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September 22, 2016, 2:40 PM

The Parable of the Repentant Master?

Luke 16:1-13, CEB
Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’
“The household manager said to himself, ‘What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.
“One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’ The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’ He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.
10 “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. 11 If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13 No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
The Parable of the Repentant Master
The Loan Shark. What is a loan shark? (give congregation a few moments to call out answers) Exactly. A loan shark is a person who loans out money for stiff interest rates and is notorious for being ruthless in their collecting. Loan sharks don’t like to do the collecting themselves, in most crime stories and police dramas. They hire collectors to go rough up the clients until the debt is paid. These collectors use threats, intimidation, and violence to force repayment. And in a lot of crime stories, the loan shark will even order the death of debtors who cannot pay. We wish these characters were confined to novels and television dramas, but in our world today too many people are experiencing some elements of the loan shark. In fact, the loan shark is one of those timeless occupations, if you can call it that. There have been loan sharks about as long as humans have lived together in villages, tribes and cities. Loan sharks certainly existed in Jesus’ time. In fact, it seems we have one in front of us in Jesus’ parable today.
As we mentioned last week in exploring the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin, parables are a wonderful and unique form a teaching. They are little stories designed to grab the attention of the audience through twists or shocking statements, and to stick with the listener, allowing them to wrestle with the story, to chew on it a bit and explore its many layers. There is little question that today’s parable grabs our attention and is a bit shocking, and more than a little perplexing. This parable is commonly titled, “The Parable of the Dishonest or Unjust Steward.” But that is part of the problem in entering into this story, the title already colors our vision and pushes toward a particular reading of the story. Jesus didn’t give titles to his parables. The gospels, as we have them in the ancient Greek, did not give titles to the stories. There are no headings in the Greek texts; no chapters, no verses. Though at times these are helpful tools added by translators and bible scholars, they are not original to the story, to the gospels. As we enter into this story, we need to shed the popular name, for in this instance, it does more harm than good.
This particular parable by Jesus is shining a light on a particular practice in ancient Israel, and so in understanding the context of this story, we need to understand a little bit about 1st century Jewish economics. According to God’s Law, the Torah, charging interest is forbidden. The Law is very, very clear on this, bringing it up several times in the giving of the Law in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Deuteronomy 23, one instance). This was to prevent the gouging of fellow Jews and to try to prevent people losing their land and property in debt repayment. And it was to discourage the rise of loan sharks, those who sought prophet and power through loaning and interest.  But, where there is a will there is so often a way. The loan sharks found a way. When someone needing money or materials (grain, oil, wine, etc.), went to someone who had the money or materials to give, a contract was written up detailing what was loaned—a prudent practice. However, the loan shark would verbally agree with the debtor as to what would be loaned, and then would tell them verbally a different amount which would be repaid, and this inflated amount was recorded on the contract. For most enforcers of God’s Law, it was the figure in writing that mattered. In this way, the wealthy loan sharks were make a tidy profit or would end up with material goods or land…or some slaves. Many times people had to sell themselves into slavery until they worked off their debts.
In this story Jesus tells us today, we have a wealthy person who has many debtors, debtors who owe some substantial amount of goods. And we have a collector who works for the wealthy person. We have the story of a loan shark. It is important to note that the story opens with the wealthy master being told that this one steward or collector is squandering the master’s estate. We are not told that this is true. In the Greek it literally says that the collector or steward is slandered to the master. The master’s response, in true loan shark fashion, is to get rid of the possible risk without looking into the matter or allowing the steward to really answer to the charges. The steward or collector is simply fired.
This employee of the loan shark is now free. Certainly, as the story tells us, he is worried about how he will make money and have resources without his job. But in his efforts to create a place for himself going forward, and to enact a little revenge on his former master, does this collector of debts actually enact a bit of justice? We see in the story that he approaches those whom he was to collect debt repayment from, hoping to get into their good graces. He brings out the contracts and changes the figures that indicate the amount owed to the master. Is he cancelling out the interest and returning the debt to the original loan amount? It is hard to know. But something is happening in this act that profoundly changes the master. A good loan shark is aware of what is happening in their ‘business.’ This wealthy master, according to the story, is aware of what the former collector has done with the debt contracts. What does the master do when he discovers this? That is the twist or shock of the story, the master doesn’t order a hit on the former collector or send someone over to break something. The master commends the collector. The master praises the steward for his actions!
While that surprise hangs in front of us, Luke lays before us a series of Jesus’ sayings regarding money and living God’s way. Matthew also records these sayings, but in different places in his gospel. These sayings of Jesus follow nicely with this strange, unsettling story, especially that very last sentence of verse 13. “You cannot serve God and wealth.” This has become a popular translation in later years from the Greek, but the Greek literally says, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Jesus used the name for the Syrian god of wealth to speak of serving two masters. By doing so Jesus was driving home the point that money and wealth can become its own deity in our lives. That is certainly true in the life of the master in this story. The master’s wealth is of utmost importance to him. He quickly fires an employee on even the suspicion of wastefulness. But in the end, do we catch a hint of repentance as he offers commendation for the lowering of the debts? Maybe. We will have to chew on this one a bit.
Regardless of the parable, Jesus is very serious about his statement in verse 13. Wealth often rises up in the lives of God’s people as a competing god. We live in a culture dedicated to profit. It is the nature of capitalism. We have witnessed time and again the corruption and greed of corporations. Many loan sharks dwell within legal businesses, seeking to profit on a culture addicted to debt. Money and finances continue to be the greatest stress on families and in relationships. Jesus spoke about money frankly and often because it was and it continues to be one of the greatest stumbling blocks to people of faith. I wrestle with it. You wrestle with it. Our church wrestles with it. How do we live faithfully with our material goods?
There is not an easy answer to this question. Instead, I believe it is a journey as we seek daily to embody Jesus’ way of living. We need to ask ourselves that question—how do we live faithfully with our material goods—daily, sometimes multiple times a day. It should be the question we ask before we make major financial decisions or purchases. And, we should be talking about it together on a regular basis. We will make mistakes. We will get sucked into the priorities of our culture. It has happened and it will happen in the future. But the good news I hear in this strange parable is that we can change. We can repent and start again. We can turn in a new direction. We can see an act of justice in our midst and go “aha! I need a new direction.”
Christmas is coming. Halloween is on the horizon. Thanksgiving will be here before we know it. Consumerism will sing its song of spending and buying, and the credit companies will whisper of financing for loans and credit cards. But the choice is ours. How might these holidays look if we were more Jesus centered? Are we willing to make a change? To ask Rev. Michael Slaughter’s question, what would happen if we spent as much on those in need this holiday season as we do on gifts, decorations, and celebrations? Could we spend less on the latter in order to spend more on the former? The consumer industry is already pitching its sales. How will we live faithfully with our material goods? Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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