Learning from Low-life Scum
A sermon and study notes on Luke 16: 1-13 by Nathan Nettleton, 23 September 2001
© LaughingBird.net

Even those whose actions are morally indefensible usually have attributes that challenge our own failings.


It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think that there are only two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t! As tongue-in-cheek as that is, it contains some real truth. There are always plenty of people around who view the world as if it were a western movie in which all the good guys wear white hats and all the bad guys wear black hats. From such a perspective, everyone is either completely on the side of good or completely on the side of evil. We’ve seen plenty of examples in the last twelve days. George Bush said some good things in his speech on Friday, but he also contributed to the carving up of the world into conflicting groups, each of which see themselves as having a monopoly on goodness and justice. Statements like “You’re either with us, or with the Terrorists”, and his earlier suggestions that this was a conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil, are the sort of inflammatory statements that can only be made by those who are unable or unwilling to face the whole truth about themselves and the world they live in.

Many of the people who see the world in such black and white terms are Christians, and they, of course, are keen to coopt Jesus to their cause. They are quick to associate the values of Jesus with their side, and to claim that God is therefore on their side and is totally opposed to the other side. They would have trouble imagining that God might feel anything but judgment and anger towards those on the other side.

In reality, the words of Jesus are seldom helpful to the cause of those who wish to paint the world in such stark contrasts. We all know that Jesus said “Love your enemies,” and it would be hard to imagine any way of doing that that didn’t involve trying to find some redeeming features in your enemies. Once you start doing that, it gets hard to stop the borderlines getting blurry. The story we heard Jesus tell in tonight’s reading is another one that’s going to be hard to swallow for those who want to maintain their a hostile separation from those who are not on the side of goodness and light. It is a perplexing story anyway, because Jesus is trying to teach his disciples something about how they should live and act, but he’s doing it from a story in which none of the characters are examples of moral integrity.

There are two main characters: the rich boss and his shonky business manager. A quick survey of all the times that Jesus identifies a character in his stories as “a rich man” will convince you that he expects you to assume the worst of such a character. They’re the ones who could get a camel through the eye of a needle sooner than they could be deemed fit for heaven. The business manager is described at the start of the story as having squandered the assets — whether through irresponsibility, incompetence or dishonesty, we are not told — and then after describing the way he defrauds his boss, Jesus labels him as dishonest. But then Jesus turns around and tells his disciples that on at least one count they don’t measure up to this dishonest manager and would do well to take a leaf or two out of his book.

Jesus makes no excuses for the man’s behaviour. Instead, he makes it quite clear that this is an example of a person from “the other side” — one of the “children of this world” as opposed to the “children of the light”. But he is still clear that he wants his disciples to learn something from this story: he wants us to be as shrewd and creative in our thinking about how to do the works of light as the shonky manager was in doing works of selfishness, greed and deceit.

Last time I preached on this passage, I focussed on the nature of the creative shrewdness that Jesus was calling for, but I want to throw the net a little wider this time. I want to propose the possibility that what Jesus does here might be something that he would call us to do a lot more often. That is, to recognise that there may be things to admire and allow ourselves to be challenged by in all those who are best known for things that we would not want to emulate, and that we perhaps need to deplore and condemn. I’ve already suggested that I think this might be related to the call to “love our enemies”. It’s tough to do. I know for me, and I suspect for most of us, it is much easier to perpetuate the demonising. Once someone’s actions have angered me or disgusted me or terrorised me, I find it difficult to do anything other than focus only on what is abhorrent about them and to block out any conflicting information. I don’t want to admit that these people have some qualities that are highly impressive and which I would have trouble living up to. But if I’m really committed to the truth and I’m really going to see people through the eyes of Jesus, then I’m going to have to face up to such uncomfortable and even repulsive truths.

There is an obvious example available to us right at the moment, and it illustrates just how terrifyingly difficult it is to apply this approach. Perhaps today, Jesus would ask us to take a look at the terrorists who destroyed so many innocent lives last week, and ask ourselves whether, like the dishonest business manager, they exhibit any qualities that are insufficiently exhibited in ourselves and in Christians generally? Do these people who we have no trouble describing as “children of evil” show up some inadequacies in the “children of the light”? And I put it to you that, as nauseating as it might be to even think such things, they most certainly do.

