When I was preparing for today's sermon, I went onto a preaching website to explore commentaries and perspectives on our text for today. The opening line of the article went something as follows:
Dear Preacher, it is ok to tell your congregation that you don't have a clue what this text is about!
And to be quite honest, it is one of the strangest of the parables in all of the Gospels. if I am quite honest it is a parable that has always left me a little confused and probably with more questions than answers.
Looking at the story itself, it starts out with a Master who is unhappy with his manager. He arranges a meeting with the manager and it becomes evident that the Master is in fact preparing to give the manager the sack.
But before the meeting happens, the manager senses that he is about to be fired. And so he is in an initial panic. What is he going to do when he has no job? And so he devises a plan to make friends for himself for when he finds himself out on the street. Before his master knows what he is up to he meets with a number of his masters debtors and he agrees to reduce each of their debts by substantial margins. He acts with great generosity to these debtors, with his masters money so that when he is out on the streets and without a job, these people will potentially be generous back to him and welcome them into their homes.
Perhaps the most confusing part of the parable is when the master finally meets with his manager before he fires him, he sees what the manager has done and in effect congratulates him. He says to the manager, well, played. Probably saying: Well if I was in your position, I would probably have done the same.
But the question remains: What on earth does it all mean?
The commentary that comes after the parable is probably the first place to start when trying to assess the meaning of the parable. The commentary after the parable is all about money and so the parable is meant to give us food for thought on how we use money as Christians.
The bottom line of the parable seems to be is that in the way of Jesus, the best use of money is that it should be used to build friendships and relationships.
An important punchline for the parable come in verse 9 where Jesus says: “...Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves.” For Jesus purpose of money is not to build little financial empires for oneself. Rather, the best use of money is to build for yourself a network of relationships, a community, on which you can depend, when you find yourself in financial difficulty. In other words, the best use of money in the end, is to use it in the service of love.
But one might object that it in the parable, it is easy for the wily manager to be generous with his masters money. What if it was his own money. Would he have been as generous then?
And maybe that is partly the point of the parable... that just maybe, none of the money we have is ultimately ours. Ultimately it does indeed belong to the Master. Ultimately it belongs to God, and in the meantime, we are simply managers of the money in our possession on God’s behalf.
And maybe that explains the twist in the tail of the story where the Master in the parable praises him for using the Masters money to build friendships, because Ultimately, God, our Master, wishes us to do like-wise.
Money is meant to be in the service of building friendships, relationships, and communities. Which is another way of saying, money is meant to be used in the service of love.
That is a very different approach to money than the current general approach in the world. I think of the example of Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon. He is currently the richest man in the world, which in its own way is quite an achievement. And yet, when you do a simply search on the internet, you will find numerous new articles alleging that the labour practices used by Amazon are at best questionable.
Allegations include the following: People are treated like robots. In any given task, an employee is made to work to a count down. If they do not keep up with the countdown, they will lose their job. Because they are working under such time pressure, in a 10 hour work shift, it is alleged that an employee only has 18 minutes to go to the toilet or get a drink of water. And yet, if a work place injury occurs, allegations are that Amazon have proved themselves to be evasive to pay out and compensate their workers.
In the USA, last year in April, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s lists Amazon within the “dirty dozen” list of most dangerous places to work in the United States due to the company’s pattern of unsafe working conditions.”
Some would allege that Jeff Bezos and Amazon are becoming outrageously wealthy, built on the deteriorating health and well-being of Amazon’s employees. He has built for himself the biggest financial empire in the world, but how many friends has he made?
When Jeff Bezos dies, how many of his workers in Amazon will celebrate him as a great human being, or will they be like the people of Zimbabwe who failed to turn up in great numbers as Robert Mugabe’s funeral?
The parable asks us: Are we using our influence and the resources at our disposal to build relationships and friendships, or are we simply wanting to become little emperors over our own little empires taking from others and the world and not giving back in return to those who have made us great.
I am always inspired by the story-line of Les Miserable, where the main character, Jean Val Jean starts out as a common criminal, thinking only of himself, and of only satisfying his own needs, desires and wants. He is imprisoned for stealing. He serves his sentence and is released. Upon release he finds himself homeless and no-one will give him a job or even a piece of bread to eat. He is bitter and angry with the world. A kind bishop invitesd him to eat with him at his table and takes him in for the night. But while the bishop is sleeping, he makes off with all the valuable silver that he can get his hands on. The next morning he is caught by the police and brought back to the bishop’s house. The bishop in act act of extraordinary kindness and forgiveness, tells the police that he had in fact given the silver to Jean Val Jean as a gift to build a new life for himself, and as a result, Jean Val Jean begrudgingly the police set him free.
This act of generous forgiveness and kindness transforms his view of himself as he begins to seek to live his life no longer simply for the benefit of himself but rather for the benefit of others. In the process, as he becomes a wealthy businessman because all his energies have begun to be directed in positive and constructive ways, he uses his new-found wealth as a blessing to those around him. He uses his money to build up his community and in the process creates a community or friends. So much so that at one point he is even elected as mayor of the town where he has settled.
Our parable in Luke’s Gospel suggests that if a wily, shrewd, worldly businessman knows how to make friends using worldly wealth, then how much more should those who call themselves followers of Christ