September 18th, 2022 homily on Luke 16:1-13 by Pastor Galen
Growing up, my brother and I frequently played the game Monopoly. My mother said she could always tell when we were playing Monopoly because the game always ended with one of us in tears. (As the younger brother, it was usually me). I’ve played the game with friends and college students in more recent years, and learned that Monopoly is one of the most effective ways to test the limits of a friendship or relationship.
What many people don’t know is that the game Monopoly was not originally developed to be fun or entertaining. Rather, it was based off of The Landlord’s Game, an educational tool developed in 1903 by American anti-monopolist, feminist, and author Lizzie Magie, who invented the game as a way to demonstrate the negative effects of an economic system where wealth is concentrated in the hands of only a few, rather than an economic system that promotes the flourishing of the whole society.
In other words, Magie’s game was intended to evoke frustration by helping people understand what it’s like to become trapped in cycles of poverty and indebtedness. The goal was to encourage people to face the realities of economic injustice in our society and world, and to work for justice and equality. (It’s a sad irony of history that someone else essentially stole and profited off of the game Monopoly, and that Magie herself did not receive recognition as the inventor of the game until many years after she passed away!)
The Israelite prophets also sought to highlight the injustices inherent in a society where the rich continued to get richer, and the poor continued to get poorer. The prophet Amos railed against the wealthy who trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land (Amos 8:4).
And it is with this prophetic tradition in the background that Jesus tells his disciples a parable about a manager who was dishonest, was accused of mismanaging his supervisor’s property, and yet is described as someone who acted shrewdly.
An Unlikely Hero
Now it may surprise us that Jesus would cast a character like this as the hero of his parable. But we should remember that the goal of Jesus’s parables was not that we should emulate ever characteristic of everyone in the parable. Rather, parables, like the game that became Monopoly, were for the purpose of teaching a lesson, or to illustrate a point.
Many parables follow the “how much greater” formula that was popular in Jewish prophetic literature. The formula goes like this: If a certain thing is true, much more is this other thing true?
This formula is implied in Jesus’s parable about the dishonest manager, where he suggests that if “the children of this age” are wise in the way they deal with the stuff of this earth, then how much more wise (or “shrewd”) should we as Christ’s followers be in our dealings with earthly matters in the light of eternity?
So let’s dig into this parable and see what lessons we might learn from it.
The Dishonest Manager
The curtain opens on a manager who was in charge of a wealthy man’s property. Charges were brought against the manager that he was squandering his supervisor’s property. Wasting money was a serious offense, especially when it involved someone else’s money, and particularly when the point of your job was to maintain and increase the wealth of the person for whom you worked! And so even the suggestion that the manager was squandering his supervisor’s property spelled the end of this man’s career.
It’s not clear whether the charges were true, and if true, whether or not the manager had been intentionally or unintentionally squandering his supervisor’s property. But what is clear is that when the manager discovered he was going to be fired, his brain kicked into overdrive, and he began to scheme up ways that he could ensure his own financial security after he was no longer employed.
The plan he eventually hit upon, which ended up working out quite well for him, was to go around to each of the people who owed his boss money, and to decrease the balance due on their loans.
One man owed his boss 100 jugs of olive oil, and the man said, “now you only owe 50.” another owed his boss 100 containers of wheat, and the man said, “change it to 80.”
It would be like your loan officer coming to you and saying, “I know you still owe $100,00 on your mortgage – but now you only owe $80,000.” Or, “I know you still have $120,000 left on your school loans, but let’s just change that to $50,000 instead.” You probably wouldn’t ask a lot of questions, would you? You would accept the gracious decrease in your indebtedness. And the same was true with the wealthy man’s debtors.
Now it’s possible that the manager’s purpose here was two-fold – (1) hurting his boss, while (2) at the same time ingratiating himself into the favor of each of his boss’s debtors so that they would look out for him when he was no longer employed.
It’s also possible that he simply decreased their debts by the percentage that would have typically been his commission – which he wouldn’t have received anyway since he was no longer employed.
