When I was about 10 years old, the president of our hometown bank knocked on our door and asked to talk with my dad.
Up until that day, my parents, who were quite poor, had rented the home where we lived. Mr. Johnson told my dad that the previous owner had defaulted on his loan, and our house had reverted to Dassel State Bank. But the bank didn’t want it. So, Mr. Johnson had come to offer my dad a great deal. The bank was willing to sell the house to him for just $1. An incredible charitable act. Something a bank today would never do. My dad signed the paperwork that evening.
A couple years later, there was another knock on the door. This time it was a salesman. With a special offer on aluminum siding for our house. Siding that needed no painting. That would last forever. That would add enormous value to the home. Plus, if my dad signed up today, the salesman could offer a loan with no money down. The salesman was loud and persuasive and pushy. I didn’t like him. Of course, I was just a kid. So, I didn’t say anything. Yet, I was smart enough to know that my family didn’t have the money for a loan payment. But the salesman was very convincing. So, my dad signed the contract for brand-new, olive-green siding. Another great deal!
Today’s Gospel lesson is all about money and loans. It ends with a famous quote by Jesus. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says. “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Most translations of the Bible use the word “mammon” instead of “wealth.” Mammon derives from Aramaic—the language spoken by Jewish people at the time of Jesus. Mammon referred to money, wealth or possessions.
Most pastors preaching on this Gospel text focus on this last verse, completely avoiding the parable. A unique opportunity to talk about how we Christians deal with money and possessions. It would be easy for me to preach a stewardship sermon today. Our church council has had recent discussions about the financial needs of St. Mark’s. But you might be happy to hear, that I’m more interested in the story Jesus tells in this passage. Which is one of the most difficult of all of the 46 parables recorded in the Gospels.
In college, I wrote my senior thesis on the parables. With a focus on the surprising and sometimes funny twists that happen in some of them. Parables like the lost sheep and the lost coin and the prodigal son are well-known favorites. And easy to understand. But not this one. This parable about the dishonest manager is much more challenging. Though, it seems like stories of trusted employees embezzling funds regularly pop up in the news.
About six years ago, that’s exactly what happened at the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA. While overseeing the Synods’ finances, their bookkeeper wrote $318,000 worth of checks to herself. Eventually, she confessed to five felony counts of theft by swindle. Which sounds a lot like the story Jesus tells. Except this manager doesn’t just direct money to himself. He also reduces the debt owed by others. The parable talks about jugs of olive oil and containers of wheat, but the amount written off in both cases might have been worth 500 denarii. About $30,000 today. A great deal for anyone!
Back then, interest rates could be 25 or 50%, which sounds extreme. But modern check-cashing businesses (that mostly serve the poor) have very high fees. And those of us with home mortgages, don’t think much about that fact that with a 30-year mortgage, you end up paying nearly 20% of the total in interest—about $70,000 for a typical home. In various places, the Hebrew Bible prohibits a Jewish person from lending money or engaging in any financial transaction that involves charging interest to another Jewish individual or family. In the time of Jesus, you could get around that rule by hiring someone who was not Jewish to manage the loan and charge the interest. Maybe that was the role of the servant in today’s parable. If so, he was writing off his own profits to benefit another person.
Like this parable, throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus and others invoke the concept of debt forgiveness, both in terms of money and as a symbol of God’s grace. In the first chapter of Luke, Mary (the mother of Jesus) echoes today’s Psalm 113, when she sings for joy about economic restitution—of the mighty being cast down from their thrones, and the poor being raised up. Later in Luke, after speaking with Jesus, Zacchaeus the tax collector promises to restore four-fold those he had defrauded. In response, Jesus tells Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:8). In the Jewish community, it’s always been considered a “mitzvah”—the Hebrew word for a righteous, good deed—to offer an interest-free loan to someone in need.
We Christians like to separate spirituality from economics. But if you read the teachings of Jesus carefully, that’s not how he saw it. The Gospel was good news for the poor not just for eternal salvation, but for the promise of charity and undeserved love received from God and other believers in this world, here and now.
On Friday morning I woke up with a quote in my head that fits surprisingly well with this reflection. By the way, that’s not a common thing for me. Otherwise, I’d write my sermons in my dreams. Though, my husband Charlie tells me that sometimes I actually preach—out loud—in my sleep. He finds it very annoying. Anyway, here’s the quote: “It's not based on what we owe or own—It's the epiphany of being owned by God alone.”
That, friends, is the meaning of today’s Gospel.
That because we are beloved children, owned by and blessed by God in so many extravagant ways—from the day of our birth until now, and in the promise of future years, so Jesus calls us to do the same for others who are less fortunate. Those who are poor. Those who are oppressed by this world’s structures. Those who just need an unexpected act of kindness. A chance for redemption. A surprising word of grace.
Which truly is a great deal. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 16:1-13
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So, he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then, you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”