The Rev. Canon Frank Logue gave this sermon
at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Pooler, Georgia on September 19, 2010
I wish I were preaching this sermon on the Oprah Winfrey Show. It would be the perfect opportunity to really show you what Jesus is teaching in the Gospel. After all, Oprah is known for giving her whole audience extravagant gifts. Back in 2004, she gave all 276 people in the audience a new Pontiac G-6 car to launch her 19th season. This year is her final season and she got the farewell started by giving 300 audience members an 8-day all expense paid trip to Australia. She is getting actor John Travolta to fly them down and is even paying the taxes the audience would owe for accepting the big present.
If this were Oprah, I would now be announcing that every one in the congregation at St. Patrick’s today is going to receive $100,000. What would you do with that $100,000? Before you decide, know that there is one rule that you must follow. The money will not be yours. Only the money you can make with the $100,000 will remain yours to keep. In a year, you’ll give the $100,000 back and keep whatever you earned.
The reason you have to pay it back is that Jesus tells the parable of a steward, or manager. He is in charge of his boss’s resources and earns a reward based on how he cares for what is entrusted to him. Take care of Oprah’s $100,000 and you are a steward. And a steward, like the manager in the parable we read today from Luke’s Gospel, is someone in charge of someone else’s possessions.
How would you go about caring for $100,000 you are given for being part of the congregation at St. Patrick’s Church? Are you planning to buy bonds or open a new restaurant? To help you decide, we have Jesus’ rather startling money management advice. Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
This does not sound like solid investment advice does it? Make friends with dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you. It makes it seem as if Jesus wants to take our $100,000 and squander it, and end up with nothing to show for it other than the friends we spent the money to make happy. Follow that advice and not only will you end up broke, but the fair weather friends on whom you waste your money are not likely to stick with you when you have nothing more to give them.
I think one problem with hearing this story rightly is that Bibles, which offer heading for a section, will call this “The Parable of the Unjust Steward” or even “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager.” But Jesus did not name the parables. He simply told them. And is this really the story of a steward or manager who we can see as unjust or shrewd?
Jesus begins by saying, “There was a rich man who had a manager.” The one to watch in this story is the rich man. This is exactly what happens with the parable Jesus had just told. In the verses immediately before the parable for today, Luke’s Gospel told the parable of “The Prodigal Son.” Yet, there too, Jesus begins, “There was a man who had two sons.” By the end of that story, we realize that the parable we call The Prodigal Son is better named, “The Parable of the Forgiving Father” for it is the father’s action and not the actions of his two sons that are the heart of that story.
Here too we have the parable of “The Forgiving Rich Man.” Or better yet as he is referred to literally in the Greek as “Lord” we should call the story we read today, “The Parable of the Forgiving Lord.” The story begins when the Lord, who is the wealthy boss, learns that his steward was squandering his property. The word squandering is uncommon in the New Testament, but Jesus just used the same word to say that the son who demanded his inheritance from his father ends up squandering his wealth in riotous living. Both The Prodigal Son and The Shrewd Manager have squandered the gift that was given them and both find forgiveness.
In this, we sit alongside the son and the manager from these parables. Jesus is talking here about the ways in which we humans squander the gifts that God gives us. After all, we are all stewards of a life we were given by God, which we are called to give back to God. All we have is not really ours. Someone else will one day live in your house. Someone else will hold your job. Your property is yours for now, but not yours in any eternal sense. The stuff you have is only yours for a little while in the eternal scheme of things.
To squander is to scatter or waste. Squandering also carries the meaning of being extravagant. The Prodigal Son lived extravagantly and so wasted his inheritance. To squander is to take what is entrusted to you and one way or another blow it and end up with little to show for all you received. Jesus is surely talking about money in this passage, but he is talking about much more than money. The question is, in the ways you use your money and other possessions, does it give honor to God? In the ways your money and possessions do not honor God, you are squandering what has been entrusted to you.
But let’s turn back to the parable for a closer reading. Once the steward is caught squandering the bosses’ possessions; he is told he will have to give an accounting of his management. Then he is apparently sent out to get the accounting together. Rather than working on cooking the books in the first century equivalent of an Excel spreadsheet showing profit and loss, the steward takes bold action. He knows there is no covering up his wasting the rich man’s resources and he also knows his present job is the only one for which he is qualified. No one will hire a disgraced manager who squandered his last bosses’ property and so he is in a real bind. He goes to those who owe the boss and lowers their debt. In this way he curries the favor of the debtors in hopes to use his bosses’ money to gain favor.