But whatever purpose he had in doing this, and whatever rules he broke or didn’t break, even his former employer had to admit that what he had done was quite brilliant, whether or not it was ethical.
Using Worldly Wealth in Light of Eternity
Jesus concludes this parable with several comments. Number one – he points out that the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. (The children of this age seems to refer to people who are not religious, or at least not followers of Christ, whereas the children of light seems to refer to faithful worshippers – perhaps Christ’s followers).
Secondly, Jesus tells us to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:9).
Thirdly, Jesus tells us that whoever is faithful in little is faithful also in much, and whoever is dishonest in very little is dishonest also in much (16:11).
And lastly, he reminds us that no one can serve two masters. We cannot serve God and wealth (16:13).
And so what is the point of all of this? What can we take away from this passage?
Much ink has been spilled over this particular parable and trying to explain exactly how these statements hang together. In some ways they seem to be a loose collection of statements about money and finances, rather than one consistent logical argument.
But the overall question this parable addresses is how we interact with money and physical possessions – the stuff of this earth – in light of eternity. And Jesus tells us that we should use our money and resources to make friends.
Now, many of us probably know someone who tries to “buy briends,” by buying them things or always paying their way so that the other person will constantly be indebted to them. This is not, I believe, what Jesus is telling us to do. The point is not to make people indebted to us, to keep a tally of how many good things we’ve done for other people and how much they owe us in return.
Rather, I believe that Jesus is asking us to live in the light of eternity, and to use our earthly possessions in such a way that would positively affect eternity.
We know, of course, that we came into this world with nothing, and we will leave with nothing. But I do believe that the friendships and relationships we’ve made along the way will last forever. The people that we’ve known and loved here in this life, the people who love us – I believe that we’ll know them in eternity as well. Our friends and loved ones will remember us, and the time and resources that we put into developing relational connections with people here on this earth will carry over into eternity.
Growing up I used to believe that if I did a good deed on this earth I would get an extra jewel in my crown in heaven – sort of like the stickers or stars that my teachers used to give out for good behavior when I was in elementary school. I don’t know if that’s what it will be like in Heaven – but even if we do get crowns with stars in them, I’m sure we will lay our crowns down at the feet of Jesus when we get to heaven and see and experience his glory and splendor.
I don’t think we are to make friends in this life in order to get an extra jewel in our crown in heaven. But I do believe that Jesus is encouraging us to use the resources that we have been given here in this life not just for our own good, but to bless others, and to help others flourish – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Working for the Good of All
At the beginning of this message I told the story of Lizzie Magie’s teaching tool, The Landlord Game, which was the precursor to our game Monopoly. What I didn’t mention is that when Magie developed the game, she developed two different sets of rules. 1 was the current version that we play – where the goal is to create monopolies and crush your opponents. But the other version was an anti-monopolist version in which everyone was rewarded when wealth was created. It seems that Magie wanted to help people see and experience how much better it is when we work for the good of all in society, rather than everyone looking out for our own interests at the expense of others.
In many ways, that’s what we do when we give our tithes and offerings. We’re giving away at least some of our wealth in order to work for the flourishing of all in our world and in our society.
Looking around us we see so many needs. We see people who are hungry or homeless. We see people who lack the basic necessities of life. We see people who are caught in cycles of despair or addiction. We see people who are lonely, who are longing for community. We see spiritual needs as well – people who do not know the hope and love and joy that Christ brings.
There’s no way that any of us could individually meet all those needs. And so many people in our world just throw up their hands and say, “well then, I’m just going to look out for myself and my family.” But tithing and giving money to the church is one way that we commit to work together for the good of all – not just those inside the church, but those outside as well. It’s one way that we commit together to use our worldly wealth to positively affect eternity.
So let us renew our commitment to live in the light of eternity – to use our world wealth and resources in a way that would bring about good not just in this life, but also in the life to come. May we be found faithful in the little that we have, so that we may be entrusted with much, and may we love and serve God above all else. Amen.