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Luke 16:1-15: The Direction of Justice

The master praised the crooked manager . . . because he knew how to look after himself . . . You can’t serve both God and the Bank.

I have a really hard time figuring out how Jesus got from this parable to the moral he draws from it. “The master praised the manager . . . because he knew how to look after himself.” And yet “You can’t serve both God and the Bank.” In this teaching, Jesus is stretching the bounds of reason and convention. The tension between the parable and the moral is palpable. Maybe it feels like we are being called to hold two diametrically opposed teachings at once.

  1. On the one hand, Jesus is praising a man with few qualities to recommend him:

  2. He squanders his master’s money—and the verb that is used here is the same verb used to describe the prodigal son who squanders his inheritance on whiskey and women.

  3. When he’s found out, he shows no remorse whatsoever for either of these things: He never says, “Man, did I blow it!” but only tries to cover his you-know-what.

  4. His CYA plan is to cheat his master out of the debt repayments due him by falsifying the debtors bills.

The master—and by extension, Jesus himself—is commending the manager for being shrewd, clever, wise. Maybe the master sees some potential here for creative thinking that the manager had never had to use before. Maybe the master—and Jesus—recognize that, if given a second chance, the manager might use this cleverness for good. If we use our imaginations, we can think of all kinds of ways that Jesus might see some good in this manager. After all, Jesus excels in seeing the good in all kinds of shady characters: tax collectors, Samaritan women of bad reputation, women who squander expensive perfume, women caught in adultery, people excluded from polite society by their jobs, illnesses, deformities, and infirmities.

  1. But on the other hand, Jesus concludes his parable by telling his disciples, “You can’t serve both God and the Bank.” Well, who has the manager been serving, if not the Bank?

In her commentary on Luke,[1] Sharon Ringe finds a way to navigate the two sides of this tension that I find compelling. It hinges on who we think the manager is: an unjust manager? or a manager of injustice? The Greek word that describes him as manager is adikia. It is a noun—not an adjective—and it means injustice, unrighteousness of heart and life, or a deed violating law and justice, an act of unrighteousness. If he is a manager of injustice, then maybe he’s not so crooked after all. If he is a manager of injustice, then it is the master’s injustice that he has to manage, rather like Mr Planks in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorritt. If he is a manager of injustice, then his response to being fired is to undo the injustices of an absentee landlord, who charges 50 and 20% interest on the payments in oil and wheat that he exacts from his sharecroppers. And, if he is a manager of injustice, then he knows that relieving the debtors of their unjust debt burdens will reflect well not only on himself, but on the master as well. And maybe that is why the master praises him, because the master realizes it too.

Ringe goes on the say:

The underlying assumption is of an economy of scarcity: where the quantity of wealth available is fixed. Some have more only if others have less. Any excessive accumulation in the hands of one (such as the rich man) is, by definition, evidence of injustice that must be redressed by that redistribution of wealth called “giving alms. . . . “By reducing the amount owed by the . . . debtors to the rich man, the manager is doing justice—a way of doing his job as “manager of injustice” that no longer aims at perpetuating and even adding to old inequities, but instead reflects the new economy of which Jesus is the herald.[2]

Maybe quite accidentally, quite unintentionally, and quite in spite of himself, the manager of injustice ends up serving God rather than the Bank. He would not be the first or only shady character that Jesus sees some good in. After all, Jesus excels in seeing right through our conventional ideas of respectability and conventional goodness and into the heart of justice, kindness, and love. Sometimes real justice, real kindness, and real love do not have the outward appearance of respectability and conventional goodness. And that is where Jesus has a word for us.

In between the parable and the moral, Jesus says to his disciples:

I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right – using  every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.

“Concentrate your attention on the bare essentials.”

For the disciples, this parable provides a “management model” for their own role as leaders . . . . It challenges them to manage wealth in the direction of justice. In the process they will be creating new communities and relationships that will allow their mission to go forward and that will support the enjoyment of abundant life by all people.[3]

Concentrate your attention on the bare essentials. Manage wealth in the direction of justice. It’s not a bad mission statement for a group of disciples. It’s not a bad mission statement for us. Not a bad mission statement for a church.

At lunch this afternoon, we’ll conclude our month-long celebration of 10 years in ministry with Urban Ministries of Durham. I’ve included again, in today’s worship bulletin, and accounting of how we’ve managed wealth in the direction of justice. I hope you will stick around, not just for lunch, but to continue to support and expand our ministries of managing wealth in the direction of justice. Because that is how we live—really live!

Let’s pray:

What do you require of us, Lord, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you? May the things we do, the things we love, and the ways we walk in this world always move us in the direction of justice. May we always be conformed not to the standards of conventional respectability and good behavior, but to the justice of your kingdom, through the power of Christ our Savior. Amen.

[1] Sharon Ringe, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), pp. 212-213.

[2] Ibid, p. 214.

[3] Ibid.

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