>A sermon on the dishonest manager / preached at RUMC on 9/23/2007

Alright already. I get it. Take a lesson from the business world. When church leadership gets tired of biblical metaphors for ministry like sheep and shepherd, field and farmer, fish and fishermen, we quickly turn to what may appear to be more relevant metaphors for our time. “Pastor as counselor” takes it cue from psychology and psychiatry. “Pastor as teacher” often takes its cue from academia. “Pastor as social activist” takes its cue from humanitarian and political figures who work for change. And what is the most popular modern image for the ministry? – the “pastor as CEO.”

I have seen the suggested reading list for pastors these days. I have many of the books that we are being force fed beyond our capacity to digest. The managerial model is all the rage. We need to operate the church like the world operates a business. I heard this message reiterated again just a few weeks ago at a large event for local pastors. The guest speaker was a successful lay businessman who had a lot of good things to share about the coming growth of North Carolina. He proceeded to tell us that within the next 15 years, we will have 4-5 million more people in our state (essentially, the whole population of South Carolina today). For every two people on the street, you will see three. For every two grocery stores in the community you will see three. For every two public schools, three. … then he posed his question. What about churches? For every two churches, will we see three? Even if all our current United Methodist churches grew by 50% each, we still would need a third church for every two in order to reach the same percentage of the population we are reaching today.

It was a telling moment – a wake up call for people passionate about witnessing, reaching out, evangelizing, and sharing the gospel. But then, just as quickly as he had grabbed my attention, he lost me with these words:

  • “We in the business world say marketing – you say evangelism
  • We say market share – you say stewardship
  • We say consumer or customers – you say membership and visitors
  • We say company prospectus – you say mission and vision for the future
  • We say product for sale – you say Gospel of Jesus Christ for sharing.

It is all the same thing. It doesn’t matter what you call it, we are doing the same thing.”

That is where I had to object. I am sorry, and my apologies to other committed Christians who say the same – but I beg to differ. Marketing is not the same thing as evangelism; market share is not the same as stewardship; members of the Body of Christ are not the same as consumers of a product. I had to leave the meeting early, so I wasn’t able to engage in the Q and A afterwards, so I am not sure how the meeting ended.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe we can learn things from the world of business, I just think we have to be careful about how we do so. Throwing terms around is more than just a game of semantics. Start treating the gospel like a product, and pretty soon you are shaving the edges off of its radical message and glossing over its difficulty so that it can look good in a magazine ad. Such business strategies are not morally neutral.

You’ve heard the story of the hammer, right? Some would argue that a hammer is “morally neutral.” It can be used for good (building things) or evil (destroying things) – and whether it is used for good or evil has to do with the person wielding it. Sounds great, right? But there is just one problem. Carrying a hammer around all day eventually changes the way you see the world. Pretty soon, everything starts to look like a nail. If you don’t believe me, give a hammer to a young child and see what happens. Sure, they may hit a nail the first few times you instruct them to do so – but pretty soon it is the furniture, the tree, the floor, and maybe eventually, even their irritating sibling. Marketing is a lot like that hammer. Use it indiscriminately, and pretty soon – everyone looks like a consumer.

So imagine my shock and indignation when, after I left such a meeting feeling a little self justified and theologically superior – Jesus had a way of bringing me back down to size in a hurry. This week, as we turn to Luke chapter 16 – Jesus decides to say something very similar to my pastors meeting. Today, he turns to us gathered here this morning and says: “Hey – YOU! Listen up! Wise up! Listen to this story I have for you and take a few lessons from the business world.”

My response was: “Jesus, really? Not you too? …UGGGHHH!” And off we go. Jesus tells a knotty, difficult, and confusing story about a rich man, a dishonest manager, and a bunch of people who have a lot of indebtedness to the rich man. It is not unlike the story that comes a little later in this chapter – the one we will hear next week – the story of the rich man and Lazarus. That story, like this one, is about the haves the have-nots – and how they treat one another – and in this case, how middle management gets involved.

So what do we do with a story like this one? I jokingly told a friend this week that preaching this parable was like preaching business scandal with a closing: “Go ye and swindle likewise!” I would be lying if I told you this is an easy one to preach, to teach, and to understand. There are about as many interpretations of this parable as there are people to interpret it. Just look at the titles that different bibles come up for this caption for this story: The parable of the dishonest manager …The parable of the shrewd manager … I noticed that some bibles just skip over trying to title Luke 16:1-13. At the top of the page they cite The prodigal son from the previous chapter, and then cite Lazarus and the rich man from chapter 16 – conveniently skipping over the knotty and problematic story in the first 13 verses. But here is my favorite story title for this parable – I found it in the Hebrew and Greek Study Bible, King James Version: How to get a welcoming committee in heaven!

