Today’s parable is one of the most difficult stories in scripture to understand, but if we put it in context, it may be a bit easier to understand Jesus’ point. He has been talking about priorities. Jesus has pointed out that to follow him, we must make that our top priority. Nothing should be more important: not our families, not money, not even our own personal safety. Then he proceeds to tell us that God’s top priority is locating those who have gotten lost, and bringing them back home. He has pointed out to a particular group of scribes and Pharisees who have been following him around and complaining bitterly about who he hangs out with, and when he chooses to heal people, that they are so self-centered they do not recognize the blessings they have and they want to take away the blessings Jesus is bestowing upon others. They were in a position to be an instrumental part of the kingdom of heaven, but they have thrown it away for an illusion based upon deceit and greed.
As I read through this parable I could not help but see similarities in the situation with the rich man and his manager and the world I lived in before going to seminary. As some of you know, for twenty years I had a job similar to the manager in today’s parable. I first worked as a collector, then trained collectors, and finally supervised collectors for fortune 500 companies. There were two ways to be successful in that industry. You could work really hard at building relationships, solving problems, and going the extra mile for your manager, your customers, and your fellow employees or you could cheat: cheat the company, cheat the customers, cheat your fellow employees. Sales people cheated by overselling to unsuspecting customers and promising discounts and promotions they could not deliver. Credit managers cheated by approving credit for people who they knew would never be able to maintain their payments. Collectors cheated by violating privacy laws and falsifying conversations. Customer service reps would cheat by transferring calls and refusing to deal with time consuming customers. As a supervisor part of my job was to sort out the mess and make reasonable settlements while retaining the customer if they could be an asset later.
Jesus lived in a world where cheating was considered the only way to get ahead. Tax collectors were hated because they collected more than the amount required by the Roman government and then pocketed the rest. There was no other way to make money in that job. The temple had devised a system of money exchange to keep idolatrous images of Caesar out of the temple and also sold animals for sacrifices that on the surface seemed pious, but in reality allowed people to get rich off of poor people’s desire to please God. That is why Jesus threw his famous temper tantrum in the outer court of the temple. When Jesus says there was a rich man, he is assuming his audience knows the man is dishonest.
In April of 1999 I took a job with a little company called XXXXX that had just purchased XXXX, the 2nd largest XXXX company at that time. The pay was poor, but we were to receive significant bonuses in the form of stock options. For a year or so things looked pretty good. I received several significant bonuses, plus some pretty lavish incentives which included gifts and trips. In 2002, the CEO of our company came under investigation for misstatement of financial records. Our stock plummeted, our options were worthless, and by 2005 our CEO was in prison and our company was being sold. In 1999 it looked like a fairytale world, 6 years later reality was a hard pill to swallow.
Jesus said the rich man was going to let the manager go because he had mismanaged his accounts, but when the manager found out, he went out and made settlements with the rich man’s debtors, settlements that he probably did not have the authority to make, but it made him look like a good guy to the debtors, and the rich man praised him for his shrewdness. The rich man recognized in the manager, someone who might be useful to him. Sadly, the shrewdness of dishonest employees provided opportunities that allowed our chief executive officers to misrepresent the value of the company. I think Jesus was being factious when he told the people to make friends by means of dishonest wealth so that when the money is gone they can welcome them into their eternal homes. The reality is that when the money is gone, often the friends are gone as well. And there is nothing eternal about ill-gotten gains, as my CEO found out. The façade that people like the rich man and his manager, and like the officers of the company I worked for put up looks like heaven, but the reality is it is not eternal and they often hurt many people in the process.
For me, on top of the career disaster, the home front was going through its own downward spiral at the turn of the century, but there was a happily ever after. My friends thought I was crazy, but when the bottom fell out, I threw it all in God’s lap. I began tithing for the first time in my life, even though my income was less than half what it had been before. I began seriously looking at my priorities and what direction the rest of my life would take. Perhaps it was easier because at this point I knew disaster was a high probability no matter what I did. God allowed me to reach a point that I could not be successful through my own efforts and at that time I let go and put my life in God’s hands. He even opened doors that allowed me to attend seminary and become ordained.
Jesus tells us to “seek first the kingdom of heaven” then everything else will fall into place.
There is an interesting visual one can do to demonstrate, it is a little messy for the sanctuary, but the idea is that if you take two jars of exactly the same size and fill them with exactly the same things, the order you put them in makes a difference on whether or not they fit. If you put in the large stones, then the pebbles, then the sand, there is room for the water, but if you put the water and the sand in the jar, then the pebbles, when you try to put the large stones in you quickly run out of space. I started dumping all the sand and water out of my jar, and began putting in the big rocks first.
Logic says that I should have hit bottom, I should have failed, but the reality is that life actually got much better. That is not to say that there have not been challenges, tight times, and “Lord are you sure you know what you are doing?” moments. I still struggle with need vs want. But I never lacked for the necessities.
The Pharisees had lost sight of what was most important. Jesus expected them to be helping locate lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children, then rejoicing with God when they were restored. Instead they were scattering the flock by focusing on external rules and regulations that were a burden to people. They often manipulated the rules to their benefit and then they were patting each other on the back for their shrewdness. They lost sight of what they had been called to do for God and were focused on what they wanted to do for themselves. They were building for themselves eternal homes that they may not want. Managing the resources God has given us is a daily exercise, not just something we do once a year. It encompasses all that we are as well as all that we have. It is a way of acknowledging that God has blessed us, and I don’t know about you, but I have t