This parable is a difficult parable. In fact, I don’t know of any that is more difficult. I am not alone in this assessment. It is a parable that has caused consternation among interpreters ever since. If you just look at the story, it looks as if Jesus is commending a man for his dishonesty.
The Parable about a Dishonest Manager
16 Now Jesus was saying to the disciples, “A rich man had a servant manager who was accused of wasting his assets. 2 So he called for him and asked him, ‘What’s this I hear about you? You can’t be my manager any longer. Now give me a report about your management!’
3 “Then the servant manager told himself, ‘What should I do? My master is taking my position away from me. I’m not strong enough to plow, and I’m ashamed to beg. 4 I know what I’ll do so that people will welcome me into their homes when I’m dismissed from my job.’
5 “So he called for each of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 The man replied, ‘A hundred jars of olive oil.’ The manager told him, ‘Get your bill. Sit down quickly and write “50.”’ 7 Then he asked another debtor, ‘How much do you owe?’ The man replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ The manager told him, ‘Get your bill and write “80.”’ 8 The master praised the dishonest servant manager for being so clever, because worldly people are more clever than enlightened people in dealing with their own.
9 “I’m telling you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails, they will welcome you into eternal homes. 10 Whoever is faithful with very little is also faithful with a lot, and whoever is dishonest with very little is also dishonest with a lot. 11 So if you haven’t been faithful with unrighteous wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? 12 And if you haven’t been faithful with what belongs to foreigners, who will give you what is your own?
13 “No servant can serve two masters, because either he will hate one and love the other, or be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and wealth!”
If you strip away all the cultural stuff, household slaves and credit arrangements, the man in the story defrauded his employer out of fifty barrels of oil and twenty bushels of wheat in order to feather his own next. Now, I know that is not an unusual story. Perhaps some of you who are employers have had employees like that. You would be surprised if Jesus commended someone who had done that to you.
And if you just look at the commentary that follows the story it doesn’t help much at all. I know that it was hard to follow as I read, but go home and read it for yourself and if you can untangle it all let me know. When it comes to this explanation of this parable, I need all the help I can get.
But I think that I understand one verse out of it, “Make friends by means of unrighteous mammon so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.” It is that verse that I want to choose as a text and comment on this morning. I think that it means that everyone of us would like to make something really good happen.
One Saturday afternoon Debby and I were strolling down Kenyatta Avenue a couple of blocks from our hotel in Nairobi. The streets of Nairobi are always busy but Saturday afternoon they were busier still. A young man walked up beside us and said, “From the United States, what state?” “Texas,” I said. “Oh, Texas A&M. That’s where I would like to go to school. Will you tell me more about it?” When I asked him what he wanted to know he wanted to know about prejudice. I told him that I thought that African students in this city did not suffer unduly from prejudice. Later he pressed me about the KKK. He didn’t even know that KKK stood for the Ku Klux Klan. Somebody had frightened him with the KKK, however, and when I told him that they were free to operate but had little influence he had difficulty understanding our idea of freedom. He invited me to talk with him and his friends a little more about the United States and since we had had little opportunity to speak with local persons I agreed. There were three of them. There had been four in the beginning, but one had died on the way. Their story was that they were Ugandans. Uganda, of course, borders Kenya on the west. They had fled from the civil war in their country because they didn’t want to be drafted to kill their brothers in the north. They had come this far with the aid of the Nomadic tribes. They had no papers. They were trying to get to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania from where they hoped to get to the United States to study. They needed money, of course. I gave them six hundred Kenya Shillings, about $25. I am as puzzled today as I was that day about whether their story was true. I believe that they were Ugandans, and I have decided to believe the rest of the story and I tell you why. Every one of us would like to make something really good happen. What if you could? That brings me back to the text.
Make friends by means of unrighteous mammon. It is a difficult passage and the first difficulty is in admitting that money is unrighteous. We would rather believe that money is neutral. We would rather believe that it doesn’t have power to do evil things to us. Here I am indebted for this insight to Richard Foster and his book Money, Sex and Power, where he reminds us that money has its dark side and its light side and that you can’t get hold of its light side until you acknowledge its dark side.
Money has power, and not just purchasing power. It has power to make us afraid. It can make us afraid that we will lose it or that we won’t have enough of it. It doesn’t matter how much you have, in fact, the fear is sometimes in proportion to the amount you have.
