Wealth management

Pentecost 18. 2013

Luke 16:1-8

Marian  Free

“Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.  2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’  3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.  4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’  5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’  7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’  8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

In the name of God whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Amen.

If you were to write a novel, or an essay, or a scientific report, there would be certain steps that you would take and particular methodologies that you would employ. Writing a psychological report is quite different from writing a history essay. Writing a novel is quite different from writing a poem. Writing a sonnet is quite different from writing a haiku poem. Every style of writing has its own rules which serve to make the intention of the author clearer. A novelist wants to engage the reader and to maintain their attention, a scientific writer wants to ensure that the results of their research are presented in a clear and convincing manner. Students of English literature would be able to examine a poem or novel in great detail to determine the different techniques used by an author.

We should not be surprised to learn that New Testament writings also follow established modes of writing and story-telling. Like some novels the gospels, which are essentially biographies, contain a variety of styles – parables, sayings, miracle stories and more. Each of these have their own particular patterns. Furthermore, it is important to note that in the first century, there were no printing presses and few people who could read or write. Stories were heard, not read. For that reason, techniques were developed, consciously, or otherwise to make the stories memorable. One of the methods was that of repetition, another was to create a pattern or to tell a story that would make people sit up and listen.

Jesus appears to have been a good story teller and the gospel writers likewise re-told the stories in ways which would ensure that the listeners would hear and remember the point that was being made. I mention all this because the parable recorded in today’s gospel has a very specific pattern which provides an example of one form of story-telling in the first century.

Crossan identifies the following three acts and the patterns within those acts.

Scene 1 (16:1-2) Master and Steward

(a)  16:1a (relationship given: steward)               16:2a (accusation repeated: “I hear”

(b) 16:1b (accusation made: charges)                16:2b (relationship broken: “no  longer”)

Scene 2 (16:3-4) Steward and Self

(a)  16:3a = 16:4a (“What shall I do?”/”I have decided what to do”)

(b) 16:3b = 16:4b (“stewardship” “stewardship”)

(c)   16:3c = 16:4c (problem/solution)

Scene 3 (16:5-7) Steward and Debtors

(a)  16:5a = 16:7a (“he said to the first”, “he said to another”)

(b) 16:5b = 16:7b (“how much do you owe?” x2)

(c)   16:6a =16:7c (He said: a hundred x2)

(d)  16:6b = 16:7d (“Take your bill and write” x2)[1]

It is evident that that even in these few verses, a number of the ideas are repeated. In scene one the relationship is reversed by use of repetition. In scenes two and three repeated themes emphasise the points that are being made. Because we are not used to listening to these stories and because, unlike Crossan and others, we are unskilled in literary criticism, we do not recognise these patterns without help. However, in Jesus’ day, it would have been patterns and structures like these which will have earned and kept the listener’s attention.

Of all Jesus’ parables, the parable of the master and his steward is probably the most difficult to understand. In it Jesus appears to be condoning dishonesty- something which seems completely contradictory to all that Jesus stands for. Jesus might eat with tax collectors and sinners, but he doesn’t condone bad behaviour – just the opposite. In order to understand this parable then we need to understand a few things – the role of steward, the accusations laid against him and the reason Jesus commends his action. As is the case today, a steward (manager) might have almost full responsibility for the concerns of his employer. The manager would make the day-to-day decisions about the business and be responsible for ensuring that it made a profit. In this instance, the manger would have determined how much to charge for the various products and, so long as the master was making money could determine how much he kept for himself. In reducing the amounts owed he may well be reducing the margin that he kept for himself, rather than defrauding his employer. Another point to note is that the manager is being dismissed for incompetence – not for dishonesty – so to assume he begins by being dishonest, is to draw the wrong conclusion.

In reducing his share of the profits the manager is assuring himself of a welcome in the homes of those whose debts he reduces. This is what Jesus is commending – not dishonesty, but the manager’s willingness to give up his worldly comforts (wealth) in the present for the sake of potential benefits in the future. “He has not clung to his wealth, but used it to earn goodwill that will serve him in his hour of need.”[2] In the same way, Jesus’ hearers should give their wealth to the poor so that those who will inherit the kingdom will welcome them into the eternal dwellings.

The author of Luke’s gospel does not condemn wealth, but he is very clear that wealth or our desire for it, should not come between ourselves and our relationship God. The desire for security and comfort in this life, should not distract us from developing those things which will provide us with security and comfort in the life to come. Further, the author of Luke is clear that those who possess wealth have an obligation to share it with those who do not (if for no other reason than that of today’s parable – to ensure a welcome from the poor (who as we are told in the Beatitudes) will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Lk 6:20). In the kingdom everything is reversed – it is just as well to get used to that now. In the final analysis, none of us can take our wealth with us. It is more important to build up those things/those values and characteristics that will be of value in the life to come, than to waste our time building up and protecting possessions that will be of no use in our heavenly existence. It will do us little good to be wealthy if greed, selfishness and egocentricism exclude us from the life to come. It will be of little value to have secured a fortune if we have not at the same time secured the peace, joy, love, patience and generosity that will be treasured in heaven.

Where does your security lie? What are you doing to ensure that your relationship with God comes first and not last?

[1] Crossan, John Dominic. In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. California: Polebridge Press, 1992, 107,8.

[2] Byrne, Brendan S.J. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. Minnesota: St Paul’s Press, 2006, 134.


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