Sermon: Puzzling Parable

In a black and white engraving, a man stands at a table holding a paper. A man seated at the table gestures toward the document.

September 22, 2019
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 16:1-13

by Eric Anderson

Some of my favorite movies share a common characteristic: lovable rogues are their main characters. The Oceans movies with George Clooney and Brad Pitt and their steadily increasing cast of con artists. The Sting, with Robert Redford and Paul Newman as Chicago grifters of the Depression. What’s Up Doc?, with Barbara Streisand as a young woman who will joyfully steal a car decorated with cans and streamers proclaiming “Just Married” from in front of the church.

I could go on.

The curious thing about these characters is their basic integrity. The Daniel Ocean and Rusty Ryan characters are told that they’re good people – told, I grant you, by a fellow con artist. The characters of The Sting come together to exact a kind of justice for the death of a friend. In What’s Up Doc?, the commitment of Judy Maxwell to helping Howard Bannister (played by Ryan O’Neal) get his research grant is complete. The loyalty of all these characters is so admirable it’s easy to forget that they’re breaking into costume shops in What’s Up, Doc?, or stealing half a million dollars in The Sting, or going home with millions of dollars at the end of any of the Oceans’ movies.

It helps that their opponents are typically greedy or grim or both. Robert Shaw’s Doyle Lonnegan is cold-hearted and nakedly violent. Andy Garcia as Terry Benedict in the Oceans’ films echoes that ruthlessness with a distinctive swagger. One winces for Madeleine Kahn’s Eunice Burns, but nobody wants to see her marry Howard Bannister at the end, and Kenneth Mars’ Hugh Simon gets no sympathy for his pretentiousness, cowardice, and, oddly enough, fraud.

Somehow, in these stories, there are frauds that are commendable, and frauds that are shameful, and we all know which they are.

That brings us to the story of the dishonest manager.

This is a story that has puzzled Luke’s readers probably from the first time someone other than Luke read the book. I can just picture the frown growing on their faces, and their glances over the paper at the anxious author. “Why this story?” is a question that has echoed down the centuries. Martin Luther said of this text, “This is truly a Gospel for priests and monks, and will bring them money, unless we prevent it.”

In his blog Left Behind and Loving It, D. Mark Davis offers this summary of recent titles of essays on this parable, along with some parenthetical comments of his own:

  • “Does Christ Commend a Crook?” (This sounds like a statement posing as a question)
  • “Praising the Fraudulent Agent” (At least this one is honest)
  • “Where Is the Good Guy?” (Yeah, what he said)
  • “Watermelon Rugby with the Shrewd Manager,” – (I really don’t even know what this means)
  • “The Return of Eschatological Economics”- (Theological, but I still don’t know what it means)
  • “What Are We To Make of the Dishonest Manager?” (Apparently that is a popular question)
  • “Jesus the Reprobate?” (Oooh, somebody is either very daring or overselling)
  • “Faith, Hope, Love, Shrewd” (Nicely unexpected)
  • “Justice by Unjust Means” (Apparently there is an ethicist in the house)
  • “The strangest of them all” (More honesty)
  • “Money, Relationships, and Jesus’ Most Confusing Parable” (“most” – that seems significant)
  • “Oh No! Is It Really Time for ‘The Parable of the Dishonest Servant?'” (There it is)

I can affirm that the last title pretty well summarizes the response of most preachers confronted with this story.


What if we put George Clooney or Brad Pitt in the role of the dishonest manager? What if Robert Redford is the one being confronted by the icy gaze of Robert Shaw? What if Barbara Streisand leads a hapless Ryan O’Neal through a series of oddball catastrophes to save him from the self-righteousness of Madeleine Kahn and the joyfully malicious “I’m going to expose you” sneers of Kenneth Mars?

Suddenly the story changes, doesn’t it?

There’s some ground to the idea that the owner is no saint. Barbara J. Rossing writes at Working Preacher: “Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. The rich man or ‘lord’ (kyrios, v. 3, 8), along with his steward or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants.”

That’s more Terry Benedict or Doyle Lonnegan than Eunice Burns.

Now we’re on the side of the manager, who is, after all, reducing the imbalances in the economy, puncturing the pretentions of the powerful, and restoring a bit more justice to the world. The manager, after all, is the one with the most at risk here. The owner can afford whatever he’s losing. The manager, however, may lose not just position but home, reputation, the possibility of making a living. “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg… but I am clever, resourceful, and I’ve got some opportunities – OK, one slim opportunity – to preserve myself from this accusation.”

As Matt Skinner writes at Working Preacher, “Consider the devious manager. I like him. For one thing, I know what he’s talking about when he says, ‘I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.’ More than that, I’m drawn to him because of his desperation. He reminds me of the courageous woman with the unhealable hemorrhage and irrepressible Jacob wrestling through the night. The manager knows his role and he’s going to play it no matter what.”

It’s a curious thing, actually, that Jesus did not describe the manager as dishonest until verse eight. The accusations brought to the master in verse one aren’t actually confirmed. It’s the manager’s actions of reducing the clients’ bills that seem to justify the word “dishonest.”

Our charming rogue of a manager, with the dapper panache of George Clooney or the boyish charm of Robert Redford, with the twinkling mischief of Barbara Streisand, may have been forced into this fraud by a fraudulent accusation.

“So why is our dishonest manager shrewd?” asks Lois Malcolm at Working Preacher. “Even though he is still sinner who is looking out for his own interests (6:32-34), he models behavior the disciples can emulate. Instead of simply being a victim of circumstance, he transforms a bad situation into one that benefits him and others. By reducing other people’s debts, he creates a new set of relationships based not on the vertical relationship between lenders and debtors (rooted in monetary exchange) but on something more like the reciprocal and egalitarian relationships of friends.”

“Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” said Jesus.

That, after all, is the appeal of our charming rogue heroes, isn’t it? They’re the ones who are honest about dishonest wealth – they’re honest that they’re prepared to steal it – and they’re also honest about spreading it generously around when the task is done. The teams get equal shares in the Oceans’ movies. The Sting satisfies, or nearly so, the longing for justice of the small-time grifters who pull of the “Big Con.” Judy Maxwell cheerfully hands the few dollars of her reward to Howard as part compensation for losing his big grant.

Do we do that?

Do we use what we have to build relationships, or to keep ourselves separated? Do we use what we have to deepen our friendships, or to keep our circle limited? Do we use what we have to protect ourselves, to build walls, or to benefit those around us?

What would it be like if we were as charming and generous as Rusty Ryan, and as honest as, well, Jesus?

Grim earnestness is certainly one way to live our faith. It might be honest. It might be prudent. But it isn’t generous. It isn’t shrewd. And it isn’t wise.

The faith of Jesus can come with a puckish smile and an easy sharing of means. Best of all, we don’t have to go to nearly all the work of The Sting, creating sets and characters and circumstances to fool someone into believing the con.

All we’ve got to do is be joyful and generous enough to share the truth. “God loves you enough to give you one amazing discount on the bill.”

You can say that with a roguish smile.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Sometimes you just have to adapt to things on the fly: which is why there’s an introduction that observes that the pastor had (oops) put the wrong Scripture text in the bulletin…

The image is a Jan Luyken engraving as found in the Bowyer Bible (1795). Image credit to Phillip Medhurst – Photo by Harry Kossuth, FAL,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on September 22, 2019

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