Friday, April 13, 2007

The dishonest manager, and us.

Today's reading, from Luke 16, talks about a manager (someone like a bookkeeper or accountant I think) who finds out he's about to be fired. So he calls in his master's debtors and reduces their bills significantly. He hopes that these folks will later welcome him into their homes. Let's pick it up there:
8"The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
Luke 16:8-9
This parable never made much sense to me, but when I read it this time, I somehow remembered that not everything in a parable has to mean something. And the key here is that Jesus gives us the meaning in verses 8-9.

So let me try to make sense of this story one more time, starting with verse 9. When might I be welcomed into eternal dwellings? When I'm no longer in this world. And at that time, by the way, my worldly wealth will be "gone" -- or at least no longer under my control.

The manager is about to undergo a transition: in the current state, he has control of some of the master's assets; in the future state, he won't, and he wants to have friends that will welcome him. The line between these these two states, or the event that propels the manager from one state to the other, is the event of getting fired.

We all face a transition, too: the event of dying. Before that time, we have control over some assets. Since the whole world belongs to God, we don't "own" those assets; we have some control over them, but they're really not ours. Afterward, we won't have control over those same assets. At that future time, we will be very interested in eternal dwellings (our earthly ones won't be useful to us).

Here is what I think. I think that the dishonesty is just a device to get the manager fired in the parable. You and I will die even if we're perfectly honest (if we even could be).

So what I take away from this is basically, well, what Jesus said: to give away things in this world, because we know that there is a reward in the next.

Shouldn't we want to help the poor with money and things just because it's the right thing to do, rather than because of a reward? Well, for whatever reason, we should do it. And Jesus is realistic -- he knows most of us respond to incentives. So if you can manage to give away money and things because it's right, that's terrific! You don't need this sermonette. But Jesus addresses those of us who need the incentive: "Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves..."

A good idea, and counter to our culture which so often seems to tell us "use friends to acquire wealth." True riches, in other words, are friends -- particularly friends who will welcome us into eternal dwellings.

Anyway, as I write this, I suddenly see the connection to verses 10-12. "If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth," Jesus says, but hold on... what does it mean to handle worldly wealth in a trustworthy manner? It means to use it to gain friends for yourself! It means to recognize that worldly wealth is not for piling up forever, but for accomplishing God's purposes. They are about emulating the dishonest manager.

A staggering thought.

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