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Converting the Rich Man (a sermon)

September 18, 2010

Luke 16: 1-13

Luke gospel talks a lot about money. I suspect it’s because Jesus talked a lot about it. After all that’s what it means to be spiritual doesn’t it? To be engaged with God in the parts of our life which challenge us most deeply. Like money. To locate, even money, within the kingdom of God.

Luke is not alone in that focus on money. But Luke, of all the gospel writers, seems to have an eye for the bigger political context.

This is a difficult story. And one of the reasons I think it is difficult is simply a matter of translation. The story is often called the story of the dishonest manager, and the word adikos (which is greek for unjust) is commonly translated dishonest. But the story is not about honesty. It’s about justice or righteousness in relation to money.

And at the end Jesus gives us a key to his point – his summary statement. “You cannot serve God and wealth”. It’s not about honesty – it’s about the conflict between wealth and God when it comes to living justly.

Let’s have a look at the story itself. It begins with a crisis. The manager has been accused of wrong-doing (squandering, scattering, wasting the property). The Rich Man, his boss, whose money it is, is furious and demands an account.

To save his own skin, the manager strategizes (and I love his delightful aside “I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg”) to bring in some quick capital by cutting the debts of all the boss’s customers in half.

It’s a surprising strategy. It clearly goes against what the Rich man regards as acceptable. But there’s no suggestion that he lies to the Rich man about it or is dishonest. It may be an act of rebellion, a cleverly conceived act of rebellion. But it’s not a lie. In this risky managerial act of rebellion, he goes ahead and does precisely what he has been accused of doing – scattering the rich man’s wealth further… If that was surprising, the next move in the story is even more surprising. The rich man hears of it all and turns around and commends his manager for doing precisely what he was initially charged with. Well done, my man, clever move!

Jesus says he commended him for acting wisely with ‘unjust’ (that word adikos again) money.  The problem lies not in the manager, but in money itself.

So the story of the dishonest manager, becomes in fact, the story of the apparently unjust manager, who in the end is revealed to be the wise manager. Perhaps the best title for the story is ‘The Conversion of the Rich Man’.

For the rich man (the boss) at the beginning of the story, justice means giving people what they deserve, it’s tit-for-tat justice. It’s a dog eat dog world of strict exchange. People get what they deserve. And in that world his manager is unjust. For the Rich Man at the beginning of the story there is only one bottom line. He must get what is owing to him.

In his moment of crisis, his manager discovers another bottom line. It is the lives of his debtors. He discovers that his debtors are not just anonymous numbers in a system of exchange, to be dealt with mathematically. He discovers that to act with apparent injustice, to show mercy on his powerless debtors opens up a new world for them and for himself and his master. And so the rich master also is converted to a greater sense of justice.

The turning point of the story is interesting. The manager is commended for acting wisely with unjust or unrighteous money.

According to our story wealth itself is ‘unjust’. That’s provocative! We usually say it’s not the money, its your attitude to it that matters. As if it were that easy! It may not be the money in and of itself, but Jesus has deeper insight here, and we need to take this insight seriously. Money links into deeper issues within the human condition itself. Money is a key element in the world of the Rich Man. It’s a world of rivalry in which our identity and significance is bound up with the power that money gives us. We are much less in control of our attitude to money that we like to think. This world, in which money is at the centre, is a world that destroys people. Jesus understands that it tends towards injustice.

The manager, by breaking the rules of this world, by being unjust with what is already bound up with injustice, surprises us all and subverts the usual idea of what justice is. And so the manager frees himself and his master from the power of money? He goes against the grain of money. He goes against the grain of the financial system. But in doing so he comes across a deeper logic – the true grain of the universe. This wiser justice looks to the wider economy of relationships before it looks to the so-called bottom line….

In the end we are faced with a choice… not between money and God but between ‘serving money’ and ‘serving God’. We think it’s a choice. As if all we needed was to make a decision one Sunday morning in church and all would be well. But it’s more a challenge than a choice. Jesus knows that we are caught in the middle of a tug of war for our loyalty. Money pulls us in one direction and God in another. Not that we can do away with money. But money means a set of economic practices which push us towards security and away from the cross. And the cross, of course, is the central sign of what it means to serve God. The alternative to the service of money is, in the end of the day, the way to the cross.

It seems that, in spite of his bad press as ‘dishonest’, the manager in our story knew the way of the cross. He put his livelihood on the line for the needy debtors. Perhaps he’s a Christ-figure. Perhaps he demonstrated the way of the cross, because he knew how to forgive debt – in the words of the Lord’s prayer – forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

This is not just a story for managers is it? It’s a story for everyday people deciding whether to take the car to work or not, whether to invest in a house, whether to take time out from earning, whether to donate to Pakistan, how to negotiate working conditions. It causes us to reconsider what our bottom line is and whether we are called to break the rules for the sake of God’s justice.

When it comes to bottom lines, you can’t have it both ways?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 18, 2010 5:47 am

    A good word Bruce.

  2. Pam permalink
    September 19, 2010 7:08 am

    You’re right it is a difficult story. Money does give us a sense of security – not as much security as a trusted relationship with One who doesn’t let us down though. Thanks for this Bruce.

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