Without, in any way, wanting to downplay the horror of what they did, I nevertheless think that we would do well to ask ourselves whether we would be willing to be even half as self-sacrificing for the cause of love and peace as they were for the cause of terror and destruction. Am I as committed, body and soul, to advancing the reign of God as they were to advancing the reign of fear? Is there anything that I believe in so much that I’d be willing to leave my family and country and spend months or years preparing for and then give my life for? Does the fact that my answer is probably ‘No’ mean that when I am compared to their belief in their cause and their passionate hatred, I don’t look loving and good, I just look wishy-washy? Do I just end up, by comparison, looking like I’m trying to serve two masters?

These are not pleasant questions. They are confronting and painfully hard to face. But facing them may not only be a spur to growth in us, it may be the pattern that is desperately needed if the world is to break out of the endless cycle of dividing up into opposing factions, demonising each other and trying to obliterate each other.

I’m not suggesting that any of us should beat ourselves up over this. Christ is infinitely loving and forgiving, and is not about to expel us from among his disciples for our failings. But nor is he going to be happy for us to rest on our laurels instead of continuing to grow and stretch beyond our comfort zones into new areas of wholeness and holiness. Week by week as we gather here to worship, Jesus is going to address us through these stories, and through their intersection with our real life situations, and through the signs of Jesus’s own self-sacrifice. And as much as his challenge may disturb and discomfort us, especially when it comes to us from within the lives and actions of those deeds are reprehensible and morally indefensible, Jesus is still owning us as his own disciples and as the “children of the light”, and he is still going to walk with us on the unknown paths that lie ahead of us.

Additional Study Notes

For obvious reasons, this parable has caused a great deal of confusion and even consternation among Christians. There are plenty of admirable attempts to clean up the story. In fairness to those who read it very differently from me, I need to make clear that there are explanations that can make it a lot cleaner than it appears. Some point out that in the Jewish law there was a prohibition on the charging of interest on loans, and that business people commonly used various means to get around it. In a situation like this one, the business manager would be selling the masters goods, and the sales would often be on credit. So instead of charging interest on the money, you just overpriced the goods in the first place. $100 for cash, $150 for credit. Not really interest, but pretty close. And further more, in a situation like this the business manager would often have a cut for himself built into the difference to supplement his salary. So it is possible that what in fact happens in this story is that the manager in discounting the bills and doctoring the books to make friends for himself is actually just removing the interest component, and/or his own cut, and that therefore although he is probably acting against his masters will he is in fact bringing the transactions back into line with the spirit of the law.

Now that explanation certainly sanitises the passage a bit, and gives us a character who is a bit more morally admirable, but I find it quite unsatisfactory. The trouble is, this is not a news report, it’s a story that Jesus told, and if he’d wanted us to hear the story that way, he would have told it that way, and he wouldn’t have labelled the manager as dishonest. It is also clear that the man's motives were such that he was more likely to pull a swindle than to restore the moral order. Relinquishing his own commission or removing some illegally charged interest would not have resulted in Jesus's description of him as "the dishonest manager". I think we have to read this story as saying that the manager dishonestly defrauded his master of money that rightfully belonged to his master, because Jesus - the story teller - gives us no indication that we should hear it otherwise, and actually names the central character as dishonest.

Questions for Discussion

• What is it about the dishonest manager’s actions that Jesus is suggesting his disciples should learn from? In what ways are Christians perceived as lacking in these qualities? Can you think of things the Church would do better if we learned from the example of the dishonest manager?

• What do you think motivates suicide-terrorists to sacrifice themselves for their cause? How might we differentiate between a healthy and holy willingness to sacrifice self, and sick dangerous fanaticism? How can we cultivate the former without falling prey to the latter?

• Can you think of other examples of people or groups whose actions are rightly condemned but who nevertheless exhibit qualities which can challenge us about our own shortcomings?