What a Swindler can teach Saints
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?
a sermon based on Luke 16
by Rev. Randy Quinn
I dont know if I have an answer for all of your questions today, but it
isnt because I didnt spend time trying and it isnt because I didnt
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 Ive 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 hes 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
Most of us havent thought about that much but it usually doesnt 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, "Im
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 thats
where theyll 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 dont leave just a
dash, but a legacy.
The "manager" in todays 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 dont know how the manager wasted things. I dont know if it was simply
sloppy bookkeeping or extravagant personal expenses. I dont know if he was making
frivolous purchases for the office or was too generous when dealing with merchants.
Im 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
Whatever the truth of the story, we can imagine a scenario in which the master would
want to fire him. But the managers response surprises us. It isnt what
wed expect! The manager takes the books and alters them in favor of his
masters 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 doesnt tell us what happened next. It doesnt 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 managers actions actually helped him out. It ends abruptly with
the suggestion that we need to learn from the managers shrewdness (Lk 16:8-9).
But we need to listen carefully or we may think its 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 its 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. Im sure military planners will
create countless case studies based on that single event for years to come. And well they
should. But that isnt 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 didnt 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 havent always learned that lesson. For most of us,
money has power over us. Its 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
And I think if we look carefully in the mirror we will all see how money has often been
our focus, too. I dont 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 Im of the opinion that his basic nature
hadnt changed, the focus and purpose of his wastefulness may have been changed, but
not his basic nature. I believe he was "wasting" his masters money
building rapport among his masters 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
The question to be asked is: what kind of gift do we bring to God? Is it a tacky
attempt to purchase Gods 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 well
receive our next paycheck, or where well invest it?
I dont 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 Gods kingdom. Amen.
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,
Soards, Marion; Thomas Dozeman; Kendall McCabe. Preaching the Revised Common
Lectionary (Year C: After Pentecost 2). Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.