And it has a great power to do evil, to corrupt the nicest people. That’s one of many arguments against legalized gambling. There is so much money involved that somewhere along the line that money will corrupt even the honest among us. My evidence is simply all the places where that has happened, New Jersey, New Mexico. It is not just bribery. If you don’t think money has a power over people just ask any banker. You probably know more stories than I do about how the steady flow of money through otherwise honest hands makes embezzlers of them. You know some business stories. I know some church stories. One that I heard for the first time Wednesday concerned a very well-beloved and respected lay member of another annual conference, a man elected to General Conference and in every way appreciated by his colleagues. So appreciated that they made him treasurer of the funds used to supplement salaries for the underpaid ministers in the conference, he collected the funds, he disbursed the funds to the persons for whom they were intended, but over the years he siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars and used them in his private business. Why would anybody do something like that? Because money is unrighteous and has the power to corrupt.
So, how do you conquer money’s unrighteous side? Let me give you Foster’s eight steps.
- Begin with the Biblical witness. Look up all the things the bible has to say about money, and there are a lot of them. Jesus said a lot about money.
- Consider money from a psychological perspective. Are you afraid of money? Are you afraid to be without?
- Only when you have come to terms with how money makes you feel can you plan your budget and think about the poor.
- Gather others around you who can help you. Sometimes it is easier to talk to other people about sex than it is about money, but find other Christian people to help you shape your financial decisions.
- I like this one, dethrone money. Treat it with contempt. Take it out and stomp on it, yell at it, show money that you serve God and not mammon.
- Side with people against money.
- Don’t allow yourself to value people just because they have money.
- Maybe I like this one best of all. Bring the ministry of prayer to bear upon your decisions about money.
I will be the first to tell you that money has a power over me. It has the power to make me afraid. When the church gets in money troubles as we are now I get all sorts of bad feelings. We had to take some drastic measures this last week because we were way over drawn at the bank and Mr. Orr doesn’t like that. My fears make me feel bad and wring my hands and say what are we going to do. The answer ought always to be to pray. Not because prayer is a means to raise money, contrary to what you will hear on so-called religious television occasionally. Prayer is an end in itself. It dethrones money by insisting that Jesus is Lord, not mammon. So I invite you to pray about money.
The ninth thing, perhaps the way to dethrone money best of all, give it away. The god mammon cannot endure the generous heart that laughs and says, “It’s only money.”
What if you could make something really good happen? Jesus said you can. He said, “Make friends by means of unrighteous mammon so that when it fails they will receive you into the eternal habitations.” It puts you in mind of that other place where Jesus said, “Don’t lay up treasure on earth, lay up treasure in heaven.” You have heard it said all your life that you can’t take it with you. Maybe not, but Jesus said if you do it right you may be able to send it on ahead.
Let me tell you something really good. Look on the front of your bulletin. See what it says down there about serving God and this community from this location. More than has ever been true in the time that I have been here, I sense that there is a firm commitment to that vision on the part of the people of this church. Specifically it is a commitment to shape our worship so that it invites people, men, women, children and youth, to be included in this worshiping community. Specifically it is a commitment on the part of the members of this church to ask people all over this town, what can I do for you? Would you like to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? Specifically it is a commitment to communicate that vision to ourselves and to our community so that we will know and they will know that we are unalterably committed to serve God and this community from this location. We have written our budget this year so that it reflects that four-fold commitment. When we have our budget campaign this fall it is very simply for the purpose of enabling that vision. I ask you to bring the ministry of prayer to bear upon God’s mission for us in this place and upon they way you commit your money to it.
What if you could make something really good happen? Not all by yourself, but what if the little part that you do could open the eyes of the blind or make the deaf hear? Several years ago a friend of mine told the story about being present at such an event. It seemed that his mother suffered from some sort of ear condition that had seriously impaired her hearing. He happened to be chaplain in one of our Methodist hospitals and when one of the physicians there heard him describe the condition he said, “We can fix that.” It is a surgery that has since become quite common. It seems that for some reason one of those little bones in the middle ear, the stapes, I think, becomes immobile. The surgery makes it mobile again. It has to be done while the patient is upright and awake. Because he was chaplain they invited him to stand in and watch. When the climactic moment came the surgeon said, “Step around there in front of your mother so that you can see her face.” He said when the surgeon put that tiny little bone in its place her whole face lighted up. He could hear from just that little thing. Just a little thing in the right place at the right time. What if you could make something really good happen? You can. Make friends by means of unrighteous mammon. Thanks be to God.
This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch on September 21, 1986 at First United Methodist Church in Denton, Texas. If you would like to receive notifications of new posting to Rumors of Angels, you can subscribe to this blog in the upper right corner of this page