Sunday Sermon - The Shrewd Manager
The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman
Luke 17: 5-10
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" He replied, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you. "Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' "
Who’s lost now?
Today’s gospel reading is a curious parable, the parable of the shrewd manager. It’s one which even the commentators struggle to come to a consensus of what is means.
It comes after the parable of the lost sheep (Lk 15 v 1 – 7), the parable of the lost coin (Lk 15 v 8 – 10), and the parable of the lost (prodigal) son (Lk 15 v 11 – 31).
The language and the continuity of chapter 16 indicate that the parable of the shrewd manager is linked to these parables about ‘lostness’, so what going on?
It opens up a rich man, the master, and his manager, or steward having a conversation about what the manager has done with the master’s possessions. This may have already got the listeners (who we are told are the disciples at this stage) smiling. Clearly the rich man should not be charging interest in his loans, however the bond agreements are written, but the master is apparently asking about the return on the investments and loans the manager has made. What is going on as this just does not make sense? Why raise the topic at all. It’s a minefield!
Wising up to what is happening the manager re-writes the agreements with the wish that he will be welcomed into the houses of the debtors. An agreement for 800 gallons/baths of oil suddenly becomes 400 and 1000 bushels/cors of wheat becomes 800. The master then apparently commends the manager and tells the manager that by all means he should use worldly wealth so that when it is gone he will be welcomed into ‘eternal dwellings’
So far so good? Even as an ‘outsider’ Luke will know that Rabbinic parables about masters and stewards are about God and Israel. It would seem that this is the context that Luke is using here.
Perhaps this is a parable about the lost people to follow on from the lost son. In the parable of the prodigal son the Father welcomes back the son who has spent all the money he was given and they have a party when he returns. The elder brother indignantly asks, ‘What about me?’
The Father replies that the elder brother has always been with him and that all that the father has is his too. Sound familiar? Jesus came to seek those who were both inside/under the law and those outside. Both the Jew and the Gentile. The Jews had always been with the Father, now the gentiles are invited through Christ to have a relationship with Him, and that’s a real cause for celebration.
The story now switches to those who have been given responsibility for looking after the Jews, who have always been with the father. Judgement is coming on God’s steward people.
And the implication from the story is that they have been demanding more of these people than the master required. They are wasting what they have been entrusted with.
And the comment that the master makes about using worldly wealth to gain friends so they would welcome you into their dwellings looks particularly thin when this story follows on from the story of the prodigal son. That strategy didn’t seem to work for the prodigal son a few verses earlier, so why is it such a good idea now?
But there is a subtle change in the words which are used in the story. True, the servant wants to be welcomed into the houses of those he is now in cahoots with, but the words that the master uses are very different.
He says that the servant can use wealth and resources to be invited into their eternal tents. Now that would seem an oxymoron or tautology. Tents are many things but they are not eternal, they are temporary structures which eventually rot and fall down. Just as we’ve seen with the prodigal son.
We can use worldly wealth to try to protect ourselves for the future but ultimately it’s a futile exercise because it’s only a temporary security, not an eternal one.
Seen in this context the parable is about what we have done with that with which we have been entrusted. Have we lost it, or have we used it as the master Himself would have wished. Where do we put our ultimate trust? God, or the things of this world, which there seems questions about how we can be trusted with these anyway!
It’s not so much what we do with what belongs to us, can we be trusted with it, but also what belongs to others and can we be trusted with that, including God’s people and His creation. It’s not so much about accumulation of wealth and resources, but stewardship of them in a way that means they are not lost.
So it’s not surprising that in the following verses the Pharisees, who obviously had been listening to the story, get very angry and start been sneering at Jesus.
Jesus then replies that the law and the prophets were proclaimed until John and that since then the good news of the Kingdom has been preached.
And part of that Good News is that God’s creation, including all people on earth, are to enjoy the goodness of that creation as good stewards of it. Not demanding more than God would, but not demanding less.
We start our season of Harvest today and it’s a season which reflects just that message. As we thank God for His harvest, all he has given us, we also reflect that we need to share the gifts of God’s harvest with those who are less fortunate than ourselves.
People like Geji Tie. For our mission project this year we are supporting the Bishop of St Alban’s Harvest appeal, ‘A sweeter deal’ where we want to provide support and equipment for a project in Ethiopia teaching farmers about better beekeeping methods so they can become more self-sufficient and improve their lives and the lives of others.
It’s an opportunity for us to support, in a small way, ensuring the provision we have can be shared with others. An opportunity for us to share what we have with others.
More details on the project and how to support it in prayer and with our financial gifts can be found in the letter at the back of church.