All towns are in the end small towns where folks know one another’s business. The rich man learns what the steward is doing. Now what is the boss to do? He could go back on what the manager has done and those who owe him who had part of the debt forgiven only to have it added back will not think better of him. This is a culture in which honor and shame matter very much. The only admirable path for the rich man is to honor the debt forgiveness of the manager. Better to be thought well of for forgiving debt than to be the one who had to have every last penny. But to do so will mean that the rich man is now squandering his own property, forgiving real debts only because the unjust manager said they were forgiven.
I use the word forgiven on purpose. In speaking of sin and forgiveness, Luke uses the language of debt and forgiveness of debt. As Luke tells it, we owe a debt to God and God forgives that debt, putting what we owe on Jesus’ tab. It’s not fair exactly, but it is who God is and how God acts and it is more than fair to those of us who are the debtors.
Jesus then begins to wrap up in saying, “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.” It is faithfulness to which we are called. Those who are faithful in little will be faithful in much. For Jesus, all money is little. Money is the small stuff. If you don’t treat even the little stuff like $100,000 well, then how will you treat something truly valuable like another human being? And if you are dishonest with something relatively meaningless like money, then you will likely be dishonest when the stakes are higher.
The rich man commends the manager in the story because he has actually changed. In the beginning, the manager wasted the rich man’s property and in so doing took honor away from the boss. But when threatened with losing his job, the manager lowered the debts owed and so restored some honor to his boss by making the rich man out to be forgiving. After all, the debt reduction scheme would only work if the rich man honored it and in so doing showed himself to be the better man in being more concerned about people than property.
Jesus sees money as something that is all too temporal. You have money now, but it will not buy the smallest measure of grace on the Day of Judgment. Yet, if you are faithful with the money for which you have stewardship, then it can have eternal consequences. You just can’t have it both ways. One will be your master, God or the money. You will have to choose. Jesus says that we are to use what we have to serve God. That is the real lesson here. Rather than paying attention to the steward, whether we consider him to be unjust or shrewd, we are to notice the rich man, the boss who is the true owner of that which has been squandered. And in this parable as in the linked parable of The Prodigal Son which comes before it, we find that God is ready and willing to squander forgiveness giving forgiveness away extravagantly. God is the Forgiving Father, the Forgiving Lord, the one who would waste forgiveness on those who do not deserve it.
Who is the one on whom God wastes forgiveness? I am. OK, you too. God has extravagantly poured out forgiveness on us each time we have taken the true wealth we have been given and wasted it on a life that is passing away.
Jesus used these two parables to show how much we have been forgiven. How God the Father is going out of his way to flood mercy, compassion, and forgiveness of us. For this, we are not to go out and waste what we have been given all the more. No, we are to change. In the words of last week’s sermon, we are to “repent” which means to change our hearts and minds and our behavior as well. We who have been forgiven much are to be faithful with the resources God has given us and go out squandering forgiveness on others. We are to follow the examples, not of The Prodigal Son or The Shrewd Manager, but of The Forgiving Father and The Forgiving Lord. Jesus is revealing to us here who God is and how God acts and this is to inform the way we live our lives.
So then, how would you spend the $100,000 if this sermon had been given on the Oprah Winfrey Show? Jesus says that to honor God you must be faithful with something so meaninglessly small as $100,000 as how you spend it will reveal what you think about something much more valuable, all the people around you. A real return on investment from Jesus’ perspective would be any investment that reveals that your true Lord is God and not money.
And beyond this, Jesus also show the only appropriate response to forgiveness. In these two parables and elsewhere, Jesus demonstrates that those of us who have experienced forgiveness, are to forgive others. Being faithful will mean others will see us as too forgiving. But in finding ways to squander forgiveness on others, we are being the most like our Father in Heaven who is “The Forgiving Father” and “The Forgiving Lord” Jesus described not only in these stories, but also though in his life and ministry which were all about extravagantly sharing love and forgiveness.