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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 9/23

A Puzzling Parable

Time after Pentecost
September 23, 2007  
Luke 16:1-13
Bethany Lutheran Church

I want to apologize to each of you in advance for this sermon. I also want to apologize to each of you for this gospel which you just heard. It is my duty on this Sunday as the preacher to help interpret this text for you. Unfortunately, after many sleepless nights this week, nights spent tossing and turning, I still have far too many questions. The only thing that I know for sure is that every preacher today has many of the same questions that I do. Not even the Bible commentaries or years of theological education help solve the mysteries of this text. In fact, every commentary I read began with a sentence stating that this text has puzzled its readers, even the greatest of theologians for centuries upon centuries, including Marin Luther himself. Bearing all this in mind, it would be extremely presumptuous of me to claim that I had any answers to the mysteries of this parable. However, I cannot completely ignore it either because it is in the Bible and it has now been read today, and so I invite you to merely reflect on it with me.

The greatest challenges with this text stem from the fact that we do not fully know the intensions of the manager. He has been accused of squandering the rich man’s property. If he was innocent, why would he not attempt to defend himself? Perhaps the wealth of the rich man may have made any defense against the accusations useless. If, on the other hand, the manager was guilty and fired from his position as manager, could he not seek other employment? The text only tells us that the manager is not strong enough to dig and that he is too ashamed to beg. I find it hard to believe that these were his only options. If he was guilty, other business owners in the village would have known about what he had done. This could make it very difficult for him to gain new employment and his only options may very well have been either begging or digging graves. Either way, the manager seems o have been at the end of his rope, feeling desperate and without much hope.

But then the mood drastically changes when the manager experiences his moment of eureka! The light bulb in his mind is suddenly lit with an idea. He will lower the debts of at least two debtors. These two debtors however are not necessarily among the poor. Rather they are entrepreneurial investors, business owners who are perhaps attempting to earn up their own wealth in riches. These one hundred jugs of oil were not merely bottles like those we might find in a grocery store. A clay jug was large and heavy. They would have sat on the ground and we usually between three and four feet high. Each jug could easily hold nine gallons. If you do the math, this one debtor owed roughly nine hundred gallons of olive oil. Similarly, one hundred containers of wheat would have been roughly eight hundred bushels of grain. One bushel is thirty-two quarts. That is over 25,600 quarts of grain. What, then, were behind the intensions of the manager? Biblical scholars suggest at least three possibilities.

Scenario one: Despite whether the manager was innocent or guilty of squandering, his attitude was one of bitterness and contempt. Instead of trying to make things right, since he had already been accused and was most likely to be fired anyway, why not be dishonest and make the accusations true. Squander one last time. We could interpret these actions as a denial of wealth. In squandering, he was decreasing the wealth of the rich man, while at the same time building relationships as he lowered the debts of these other two businessmen.

Among the problems with this theory is that the manager was lying and cheating the rich man out of his wealth. These habits seem sinful. The God we know does not endorse stealing or coveting of one’s possessions. Additionally, was the manager not selfishly thinking of himself? He was seeking a home into which he would be welcomed and safe from begging in the streets. Perhaps he might even secure a new job from one of these two businessmen.

The second scenario which biblical scholars suggest is that the manager was following a law written in Deuteronomy, chapter twenty-three. That law states: “You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent. On loans to a foreigner you may charge interest, but on loans to another Israelite you may not charge interest, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings in the land that you are about to enter and possess.” Therefore, while the manager was dishonest to the rich man, what is important is that he remained faithful to God’s law by removing the interest charges owed by each of the two businessmen, who were likely fellow Israelites.

The danger of this interpretation or scenario is that God’s law is set up against human law. The manager did not have the rich man’s authority to cancel the interest that was owed. The manager therefore still acted dishonestly. And while God’s law may have superseded that of the rich man’s business contracts in this parable, it would be dangerous for us to think that we always understood God’s law. Those of you who have attended Bible study these past few weeks with Pastor Geier, myself, and the spirit of Walter Brueggemann might remember our discussion on using the Lord’s name in vain. Let me briefly summarize for those of you who were not there. The commandment against using the Lord’s name in vain has nothing to do with curse words. Rather, it has to do with invoking God’s stamp of approval on something. For example, to ever suggest that God wants us to go to war or to suggest that God wants the manager to steal from the rich man – that would be using God’s name in vain.

A third scenario for our gospel text suggests that the manager was not actually being dishonest to anyone. Rather, the manager was simply eliminating his own commission from the bills of these two debtors. In eliminating his commission, he gave up his wealth to gain new friends without being dishonest to the manager. The problem with this scenario, however, is the sense of urgency. If the manager was not being dishonest, why then did he tell the two debtors to “quickly” sit down and change their bills?

I do not have all the answers to the riddle of this parable. However, coffee might stimulate our reflection on this text. Today coffee is one of the most heavily traded commodities in the world, as olive oil and wheat would have been in Jesus’ time. “For the majority of coffee farmers, the benefits are few. Trading coffee involves a lengthy and expensive cast of middlemen between the coffee farmer and the consumer, each taking their share – or more – of the coffee price. The amount left for the farmers may not even cover their production costs or their basic living expenses.

Coffee prices are notoriously unstable and in recent years have dropped to historic lows, forcing farmers from Columbia to Tanzania to give up their farms. The unpredictable fluctuations in market price deny many farmers the ability to pay for daily necessities such as medicines, clothing or school fees. Overwhelmed with debt and unable to earn a consistent income, farmers are moving to the cities or migrating to other countries in search of work.”

Today’s coffee farmers are in a similar situation to that of the debtors in our parable. Corporate America is likely the rich man. It seems to me, then, that we are the managers. Like the manager in the parable, we are faced with a choice. We can either continue to increase the riches of corporate giants such as Starbucks and Folgers, often leaving farmers with barely enough to feed their own families. Or, we can be more aware of the unfair trading that exists throughout the world. We can seek out such companies as Equal Exchange and Fair Trade Coffee that, while it may be more expensive for us the managers, at the same time, it ensures that these farmers are earning a decent wage that they deserve.

We may not regard ourselves necessarily as being selfish. However, when we push a shopping cart through a grocery store, simply taking things off of the shelf and tossing them into our cart without any thought as to the laborers who worked to put these items there, that is perhaps selfishness at its worst. We may be ignorant of all the dishonest buying and trading that exists throughout our global world, because that is how the corporate giants would rather have it.

But God knows our budgets. God knows what we put into the offering plate on a given Sunday. God knows what we give to our unemployed neighbor or the homeless person downtown. And while this gospel text has left us with many questions, we already know that our generosity should not be motivated by our own social security. Rather, we are able to give generously precisely because we are aware of God’s generous love and forgiveness towards us.  We give, not in order that we might make friends, but as a matter of faith.

In the prayer of the day today, we prayed, “Lord, help us to order our lives by your wisdom.” God knows how difficult this is for us. God knows how the foolishness of wealth builds a false sense of security for us. Yet, God continually calls us, as we were called at our baptisms, to give up false riches, to deny wealth, and rather to serve God alone. Tutor a neighborhood child, visit the Alzheimer’s unit at one of the nursing homes, join a Bible study, and do not forget to pray. Do these things and discover the true riches, the riches of a God who calls us to our eternal home. That is our Christian inheritance.

Vicar Luke Smetters


Deuteronomy 23:19-20

These paragraph are quoted from the Lutheran World Relief: Coffee Project pamphlet.

 

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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