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Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager

Here is my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

Often working people (usually rightly) say that work barely gets a mention in Church but that is actually surprising because, when you look at the stories Jesus told, large numbers of them are to do with work. This is one of those stories and it may well be the one that it is most difficult to understand (Luke 16. 1 - 13). The story and the teaching based on it seem contradictory and it doesn’t seem to fit with other things that Jesus said and taught.

A manager is wasting his employer’s money. He is found out and fired. The beginning of the story makes sense to us. It’s what happens next that causes a problem. The manager then reduces the debts that various people owe to his employer in order to get on good terms with them before he leaves his master’s employment. Although he is again wasting his master’s money, this time the master praises what he has done.

Jesus goes on to say that we should use our money to make friends and that this will help us to be welcomed into eternity. That seems almost the reverse of his saying to store up treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth. Then to compound all the complications he commends faithfulness after having told a story in which the dishonest manager is praised for his dishonesty.

How can we find a way in to a set of teaching that seems contradictory and confused? It may be that the key is Jesus’ statement that we should make friends for ourselves. Although the dishonest manager remains dishonest there is a change that occurs in the story. And we can see that change most clearly if we think about the manager’s work-life balance.

At the beginning of the story, friendships and responsibility seem low on his list of priorities. He is managing his employer’s property but wasting his employer’s money. It is likely then that his life is focused around work and money. However, when his job comes under threat, he suddenly realises that relationships – friendships – are actually more important than work and money and figures out a quick way of building friendships. At the end of the story, if we return to his work-life balance, work will have decreased in importance to him while friendship and responsibility for his own future will have increased.

The teaching that follows the story makes it clear that Jesus does not condone dishonesty; if this manager is dishonest in small matters then he will also be dishonest in large ones. The manager’s fundamental dishonesty does not change but the priority he places on relationships does. In other teaching Jesus sometimes uses the formula; if someone who is bad can do X then how much more should you or how much more will God do X. He uses it, for example, when he talks about God giving the Holy Spirit: if father’s who are bad, he says, know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

What Jesus does in this story is similar. He is saying that if shrewd, worldly people, like the dishonest manager, can come to see the importance of relationships, then how much more should we do the same. Not following the example of the manager in using dishonesty to build relationships but following his example of learning to prioritise relationships in life and in work.

The Relationships Foundation sounds like it is likely to be a dating agency but is actually an organisation founded and run by Christians that believes that a good society is built on good relationships, from family and community to public service and business. They study the effect that culture, business and government have on relationships, create new ideas for strengthening social connections, campaign on issues where relationships are being undermined and train and equip people to think relationally for themselves. They are one example of an organisation that is seeking to prioritise relationships in life and in work as Jesus encouraged us to do.

Why is this so important? Jesus throws out a hint when he says “make friends for yourself … so that … you will be welcomed in the eternal home.” Jesus seems to be hinting that the relationships we form now in some way continue into eternity. Paul says something similar in 1 Corinthians 13 when he writes that faith, hope and love remain using a word for ‘remain’ which suggests that acts of faith, hope and love continue into eternity. Building relationships Jesus and Paul suggest may not just be good for the here and now but may also have eternal implications. All the more reason then for us to learn from this story and, whether we are at home, at work, or in our community, to prioritise the building of good relationships with those around us.


Blessid Union of Souls - My Friend.

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