Gutsy faithfulness in a world where money fails (reflections on Luke 16:1-13)

I’ve got another church eblast reflection for you all – unabridged (read: slightly longer) version! 

This one’s on Luke 16:1-13:

16:1 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.

16:2 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.’

16:3 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.

16:4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’

16:5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

16:6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’

16:7 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.’

16:8 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.

16:9 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.

16:10 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.

16:11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?

16:12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

16:13 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.”

When we read parables like these, it can be tempting to try to figure out who exactly every character in the story represents. This is called allegorical interpretation, and many biblical scholars have pushed back against this approach.

Perhaps Jesus’ stories were meant to be just that—stories. Conversation starters. Feeling-evokers. Thought-provokers. Open-ended, with multiple possible interpretations and takeaways. Maybe that’s the beauty of the parables—even though it also makes them…difficult.

I mention this because I am not at all convinced that the “master”—a fraught word, if I ever heard one, given the U.S. history of slavery—in our story this week is meant to represent God. Not only does he engage in dubiously-just firing practices—he lets the steward go based on an accusation from a third party without even bothering to hear his side of the story (v. 1-2)—but also, on top of this, his massive wealth is persistently described as “unjust” or “unrighteous.” 

Perhaps the steward, then, feels free to play fast and loose with the master’s money because he knows the whole system is unjust. 

What does it mean to be faithful, in a world where a few rich folks hoard while masses of people go hungry? Perhaps crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s when it comes to wealth management takes a back seat to figuring out how to survive—and helping others survive too. Maybe strict adherence to rules and regulations is less important than mercy. And surely mercy is what the steward shows to the debtors when he tells them to lessen the amounts of their debts. 

The steward in our story is often referred to as the “shrewd manager,” but I feel like the word “shrewd” can have some funky connotations. In some church contexts, people use the story of the “shrewd manager” to say that we as Christians should also be more shrewd. As in, we should be more cunning. As in, it’s okay to manipulate or mislead people if it’s all for a higher cause. To me, this is hardly what it means to be “children of the light” (v. 8). 

Perhaps it helps to know that the word translated as “shrewd” is often translated elsewhere as “prudent.” I’m not here for the manipulative cunning, but I’m okay with Jesus encouraging his followers to be prudent.

Prudent, like counting the cost of our discipleship (see Luke 14:25-35). Prudent, like acknowledging that all wealth in our unjust system is in fact unjust—and, accordingly, holding onto material stuff lightly. Prudent, like refusing to spend our lives serving a cruel death-dealing capitalist system that does not love us—refusing to destroy our souls in service of wealth that will one day be gone (v. 9). 

(This word translated as “be gone,” by the way, is actually quite strong in the original Greek; it could be translated as “fails,” “ceases,” or “dies.” As in, money will fail. Money will one day cease to exist. It will die.)

In light of all this, I wonder what we might learn from this passage about what it means to be faithful. Some of us may have been taught that faithfulness is a passive thing, measured by the sins we avoid and the things we do not do. But in Jesus’ story, faithfulness is active. It’s creative. It’s risky. It’s gutsy. It requires intelligence and courage. It involves trying something and being willing to face the consequences of our actions.

The steward is hardly a meek rule-follower. But there is something about him to be admired. With his actions he calls out the lie that unjust wealth is to be served at all costs. He points toward a different way.

Like this steward, we too take part in unjust systems. Under patriarchal white supremacist capitalism, a few rich folks keep getting richer, and any cost is acceptable in terms of human life and wellbeing. We may not be able to completely escape this system—but we can resist it. We can make choices that fly in the face of its logic. We can flout its expectations. 

We can rest. We can play. We can build genuine relationships that aren’t just transactional, based on what we can get out of someone. We can be radically for others and refuse to compete. We can treat ourselves with kindness and compassion. We can share resources generously, knowing there is enough for all. 

We can’t necessarily avoid unjust systems, but we can refuse to serve them as masters. We can build something new—something sacred and beautiful—in the midst of them. 

Peace to you this week. If you have thoughts about what faithfulness means to you (and how that’s changed over time), or how you live in unjust systems without serving these systems as masters, or anything else this passage makes you think about, holler in the comments or otherwise. I’d love to hear from you.

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