There may actually be something to that title, but first lets look at this passage again briefly. There is a rich man, his manager, and his debtors. Somehow, charges are brought against the manager for “squandering property.” Keep this in modern day perspective – today we would call it misappropriation of funds, a felony offense that almost always carries with it a prison sentence. Yet that doesn’t sound like what the manger feared in this first century version. He feared job loss an ultimately, homelessness. He would have no livelihood and likely no references to find work anywhere else. He would be reduced to manual labor, for which he was too weak – or begging on the street, for which he was too proud.

So what does he do? He calls in some of his boss’ debtors and settles the bills for less than they were due. He changed one person’s debt from 100 jugs of olive oil to 50 – cut it in half! He brought in another debtor and changed the bill from 100 containers of wheat to 80. According to Jesus, the manager was “making friends by means of worldly [dishonest] wealth” so that if and when he became homeless, he might have some people out there willing to put him up for the night.

Two key verses in this passage are verse 4 and verse 9. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes. Verse nine is classic parallelism, picking up this theme again and elaborating a spiritual insight: And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of worldly wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. In other words, “just as one might take a lesson from the business world and engage in business practices that guarantee one’s security in the future, so also, with regard to the age to come, should people engage in practices that guarantee one’s heavenly home.”[1]

So the Hebrew and Greek study Bible may have a large part of this story right. The manager is commended because he acted shrewdly. He knew what he wanted – he knew what the goal was – and he engaged in practices to ensure he got there. Jesus seems to suggest that we need just as much passion, drive, and commitment to our end goal of God’s kingdom.

But if this is one of Jesus’ “lessons from the business world” then I would remind us that this parable is no Enron. It is not like the corporate scandals of the past few decades that have become so infamous in American business. Unlike the corporate CEO that takes off in his private jet, sells off one of his ten resort homes, and then heads to the Bahamas – this manager does something very different. He doesn’t leave all the little people holding the bag with no pensions, no futures, and nothing to show for a lifetime of work and hard labor. This manager befriends the little guys, gives them some debt relief, and leaves with having at least recognized not only his own plight, but the plight of a few others. This parable really is a lot like the rich man and Lazarus that comes in just a few more verses. It is about a manager that may have saved his own hide when the ship started to sink, but he is also one who threw out some life preservers to others in the water – who were likely indebted to the rich man beyond what they would ever be able to pay back any time soon.

So to recap our business lesson: #1 – know where you are headed and make sure the road you on will get you there. Then, like our manager, engage in practices that will ensure you arrive at the final destination. If that is a heavenly home in God’s kingdom, then pursue that end with passion and single-mindedness of heart and life.

#2 Jesus says it plain: You can’t serve two masters; you can’t serve both God and wealth. How is that for a lesson from the business world? Choose this day whom you will serve. Want to get ahead and be the top rat in the rat race? Fine and dandy – but don’t expect to be welcomed into an eternal home at the end of the race – be content with the nice home you have now – and remember, both you and it will one day be dust. As Jesus once said elsewhere: where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.

#3 And finally, but I think an important point here that can be easily missed – friendship with the poor is a means of grace. Make friends of the poor, the indebted, the people who are often referred to as the last, the least, and the lost. One day you may find yourself on the street, homeless yourself – and when you do a friend of Jesus with a spirit of hospitality will be much more valuable then riches you once had in your possession but that are now long gone.

In the end, Jesus does give us some lessons from the business world, but as we look a little closer – these are actually lessons from a business manager who didn’t exactly do things the way the rest of the world does business.

Instead of bilking the poor debtors for more money to pad the rich man’s pocket and get him in good again with the wealthy – the manager gets in touch with the poor, the indebted – and hopes to one day be a guest in their homes. Not exactly the kind of thing most people in middle management are concerned with, even if their job is threatened.

Instead of ending up homeless and friendless, the manager makes friends and establishes a future home among a new founded family.

Instead of serving the rich man and making it up to him and others like him – the manager decides to no longer serve two masters – so he forsakes money making business in order to go into the friend making business. Now that IS something I can say to you to “go and do likewise.”

Amen.


[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 1885

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