Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
There are a number of interpretive puzzles in this story of the so-called dishonest manager that forms the gospel reading for this Sunday. I will try to say something about them in due course. First, let us look at the end of the story. Here Jesus is talking, adding some comments to the story he has just told. He concludes these comments by saying that no one can serve two masters for obvious reasons. Then he says, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Whether or not I always serve God, I hesitate to accept the idea that I might be serving wealth. Rather, wealth is there to serve me. I think that is what many of us both in and outside the church think. We are free and wealth or money is to be used by us. It is a tool; it serves us. We may not always use our money wisely, but we definitely use it rather than serve it. Unless we think this, it would be very difficult to sustain the idea that money is something neutral. As long as money is a tool we can treat it as something to be used but it is neither good nor bad in itself.
We don’t really know whether the manager in this story entertains such theoretical musings about wealth. He does know a few things, however, about money’s role in our lives. This fellow is about to lose his white collar job because he has been “squandering” the wealth he controls on behalf of a rich man. We don’t know exactly what he has been up to. Perhaps a risky investment went bad; perhaps he took too great a commission; perhaps he is skimming off the master’s profits. All we need to know is that he is about to lose his job. He does not want to beg or dig ditches, so he launches his final big play. He uses his master’s money to set up a network of obligations among various people who owe his master money. He gives them a big break on their bill so that when he is tossed out of his current job, they will take him in. Instead of owing the rich man, they will owe him. He uses money to serve his impending needs.
This seems shrewd. He uses someone else’s money to make friends who will owe him in the future. The rich man commends him for this – sort of. First, the rich man contrasts the shrewdness of this manager and those like him with the children of light. Then he says, “Use dishonest wealth to make friends for yourselves, so that in your time of need, they will take you into their eternal homes.” This question is not stated, but is worth thinking about: “Are the eternal homes of those who become my friends because I used stolen money to buy their friendship, places where I actually want to stay much less spend eternity?”
I think the entire commendation of the manager is ironic. The manager thinks he has been clever or shrewd; he has used someone else’s money to secure his future. What he has neglected to consider is whether the future he has secured is a future he actually wants.
As Jesus unpacks this story for his followers it becomes clear that those of us who think of money as something to be used – well or badly – may have been mistaken or short-sighted. Jesus does not speak in terms of being wise or shrewd. Instead, the terms that Jesus uses are focused on faithfulness and fidelity: “Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much” (16:10). Even if money is something to be used, we and the manager are accountable for what has been given to us. Money entails accountability. If it didn’t, then the manager wouldn’t be in trouble in the first place. Indeed, money establishes networks of accountability within which we are faithful or unfaithful. In some abstract sense money may be morally neutral, but our lives with money are not.
I believe the manager in this story recognizes this. That is why he acts as he does. He sets up a network of accountability among those who owe his master money. He relieves them of their accountability to the master so that they become accountable to him. This is what it means to “make friends by means of dishonest wealth” (16:9). The manager “shrewdly” opts to create and then depend upon these friendships. These are relationships based on fraud and deceit. These are the friends with whom the manager is going to spend a very long time. Remember these are called “eternal dwellings.”
In this story (and in our world) money is used to create networks of friendship and mutual accountability. This renders the manager and us dependent on these friendships for all types of sustenance and care. The manager, caught in his dishonesty, could turn and throw himself on the mercy of his master. Instead, he is driven by fear and anxiety to break his relationship with his master in order to forge new friendships. He puts his trust in relationships based on fraud and deceit.
We do not know for certain what might have happened if he had tried to repair his relationship with his rich master. Nevertheless, we can say this: The stories leading up to this one are all about God’s desire to seek, find, receive and restore the lost. Immediately preceding this story is the story of the prodigal son who squanders [the same word as we find in 16:1] his inheritance. By placing the story of the dishonest manager where he does, Luke invites us to think of the rich man in this story in a manner similar to the father of the prodigal son, someone rich in mercy, eager to receive all of his “shrewd” servants who turn back in hopes of receiving welcome.