A Sermon for Sunday, September 22, 2019 (Proper 20, Year C)
The parable before us this morning is arguably one of the most difficult and confusing parables that Jesus ever told. Now, usually, when I preach, I’m not saying that I’m always right, but I usually have a firm handle on the text in front of me and on what it is that I want to say. I might not be right, but typically I’m certain that I am. This morning, I don’t know if I can say the same thing. This parable is complex, and its punchline is frankly disturbing to many people since it comes from the lips of Jesus. Jesus says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). What does that even mean?
Well, there are a couple of things to note here. The first is that this is a parable, and as I said last week, parables are meant to be lived in, dwelt in, and pondered. You’ll remember that Jesus told parables because their meaning wasn’t clear. Those on the outside wouldn’t understand them, and those on the inside would, so there is built into parables themselves this sense that they should be complex and they should be difficult to understand.
The second thing to note is that we are still in the general context of the Pharisees and scribes complaining that Jesus was welcoming the wrong kind of people to his meal. Last week we talked about how Jesus ironically said that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. I’m saying that the statement is ironic because the ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance don’t actually exist. Jesus then tells another parable about a lost son and his elder brother who, even as his lost brother returns, is standing on the outside grumbling and complaining. The supposed righteousness of the Pharisees is still very much in view as we come to our parable this morning.
The third item that we need to note is that whenever you hear a story about a master and steward or servant in his house, the bigger metaphor at work is always Yahweh and Israel. Yahweh is the master of the house or the owner, and Israel is the one who has been tasked with keeping charge over the master’s house. But now the Lord has returned to his people, and he has found the ones he placed in charge have not been doing the task that he has given them. They have not been a light to the nations. They have not spread the glory of God across the face of the known world. They have not been people who follow the commandments of God. And now God is calling the manager to account.
In the parable, when the master calls his manager to account, the manager begins to lessen the debts of those who owe the master money, and when the master finds out, rather than chastising him, the master applauds. This is the first sign that Jesus is toying with, or sort of twisting, what one might expect to happen in this story. Jesus says, “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).
You see, Jesus has been saying since the inauguration of his ministry that there was a great trial coming upon Israel. There God had come to them, didn’t like what he had found, and so he was going to bring judgment upon them. This is ultimately what happens in AD 70 with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. And Jesus seems to be saying that the children of this world are better at perceiving the times, perceiving the political machinations around them and responding appropriately than the children of light. He is saying to them that the Pharisees and the scribes should be able to understand the events unfolding around them, but they don’t. Jesus is offering them a way out. With his new meal and his new people, he is providing an escape from the judgment that was to come, but the Pharisees are standing on the outside, both refusing to join the new community that Jesus is forming and being oblivious of the judgment that is to come upon them. They and most of Israel with them are standing in no man’s land, neither choosing salvation nor being aware of the danger that is coming.
It’s in this context that Jesus says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9), and I think what we can see now is that Jesus is being incredibly ironic. He’s saying to his disciples that if the Pharisees or anyone is going to stand on the outside and grumble about the returning of the lost son, about Jesus eating with the wrong kind of people, then they are in danger of the judgment that is coming, and the best thing for them to do would be to use all the wealth that they’ve accumulated unrighteously to make friends with the children of this world so that maybe, just maybe, they’ll have a chance to escape what it coming for a time. The manger of the house escaped his master’s judgment by being a friend to those who were in debt to the master, and so Jesus is suggesting that those who won’t join him should do the same, not because the master of the house will forgive the manager, but because the judgment is coming, and if they don’t follow Jesus, that will be their only possible means of escape.
And then comes the real twist. The truly ironic part of this saying. “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” That’s not what you want. You don’t want your friends made through unrighteous wealth to receive you into eternal dwellings because their fate will be the same as yours. You want the Master to receive you into eternal dwellings. You want Jesus to receive you into eternal dwellings, not the friends you acquired through being shrewd and spending your unrighteous wealth.
You see, the Pharisees thought they had earned righteousness through the Law and so they looked down on those sinners and anyone who would eat with them, but they haven’t earned righteousness. The only things they’ve earned is unrighteousness, the only thing they’ve earned is standing outside the party and grumbling, the only thing they’ve earned is the same fate as sinners, they have all this capital in unrighteousness, and so Jesus tells them to spend it, to make the wrong kind of friends, and since they have refused Jesus and his eternal dwelling, they will join their new friends in their eternal dwelling in God’s judgment.
So what’s the point of all this? Clearly Jesus isn’t telling us to be dishonest managers or unwise stewards of what we’ve been given. In fact, what immediately follows says just the opposite. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10). The point of the parable as Jesus tells it is to drive home the fact that people must pick a side. To be with Jesus or not. If we want to be received into his eternal dwellings, standing outside grumbling is not an option. Pretending to be righteous while Jesus shares his meal with the wrong kind of people is not an option. We can get on board with Jesus’ agenda to bring light, healing, hope, good news to the lost, the sick, the dying, the broken, the sinful, and the social outcasts or we can make friends with the rich and powerful and share the same fate as them. The choice is ours. You can’t serve both God and money. That’s how our reading ends, and I’m probably supposed to use this text to talk to you about stewardship and giving to the church, but this warning is bigger than that. Jesus is bringing the Gospel to all the wrong kind of people. He’s bringing the Gospel to people that we don’t want to be friends with. He’s bringing the Gospel to people that can’t help us, to people who can’t give to the church, to people to society has cast aside and forgotten. He’s bringing the gospel to places that we don’t want to go, and we can either go with him, and eat and drink with all the wrong kinds of people, or we can stand on the outside, grumbling, complaining, celebrating our self-righteousness, and making friends with all the right people, and when the end comes, our fate will be the same at theirs.