Dishonest in- rich out?

Pentecost 18

Luke 16:1- 9, 19-31

The rogue manager and the rich man and Lazarus (notes)

Marian Free

These two parables, though separated by some other teaching of Jesus, need to be read in tandem. Both are disturbing, the first because in it, Jesus appears to applaud dishonesty and the second because it implies that anyone with wealth will burn in hell. Both are a means to shock us into paying attention and both deal with preparation for eternal life.

In the first story a manager is dismissed for dishonesty. His response is to approach all his master’s creditors and reduce the size of their debts ensuring their obligation to him. This behaviour may not be as reprehensible as we might think. A manager was responsible for his master’s accounts and as such he set the interest rates charged. He was within his rights to charge an amount that included payment to himself. In reducing the debt, he may not have been cheating the master, but reducing or cancelling the amount owed to himself. Whatever the situation, his actions have ensured the goodwill of those who debts have been reduced. When he is old and in reduced circumstances, he will be assured that he can count on these people for support. He has gone without income in the present of ensure security in the future.

Jesus’ point here is that world wealth does not provide earthly security – that believers should be prepared to support those in need so that the poor (who, in Luke’s gospel have priority in the kingdom) will welcome us into the heavenly kingdom.

This parable of the rogue manager is followed by a second parable which adds further weight to Luke’s emphasis on there coming reversal of all things – particularly the reversal between the rich and the poor. (Remember Mary’s song: “You have filled the hungry with good things and the rich you have sent empty away.” and his uncompromising Beatitude “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”)

In the second parable – that about the rich man and Lazarus – the reversal between rich and poor becomes complete as is seen by the structure of the narrative.

The story begins and ends with a fixed, unchangeable position, between the beginning and the end however, the position of the main characters is completely reversed as the diagramme shows.

The poor man outside                           The rich man inside

unfulfilled longing (hunger)

torment (sores, licked by dogs)

Lazarus dies and is carried by the angels to Abraham. The rich man dies and is buried.

And there is a reversal of their positions.

The rich man outside                             Lazarus inside

unfulfilled longing(thirst)

torment (flames)

The chasm that once separated the rich man and Lazarus on earth (their wealth or lack of it) is replicated by the chasm between heaven and hell. In life and in death the men are separated by a boundary that cannot be crossed. (It is important to note that the stories are not about the moral life of the two men. neither the rich man nor the poor man are described as either virtuous or wicked. What distinguishes them is their wealth.

As I said, both parables are about preparation for eternity. In the first, the manager (though not a “moral” man by our standards),  but his actions illustrate the importance of understanding the gospel, of knowing that there is a need to prepare for eternity and of ensuring that the poor (who have priority will welcome them into their heavenly home). The rich man understands too late. That the stories are about conversion (understanding the message of the gospel) is demonstrated by the rich man’s plea that a messenger be sent to his brothers. (However, the writer of Luke’s gospel knows that there are those whose hearts are hardened and who will not believe even if someone returns from the dead. He is directing his comment to those who have not believed in Jesus despite the resurrection.)

It is important to understand that there is a future and that we all need to be prepared. In this sense, the parable of the manager and of the rich man explain each other. The manager sees the impending crisis and plans accordingly. The rich man remains blind and is caught unawares.

All year we have seen that Luke’s Jesus is aware of the urgency of the time and of the great reversal that will take place when the first will be last and the last will be first, when the poor will be lifted and the rich sent empty away. Luke’s Jesus urges listens to make a decision, a decision for Jesus, for faith which will turn their values upside down.

Through this gospel, we are called to re-examine our values, to make sure that our hearts are in the right place that we have our priorities right, that we know what is really important and that we share in God’s concern for the poor, the vulnerable and the down-trodden and in so doing, prepare ourselves for an eternity in which our earthly values, status and wealth will count for nothing.

Luke’s Jesus is saying: “Do not wait until it is too late, the time is now, it is always now.”

For this interpretation I am dependent on Brendan Bryne’s “The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. Collegeville, Minnesotta:The Liturgical Press, 2000, 133-137.

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