assumptions of modern American culture]….Quietly, [they] were saying, ‘That won’t work.’”
An encounter with Jesus Christ forces us to ask questions of the greatest urgency: What is most important? What is worth giving my life to? What is worth giving something up for, whether that something is my time or my money?
There are some decisions we can make that have nothing to do with “having it all.” Christians, including many of you, make these kinds of decisions all the time. Here are just a few:
Clearly, you don’t have to join a monastery to make a commitment to Christian discipleship.
If Christ has priority in our lives, then all our activities and commitments are ordered according to that priority. That means that my life as a spouse, parent or grandparent, student, employee, volunteer, and consumer of goods and services, should reflect that primary commitment.
The columnist David Brooks has written, “For all of us, religious or secular, life doesn’t come from how well you keep your options open but how well you close them off and reach a higher freedom.” The shrewdest decision may mean closing off some options in order to choose the best one.
At my last church, one year our Sunday morning adult class was entitled “A Year with Jesus.” The class grew out of a question: “If you spent a year in the company of Jesus, having day-to-day encounters with him, how would you be different?” In other words, how would your life choices be different? How would you spend your time and your money and your energy?
The work of God’s kingdom goes on with us or without us. The kingdom is, in fact, present among us even now, as Jesus Christ beckons each one of us to take notice and respond with the shrewdness of the “children of light,” because the moment of decision is always now.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
September 22, 2019
 R. Alan Culpeper, “The Gospel of Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville:Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 310.
 From Garret Keizer, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees :The Finding of a Ministry (Boston: David R. Godine, 1991), in Leading Lives That Matter, Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, Eds. (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 418-419.