Commended? (Luke 16:1-8)
Rev. David French
The words that we heard from Jesus today are confusing. Churches all over the world use the same lectionary that we use and that means that countless pastors have looked at those words of Jesus. Many of them looked and then decided to preach on one of the other readings for the day.
The problem is that we who live in a twenty-first century western culture don’t really understand the community dynamics in first century Israel. Jesus told of a manager who worked for a wealthy landowner. Jesus didn’t tell the exact crime, but this manager committed some kind of a firing offense. Now, in order to, let’s say, get on the good side of his boss’s business associates, he brought them in one at a time and had them significantly reduce their debt. Did you notice that he did this after he was fired? Every transaction that he did was illegal. It’s just that his boss’s business associates didn’t know that. Then the landowner commended this manager for his shrewdness! Wait, what?
In our culture, the landowner would quickly call the police and file a complaint. The manager would soon be in jail. All the transactions he conducted would be null and void. Nothing that this manager did would work out, and any landowner today would certainly not commend him for anything.
The key to the difference is the difference in cultures. First century Israel was an honor/shame culture. Honor was more valuable than wealth. A person would rather suffer bankruptcy than endure any shame. The community even viewed the shame of dying on a cross as worse than the suffering and torture of the cross. Death before dishonor was a literal way of life. So, how does this apply to the parable that Jesus tells?
“[Jesus] said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager”’” (Luke 16:1–2). The rich man knew that the community had accurately reported the mismanagement of this manager. The nature of the mismanagement is not important. We simply need to know that it was serious enough to have the manager fired. The rich man fired the manager and told him to bring in his accounts so that he could assign them to a manager who would be honest with them.
“And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses’” (Luke 16:3–4). Here Jesus simply informed His hearers that this manager was no longer able to make a living in any other way, so he had to come up with a scheme in order to survive.
“So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty’” (Luke 16:5–7). In each case, the value of the reduction was about five hundred days’ wages.
Now, there are a few things we should note about these transactions. First, they are entirely illegal. Second, the debtors were not suspicious, which indicates that this was something that a wealthy landowner might do from time to time.
The result was the community began to believe that these reductions came from the wealthy landowner himself. They began to praise his generosity. We might say his “poll numbers” went up. His popularity, and therefore his honor, increased. Soon, the whole village was singing his praise.
The manager had the landowner in a bind. If the landowner rolled back the deals that the manager had made, his popularity and honor would crash and burn. The landowner would rather take the financial hit than lose all that honor. Or, if the landowner told anyone about how this manager had outsmarted him, he would look foolish and lose honor. And so, when the manager went looking for work elsewhere in the area, no one would learn about his mismanagement from the landowner.
“The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). In the end, this manager was still a crook, but he was a smart crook. The landowner did not praise him for his integrity. Instead, the landowner acknowledged his skill as a con artist. He had no choice but to admit that the dishonest manager knew him well. He knew that that landowner valued his reputation as a generous and merciful lord even more than his wealth.
But, the point Jesus is making is not about the criminal genus of the manager. Instead, it is about the character of the landowner. The landowner is very honorable, generous, and merciful. So much so that his manager was willing to stake his life on it.
Now, if this unrighteous manager can rely on the generosity and mercy of the wealthy landowner, how much more can we rely on the generosity and mercy of the triune God? The unrighteous manager knew that he did not have the ability to save himself. And so, he had to rely on the character of the landowner. The unrighteous manager trusted his entire future on the character of the landowner just as we now trust our future on the honor, generosity, and mercy of our God.
We see the mercy and generosity of God in the sending of His Son into to this world to take our place under the law. Jesus did absolutely nothing to bring shame on himself or on His Father in heaven. He was innocent. And yet, mercifully, the Son of God takes our shame unto Himself and freely offers His honor or righteousness to us.
But death could not hold him; and with His resurrection, Jesus was declared to be the Son of God. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” You see, Jesus has risen from the shame of His death and ascended into heaven where He now rules all things in infinite honor. And, He has promised that all those who believe in Him for the forgiveness of their sins will be where He is.
In the parable that Jesus told, the crooked manager said, “Take your bill, and reduce it.” Jesus does not do that. With His final breath, Jesus said, “It is finished!” In the original Greek, the phrase “It is finished!” is just one word, τετέλεσται, which can also be translated as “paid in full.” On the day that we kneel before our merciful Lord, He will look at our debt for sin, and He will see written in Christ’s own blood the word τετέλεσται and know the debt for your sin has been paid in full and that you are His forgiven and precious child.
In His name, Amen.