The Prodigal Steward

The Prodigal Steward

This morning’s parable from the gospel of Luke is one of the toughest pieces of scripture in the whole Bible. Preachers all over the country groan when this passage comes up in our three year cycle of readings. It is hard to figure out just what on earth Jesus is talking about.

We have the story about a middle man, a manager, who gets called in by his boss because he hasn’t been doing his job very well. In the words of the scripture, the manager had been “squandering his master’s property”. Keep that word squandering in the back of your mind… He calls for an audit – the master wants to see the books for himself and then the squandering and dishonest manager will be out on the street without a job.
Now, in Jesus’ time there were basically two types of people – those who had money and property and those who did not. While we might joke, that the same is true for today – there was no concept of a middle class. Either you were a top dog, or you owned nothing.
We don’t know what kind of business this master ran – only that he had enough money and property that he didn’t do any of the hands-on management of his own affairs. No, all of that was left to the steward, the manager. The manager was responsible for contacting all of the people who farmed the land and getting the master’s share of their crops. He was responsible for any investments or lines of credit the master held for others.
But you see, this was a system without financial regulations. And so, the manager paid himself by charging the debtors a little bit extra. The master didn’t mind because he still got his fair share. The debtors were the ones who felt the burden of the extra taxes – the extra interest that was required… and with such high and exorbitant rates, many were stuck with obligations that they just could never dream of fulfilling.
In this system, the only way that a manager kept from being a “have not” was to store up for himself riches on earth. To take a bigger and bigger chunk of the pie. Our manager from this morning was such a man… and according to the parable, maybe this time he had taken just a little bit too much.
Photo by Max Romersa
A complaint has been leveled against the manager that he was squandering his master’s possessions. He was wasting them. He had gotten all big in the head in his position as manager and had gone out and was flashing around his money and bought a new big screen television and a fancy new car and was rubbing what he had taken into everyone’s faces.
The manager had been squandering in the same way that the prodigal son had been squandering. Wasteful. Useless. Spending. And the master caught wind of what had happened and brought in the manager. Let me see your records, the master says. Let me see what you have to show for yourself.

While the prodigal son had his moment of epiphany when he wakes up sleeping among the pigs in some far off land, our manager has his moment of epiphany as he heads back to his office to pick up the accounting ledger.

My life is ruined, he thinks. Without this job I have nothing. I’m too weak to do physical labor, I’m too proud to beg. Without the ability to find work, in that economy – the manager was as good as dead. All of that laying up of riches on earth couldn’t help him now… he had squandered it all. And in the process of doing so, he had made enemies too numerous to count.

So like the prodigal son, he gets an idea… I’m going to throw myself at the mercy of those I wronged.

The prodigal returned home, not as a son, but as a servant… and the manager returns to the debtors – not as someone who is there to collect what is owed, but as someone who is going to provide relief.

He finds the debtors one by one… What is it that you owe? 100 jugs of oil? Make it half. Pay back half and the debt is gone. What do you owe? 100 bushels of wheat? Make it 80 and your bill is paid.

He bows down, falls at their feet, and waits to see what will happen.

What we often miss here is the fact that the chunk of change the manager is forgiving is NOT the piece owed to the rich man. The portion of the debt he is forgiving is the interest he himself was charging.

He had a choice. He could have collected all that he could and kept a little nest egg back for himself – something to retire on – or he could side with the poor tenant farmers, and pray that they might in turn show mercy in return.

The story of what the manager did makes its way back to the rich man… and he praises his employee for his shrewd behavior.

But now, here comes the tough part.

Jesus finishes up the story and turns to the disciples and says in verses 8 and 9: The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light… So you, too, Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they make welcome you into the eternal homes.

What? Jesus – did you just tell us to be like the people of the world and not like children of the light? Did you just tell us to go out and use dishonest wealth to make friends?

In fact, Jesus did.

And here is why I think he does this.

First, Jesus doesn’t try to pretend that we are angels. He knows that we are sinners. He knows we are of this world. He knows that we are already dishonest and squandering managers. As much as we might try to pretend we are the debtors, we are a part of the wealthiest country in the entire world. No matter how much debt we have or how little we make, we are richer than 80% of the world’s population. Don’t get me wrong – poverty is real in the United States, and the safety net for the middle class is failing all over the place in this tough economy – but we are still richer than we can possibly imagine.

We buy products made in sweatshops. We waste water and food and resources. We store up for ourselves without thinking about who might get hurt in the process. We might have a relationship with Jesus – but we have little to no relationship with the people that Jesus loves.

William Herzog and Alyce McKenzie write that “it is not shrewd for someone with wealth and power to be indifferent to those who are poor or on society’s margins… in reality, such a state of living precipitates a crisis in one’s condition in light of the kingdom to come. It leads to figurative and literal poverty and death.”

When we act like that dishonest manager and squander away treasurers for ourselves on earth… when we use and abuse our fair share of the gifts God has given us… we are setting ourselves up for failure. Remember, Jesus says the first shall be last.

So maybe, this morning, we are the ones who find ourselves called in before the master. We are the ones whose books are being called into question. Jesus confronts us with a hard truth – what are you doing with what I have entrusted to you? Are you squandering it? Are you wasting it? Are you serving me or are you serving yourself?

And faced with that question, we have a choice. Are we going to keep watching our own back, or are we going to be shrewd? Are we going to use what we have been in creative and active ways? Are we going to finally realize that our salvation depends not on the money we have in the bank but the relationships we make?

John Wesley started his ministry with the poor. He reached out to coal miners and farmers and alcoholics and prisoners and debtors. And when he offered them the good news of Jesus Christ, their lives were transformed. But as these folks started helping one another out and taking care of each other – they discovered they had an interesting problem. They started to have money.
And so Wesley tried to figure out how best to advise them and he came up with this short, pithy phrase: Earn all you can, Save all you can, Give all you can.
You see, money isn’t the problem. It is what we do with it.
We, Americans are really good at the first part of that phrase. We earn all we can – we work long and hard and bring home the paychecks when we can. But we have no idea what the other two things mean. We earn all we can and spend all we can.
But those of us who are saver’s aren’t any better. If we earn all we can and save all we can, we are still squanderers. We are watching our own backs. We are wasting the gifts that God has given us by burying them in the ground and sitting on them.
No, to be shrewd, to be faithful, we are called to earn all we can, save all we can, and give all we can. Sacrifice for your brother and sister. Work for the justice of the poor. Help out your neighbor. Never refuse to give to a beggar. Speak out on behalf of the poor. Forgive the debts of others.
In the kingdom of God – our place at the table is not guaranteed by our pocketbooks. Our place is freely given by Jesus Christ to those who choose to follow him there. To those who choose to lay aside the values of this world and to love him instead. To those who look around and see that salvation is not about me – but about the kingdom of heaven, the community of believers, the family of God that is all around us right now.
We are called to be shrewd, decisive, faithful servants. We are called to stop squandering, let go of our obsession with having more – and finally realize that to have more, means to give more. To love more. To serve more.
Go out there and take your dishonest wealth and love people with it. Be the best shrewd manager you can be. Let go of your hold on your wealth. And don’t be surprised when you are blessed beyond measure in return.
Amen and Amen.

1 Comment

  • Teri in Texas

    October 12, 2010 at 5:14 pm Reply

    you and Wesley, SO uplifting. Jim and I continue to argue over tithing from gross vs net. Thank you for sharing the Word and for your interpretation – it's good for my soul!Ben's Mom

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