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What a Swindler can teach Saints
a sermon based on Luke 16
by Rev. Randy Quinn

In case you are struggling to understand this parable, let me assure you that you are not alone. Saints and sages, pastors and scholars, people in the pews and people in monasteries have struggled with this parable for generations. Some have wondered why Jesus would tell it. Others have wondered why Luke would record it. And I suppose some wonder why anyone would use it for the basis of a sermon! The rest of us are wondering what in the world does this text have to say to us. What is the point anyway?

I don’t know if I have an answer for all of your questions today, but it isn’t because I didn’t spend time trying and it isn’t because I didn’t do my homework in preparing for this sermon. In fact, I prepared for this sermon as well as or better than most of the sermons I’ve preached.

One of the ways I prepare myself for preaching is to regularly participate in Continuing Education events. One event I attended a few years ago focused on death, dying, and grief. The speaker talked about a class he’s given to church members over the years to help them prepare for death. The first things he does in that class is to have people write down what they want to have on their memorial markers, assuming that they died yesterday.

Most of us haven’t thought about that much but it usually doesn’t take too long for people to write their names, the date of birth, and their fictitious date of death. One woman, however, was still writing several minutes after everyone else was finished. It seemed to the class that she was writing a book. Finally, the instructor asked her what was taking so long. "Well," said the woman, "I’m writing down my potato salad recipe. You see, at every church potluck the women ask for my potato salad recipe and I tell them they can have it over my dead body - and that’s where they’ll find it." Most of us, however, just list their names and dates of birth and death.

The instructor then reads the poem that many of you have seen before about the ‘dash’ between those dates. He says the best way to prepare for your own death is to live your life, living in such a way that we don’t leave just a ‘dash’, but a legacy.

The "manager" in today’s text left an interesting legacy. He was accused of being wasteful (Lk 16:1). But in the end he is remembered for being resourceful (Lk 16:8). I don’t know how the manager wasted things. I don’t know if it was simply sloppy bookkeeping or extravagant personal expenses. I don’t know if he was making frivolous purchases for the office or was too generous when dealing with merchants. I’m not sure anyone really knows, though Gene Peterson in a paraphrase of our text suggests he was "taking advantage of his position by running up huge personal expenses."

Whatever the truth of the story, we can imagine a scenario in which the master would want to fire him. But the manager’s response surprises us. It isn’t what we’d expect! The manager takes the books and alters them in favor of his master’s clients. In so doing, he makes the clients happy and hopes to reap some benefit from them. But he also makes it difficult for the master to recoup the losses because no business owner would dare charge his clients more than their recorded debt.

The master should be furious! Instead, he surprises us by praising the manager. The parable doesn’t tell us what happened next. It doesn’t say that the master changes his mind and decides not to fire the man, nor does it tell us if the people who benefited from the manager’s actions actually helped him out. It ends abruptly with the suggestion that we need to learn from the manager’s shrewdness (Lk 16:8-9).

But we need to listen carefully or we may think it’s telling us to learn how to lie, how to cheat, or how to steal. What Jesus really does is encourage us to learn how to be shrewd when dealing with money. In that sense it’s like reviewing the attack on the World Trade Center and complementing the terrorists on their ability to make and pull off a very complex action without being caught. I’m sure military planners will create countless case studies based on that single event for years to come. And well they should. But that isn’t to suggest the actions were right. None of us would say that. But it can be said that we could - and should - and have been learning from the events of September 11, 2001.

One of the most important things I think we can learn from the shrewd manager is that relationships are more important than money. He knew how to use money and wealth to build relationships. Money was impersonal to him, something to which he was not attached. In fact, there is no direct indication that he absconded with any money. He didn’t like the idea of hard work. Nor was he after a "get-rich-quick" scheme. No, the money he had power over was simply a tool he knew how to use.

Unfortunately, I think, we haven’t always learned that lesson. For most of us, money has power over us. It’s a competing god in our lives, competing for our allegiance among the many things that want us to give our full and undivided attention.

We see that most clearly in the lives of those who believe the most important legacy they can leave their children is a large inheritance or a significant trust fund rather than a sense of purpose and direction in their lives.

We also see it when people build enormous houses that serve as personal retreat centers and require enormous amounts of time and energy to clean and maintain rather than building modest homes and investing their money and time in programs and projects that benefit others.

And I think if we look carefully in the mirror we will all see how money has often been our focus, too. I don’t know if you remember, but the FBI was able to identify the terrorists who were aboard the planes rather quickly by using a technique that illustrates my point exactly. Their technique was simply to "follow the money." From the plane tickets to credit cards to bank accounts to verifiable addresses, the scent of the money led investigators to their prey.

If we "follow the money" in our lives, what we will find? Have we invested in relationships? Have we invested in our community? Have we invested in the lives of people? Or have we spent our money on luxuries and personal entertainment and self-serving programs designed to help get more money?

The shrewd manager knew that money was simply a tool to be used in building relationships. In fact, I suspect that the altered books are really a key to understanding what his wastefulness was like. I guess I’m of the opinion that his basic nature hadn’t changed, the focus and purpose of his wastefulness may have been changed, but not his basic nature. I believe he was "wasting" his master’s money building rapport among his master’s clients. Maybe there were extravagant parties thrown for the customers. Maybe there were expensive birthday gifts. Some might call it bribery, but there are businesses today that know the importance of maintaining good customer relations. And customers also know when the gifts are tacky. We all know when people are trying to buy our allegiance rather than giving an honest expression of appreciation.

The question to be asked is: what kind of gift do we bring to God? Is it a tacky attempt to purchase God’s favor? Or is it a genuine token of gratitude? Or has money become our god and all of our lives revolve around how much we have, or when we’ll receive our next paycheck, or where we’ll invest it?

I don’t know what you want on your memorial marker, but I think I want to be remembered as one who was faithful in little as well as in much (Lk 16:10-12). To do that, I need to learn from the shrewd manager and use the tools I have to build relationships that last. The bottom line is we will all leave a legacy of one sort or another.

I can only pray that the one we leave will reflect our faith in God and our desire to serve in God’s kingdom. Amen.


Selected Bibliography

Craddock, Fred B. Luke (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). Louisville: John Knox, 1990.

Foster, Richard J. "Kingdom Use of Unrighteous Mammon." The Challenge of the Disciplined Life (Christian Reflections on Money, Sex, & Power). San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1985.

Funk, Robert W; Roy W Hoover; and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels (The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus). New York: Macmillan, 1993.

Howell, David B, editor. Lectionary Homiletics. September 2001 (Vol XII, No 10).

Soards, Marion; Thomas Dozeman; Kendall McCabe. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year C: After Pentecost 2). Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.