What kind of people should be our role models? Who is that you look to to emulate? Who would you point your friends, your children, your grandchildren to in order to illustrate behaviour worth copying?
Our North American culture is in a time of rethinking who our heroes should be. In the American South, statues of Civil War figures have been taken down, because of their involvement in fighting for the continuation of slavery. Closer to home, there are teachers who are trying to drop the name John A. MacDonald from schools named after him. Despite being a founding father of Canada, he was involved in terrible injustices against indigenous peoples. As a result, some would say that he should no longer receive the honour of having schools named after him.
I bring all of this up because the passage we are looking at is a strange one. Jesus holds up as a person for us to learn from, a dishonest manager who cheats his master. This parable may be one of the most confusing parables in all the Bible. But if Jesus believed there was something for us to learn from here, then it is worth our time.’
A Strange Parable
The beautiful thing about parables is that they are so easy to understand. Jesus uses everyday images to illustrate a spiritual principle. We can understand how seeds work or the joy of finding an item that was lost. It does not take much thinking to get the point. Except in this parable. This is one of the hardest ones in the Bible.
Here is the story. A manager gets caught wasting his master’s possessions and is fired. This puts the man in a difficult position. He doesn’t want to dig ditches or to become beggar. It is unlikely that he will get a similar position with a new master. There was no unemployment insurance. What will he do?
What the man lacked in integrity, he made up for in intelligence. He begins to call in people who were in debt to his master. He then cooks the books, that is he adjusts the bills so they will now owe their master much less than they originally did. The hope is that they will be willing to take care of him because he has made their lives much easier.
Then parable gets really weird. When the master discovers what the manager has done, instead of getting angry, he praises him. Think about that. Imagine you are a business owner and you find out one of your employees have been ripping you off. You fire them but before they leave the building, they rip you off some more. How will you respond? Would you praise the employee like the master in the parable did? Or would things get ugly?
There have been many theories about what is actually going on in this parable. Many of the theories rely on information that is not actually present in the parable. I think it is better to try and use only the information that was given to us.
We need to be clear as to why the master praises the manager. He does not praise him for cheating. It is not his actions that are commendable. What is commendable is his determination. The manager was put in a very difficult position and instead of just panicking, he used his brains and figured out a plan. He was determined to make sure that his future was secure and he took the necessary steps to make it happen.
The point that Jesus is making is not that our hope is in money. Rather, we can learn from a man, who within his own materialistic worldview, who demonstrated a careful and intelligent plan to make things work out. Without embracing his materialism, we can learn from his determination.
What We Can Learn
What does Jesus want us to get out of this? I can assure you that he is not telling us to be dishonest and to cheat our employers.
One of the things that we see in this parable is that the man was conscious of his urgent situation. He understood his need and he moved from grieving his loss of position to developing a plan. That is not to say that we cannot grieve a loss. But we can’t stay there. We need to take the steps that are needed. As a church, we live in a post-Christian world. The days of most of our neighbours being churchgoers are long gone. The days of a basic Christian value system within our society are long gone. We can’t spend all our time and energy mourning and longing for the good old days. We need to see the urgency and act on it. This may require change. There are many churches who thought that if they just kept going like they did in the 1950s, everything would be fine. But the world had changed all around them and many of those churches. We need to be mindful of how our world is changing. I’m not talking about change for the sake of change. I’m talking about being observant of our context and being willing to act appropriately. What I’m saying is biblical. How Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well was different than how he spoke to the Pharisee Nicodemus. Jesus adapted to his audience and so should we. We need to feel the same urgency that the manager did. We need to act in the face of our changing circumstances.
Another thing we can learn from the manager was that he planned for the future. The manager didn’t act just to change how he felt at the moment. He was thinking of his future. He would need a place to live and he would need food to eat. He needed to act now to prepare for the future.
This is the attitude that we need to have. In terms of personal plans, of course we should invest in eternal life. We should be looking to the resurrection from the dead. But beyond that, we need to be planning for our future here, as individuals and a church.
The worst thing we could do is to focus only on today. If we look to today, we do it by asking what we can do today that will give us a better future, not just for ourselves but for everyone. As we start this year, we can ask what can we do to make this the best year ever for our church. What can we do that would allow our church to grow both in numbers and spiritually? What can we do to grow in our knowledge of the Bible and spiritual disciplines? What can we do to have an impact on our community, especially those who do not yet know Jesus?
We would never want to condone the dishonest managers actions. It is wrong to cheat and steal. That is not the way we want to live. But we can learn from him. He was put in a desperate situation and he felt the urgency. Instead of panicking, he developed a plan and he put that plan into action. This manager was so wise that his master, despite being ripped off, was forced to praise him.
We can learn from this master. There has been a change of circumstances just as radical as that of this manager. We live in a post-Christian society where Christian values can no longer be taken for granted. We could pretend that nothing has changed but that would quickly lead to the end of this congregation. We need to acknowledge our changed context and make our plans accordingly. We need to plan not just for the day but for the future. We need to plan for the month, the year, the decade. It is just over a decade before our congregation is two hundred years old. What can we do to make sure this church is stronger and more effective in ministry on that anniversary than we are right now. Without cheating like the manager, we can be just as wise.