The parable Jesus tells today is so controversial that people can’t even agree on what to call it. Different Bible translations give it all kinds of titles: the dishonest manager, the shrewd manager, the commendable scoundrel, the prudent steward, the unjust steward…. People have been wrestling with this parable for centuries. And that’s good.
The Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine points out that while Jesus’ main form of teaching was parables, the Gospel writers included almost no interpretations of his parables in their text. They left the stories open-ended, as Jesus did, since the whole point of a parable is to get you to engage with it. It should puzzle and bother you precisely because its meaning is not clear.
In later centuries, Church folk got good at domesticating Jesus’ parables and assigning them “an” interpretation, but this parable is so strange that it’s a hard one to domesticate. If you opened Evernote and began listing questions it raises for you, I am sure you could get to 40 or 50 in just the few minutes of this sermon. And of course, like every sermon, the questions I’ll ask today will touch only a tiny sliver of the power and challenge in the text. But that’s true of any sermon on any passage of Scripture; the Word of God is all infinitely rich.
How we react to this parable in part depends on who we think Jesus is and what he came to do. Many people just can’t get past the fact that the manager is dishonest, yet Jesus is using him as a positive example. So here’s a crooked employee, and when he’s about to get fired for misconduct he cheats even more; how can Jesus point to that as a sign of the Kingdom? People get so offended by it that they sometimes even invent information to try and make the manager’s behavior count as ethical. (There are two other parables where Jesus uses someone who is morally shady as a teaching example, so the morality issue apparently doesn’t bother him, but it sure bothers lots of us.)
I wonder, though, if the offense we feel at this comes from a prior assumption that we’re sneaking in without realizing it? If you approach Christian texts assuming that Jesus was primarily a moralist, someone who came to help people be good, then naturally you’d expect that when he tells a story, the goodness or badness of the characters would be his primary focus. That his aim would be to get to a moral about what we should do to behave better, something like, “This character helped the poor, and you too should try harder to help the poor.” “This character told the truth, and you too should try harder to tell the truth.” Although a few parables can be shoehorned into that, it imposes on Jesus a notion of what he ought to be saying that doesn't really fit the evidence we have about him. You can verify this by simply reading a Gospel. What does Jesus mostly talk about? What does he do and say? There’s certainly not much about how to be more moral or behave better. No, Jesus talks about the Kingdom that has begun in him, he talks about what that Kingdom is like and how it works, and he talks about who he is. He also does things – healings, exorcisms, even a raising of the dead or two – as signs that the Kingdom actually is real and available now in him.
Read the texts, and it’s hard to miss Jesus’ constant announcements that the Kingdom is at hand and his constant invitations to enter, enter, enter. He uses every tool at his disposal to help people see that yes, the old world is still here, but it’s also possible to enter into Kingdom life now as well, even while we wait for the fullness of the Kingdom at the end of time. The more we lose that Kingdom context, the easier it is to misunderstand Jesus.
So back to the crooked manager. If you hold the context in your mind – the fact that Jesus’ main focus is proclaiming that a new life has come in him and that it’s vital for us to enter into it – doesn’t the likely aim of the parable look different? Your attention is no longer drawn so much by the fact that one of the characters happens to be a cheat. That’s a detail that makes the story memorable, but what grabs your attention is the presence of an old life and a new life.
If you ever, like this manager, have been given notice that you’re about to be laid off, you know what I mean. Or if you’ve simply left one job for another, or decided to move across the country to go to grad school. In the days before the change is fully in place, you start living in two worlds. When you’re sitting in staff meeting and there’s some big in-house controversy, you don’t stress, because next week you won’t have to worry about it. When you go to the store, you don’t buy the 5-pound box of frozen hamburgers, because you’ll only have time to eat a couple and you can’t move the rest. You’re living in two worlds. Your old life is still present, but your new life is already beginning, and it would be silly not to manage your affairs in light of that.
That’s the exact situation Jesus keeps trying to convince us we’re in. In Christ, the Kingdom of God, the goal toward which history is moving, the true meaning and ultimate fulfillment for which creation is designed, has been launched. If Jesus can be trusted, we can begin to enter into it the moment we believe. If Jesus can be trusted, there is no higher priority than to enter into it. Strive to enter through the narrow gate, he urges us. Seek first the Kingdom of God. But entering does not magically make the old life disappear. The old world is still here, running alongside the new one. Enter the Kingdom in Christ, and you begin living in two worlds.
If you look at this parable in light of that, you don’t notice so much the financial shenanigans of the manager as how seriously he takes the fact that a new life is coming at him like a freight train. In his old life, he had a stable job, but in his new life, things are very different. He won’t have a salary, and it sounds from what he says like he’s not well qualified to find work. He has to start acting, right now, in light of the new life that began the second he learned he was fired. And he’s very creative. He immediately stops investing in the old life and begins investing in the new one. He uses his skills, as underhanded as they are, to build goodwill and to make friends who will help him out in his new life. He acts decisively now to invest in the world that is coming. Yeah, it’s the way a cheater would do it, but that just gives the story more humor and punch. His exaggerated behavior shows us how urgently he takes the need to get prepared for the new life he’s being thrown into – and that urgency, of course, is completely commendable from Jesus’ point of view!
It’s exactly what Jesus hopes to see in me and you. If this guy -- this shady operator -- if even he understands the urgency of using the resources at his disposal in light of the situation in the world that’s coming for him, how much more should disciples of Jesus understand the urgency of using the resources at our disposal in light of the situation in the world that’s coming for us?
In this bothersome parable, Jesus forcefully reminds us that people who grasp the urgency of new life in Christ act like it. If we have accepted his invitation to enter the Kingdom now in him, we will not behave like people who haven’t. We will come across as people who are living in two worlds, not as people who are settled down in this world. We will go against the flow by prioritizing the kinds of things Jesus says last and count. We will be investing significant time, skill, intellect, energy, possessions, and money in Kingdom stuff.
Everything in the old world is going to be completely gone one day. Every one of us will lose 100% of everything that belonged to that world, and every one of us will keep 100% of everything we invested in the Kingdom. Jesus peppers this teaching with images of money because, like the manager in the parable, how we use our resources is one of the most realistic barometers of whether we’ve truly received the news that the Kingdom has come in him and started investing in it. The resources nearly all of us are most protective of these days are money and time, so if you want to evaluate how seriously you take what Jesus says about the Kingdom, just skim through your checkbook and your calendar. Are there significant investments in Kingdom stuff, in acts of love and justice and mercy, in growing as a Christian and helping others do that, in supporting what God is doing here at Emmanuel? Or are you mostly investing in the old life?
The two lives run alongside each other and will until the Kingdom is fully realized at the end of time, but as Jesus says today, one of them has to be your bottom line, the master you ultimately answer to. And your real bottom line affects, of course, everything. When God’s Kingdom and the new life in Christ is our bottom line, we invest here in growing the way of life that fits there, becoming people to whom Kingdom stuff is deeply, viscerally attractive, who thirst for others to have access to it, who can’t get enough of joining God in what he’s doing. Jesus doesn’t challenge us with parables like this in order to bother us, really. He does it because when he throws open the final doors to God’s great Kingdom party, he hopes we will have invested enough there that we want to come in.