Shrewd, Luke 16:1-13
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, September 22, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
Here we go again: another installment in what I could have entitled as a sermon series, “What in the world was Jesus thinking?” as he teaches his disciples and the “sinners, tax-collectors and Pharisees” who are gathered within earshot, listening to him.
What in the world was Jesus thinking? What is he wanting to teach us? To cheat? To lie? To mess with someone else’s money? To pretend to have authority where we don’t?
The story certainly grabs our attention. Causes us to take notice. And if you were thinking about taking a nap 10 minutes ago, now you’re wondering if you might be able to hold that off until after lunch. What’s our preacher got to say about this one?
Let’s go through the story, first looking at its setting. Jesus has just told the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal and his brother, that we didn’t talk about in any detail last week, but is also a story about someone being lost, and then found. Now, speaking to the disciples, Jesus begins: “Once there was a rich man…” which immediately cues the peanut gallery to begin hissing. “Boo,” the crowd says under their breath, or at least in unheard harmony, because we all know about the rich by now. In Luke we’re told they stand under God’s condemnation (Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your reward [6:24]). They can look forward to being sent away empty (remember Mary as she sings in the Magnificat [1:53]), and perishing along with their wealth (that’s the farmer who decided to build bigger barns, to eat, drink and be merry, but then he died before he could do all that [12:13-21]). Luke tells us that the only proper thing to do with property is to sell it (12:33), and the only good use for money is to give it away (6:30; 14:33). If you’ve read ahead, you know that the Pharisees are labeled “money lovers” (16:14), which connects this rich man with his most vocal and persistent opponents so far. Rich men—bah, humbug!
“A certain rich man had an overseer”—well, of course he did. Wealthy people had people to do things for them, and people to manage the people. An overseer might be a slave or an employee. This one is apparently an employee, because what he’s getting is fired and not crucified. Since his accounts are described in terms of produce rather than money, what it looks like is that we’re dealing with a wealthy farmer with tenants or poorer neighbors who borrow some of the staples for their cupboards on account, kept in a ledger by the overseer.
According to an ancient writer, here are some of the duties of an overseer:
He must show good management. The feast days must be observed. He must withhold his hands from another’s goods and diligently preserve his own. He must settle disputes among the slaves…He must extend credit to no one without orders from the master, and must collect the loans made by the master. He must lend to no one seed-grain, fodder [feed for cattle and other livestock], spelt [a gluten-free flour], wine or oil. He must have two or three households, no more from whom he borrows, and to whom he lends. He must make up accounts with the master often…He must not want to make any purchases without the knowledge of the master, nor want to keep anything hidden from the master (In Cato and Varro, On Agriculture).
It seems that the masters would set the terms, though apparently overseers might sometimes act on their own, asking for kickbacks in exchange for favorable reports to the master.
Those listening to Jesus would have known the general expectations of an overseer. They also would have recognized this particular overseer as a blending of two frequent characters in the public comedies they saw performed in some of the public festivals. One character could be called a “parasite” whose services could be bought, and who would do pretty much anything. He was meant to look foolish and would be a part of the scheme being created in the comedy.
The second character they would most likely recognize would be the “tricky slave.” This character would outwit their masters, always be exposed, but would always, somehow get away with whatever they’ve done.
So back to the story Jesus is telling. A certain rich man, we’ll call Mr. Big—had an overseer, who we’ll call Bruno. Mr. Big (boo), and Bruno—a guy who we might consider liking, or at least feel a bit of sympathy toward, because Mr. Big has received an anonymous letter bringing accusations against Bruno that he’s squandering his property. “Bring me the books, because you’re done here.”
Then, apparently Mr. Big gives Bruno 24 hours to produce the books. Mr. Big may be wealthy, but he’s not particularly fair, first, acting on unsubstantiated gossip, and not asking Bruno for more information about what he’s been accused about; and he’s not particularly smart, either, because he’s given Bruno plenty of time to cook the books.
So, Mr. Big gets a few more raised eyebrows, because of his unfairness, and because some of the listeners there may very well have been treated poorly by a real-life Mr. Big, while Bruno gets some sympathy points.
But he doesn’t keep them for long. “What will I do now? I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg.” Okay, that’s not good. He’s not willing to work as hard as the tenant farmers and field hands and his only other choice is to beg? Bruno is starting to act like the rich man he’s been working for. An overseer, among his other responsibilities, was to know how to perform all the operations of the farm, and to actually do that when needed. Jesus had warned about that, too, when he taught about the wicked over-seer who begins to act like he owns the people and properties he’s overseeing. “From the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded,” Jesus had said (12:42-48).
So, remembering the characters in the public performances that people were familiar with—Bruno sounds like the “parasite” lamenting, woe is me, I might have to get a real job, and then he reverts to the “tricky slave”: here’s what I’ll do. I’ve got a plan so that when I lose my job, I’ll have folks to turn to.
So he calls Mr. Big’s tenants to him and negotiates a lesser price for all that is owed. There’s this long line of folks standing outside waiting to hear what Bruno has in mind, worried that their accounts are going to called in. Instead, Bruno cuts their balance sheets down, sometimes by half, and they go home happy, pleased they can now start adding to their 401K’s, or at least buy new shoes for the kids.
When Mr. Big finds out, he’s backed into a corner. He can’t round up the former debtors and demand their original payment, that wouldn’t look good for him. Everyone would see that Bruno had gotten one over on him and he’d look like a tightwad. As it stands, he gets credit for being generous. His prestige goes up. People are impressed that he’s got enough money to cut their bills in half and still be rich.
“Well done, Bruno,” Mr. Big says. “Well done. You got me.”
The parable ends, and though the first hearers might smile and say, okay, good story, we get it!, we continue to listen to Jesus and we’re not sure. We’re puzzled. What is he saying?
Instead of taking the words of Jesus step by step, I’m going to make some general observations that I think Jesus is speaking to. This is a really hard text and I don’t have it all figured out. As I read commentaries, I see that I’m not the only one who looks at it and might wonder why in the world did I choose this text to preach on!! This is one of those I’ll ask about someday when Jesus and I meet face to face. But here is what I’m thinking:
- We’re to be wise with our money and to make the most of every opportunity.
I don't believe Jesus is telling us to be dishonest; I’m not absolutely sure that Bruno was being dishonest. Some say he removed his own cut that had been added to the master’s cost. That the reduction was actually from his own pocket and not from Mr. Big’s pocket. I don’t know. But if Mr. Big would write up that all accounts were paid in full before Bruno leaves his employment, that would be a boost to the recommendation he would later write as Bruno seeks his next employment.
As followers of Jesus, we’re not always as so wise, and certainly not into quickly making a decision. Brian Liechty told me last week that in perusing Trustee minutes, the discussion to replace the doors in Fellowship Hall began in 2005. We just replaced them this spring, 14 years later. We’ve all heard that the church moves slow? That’s pretty slow. And sometimes that slowness can compromise ministry.
Maybe that slowness has to do with spending money, and maybe that slowness has to do with embracing a ministry opportunity. We’ve never done that before. I don’t know, I’m not sure I want to do that. Go there, spend time with “those people”? Why would we want to do that when there are people right here in our church, in this neighborhood that could use our help? These words have slowed deployment of ministry in a variety of settings. Choose the one where you’ve heard it used.
- Act on vision. Have a plan.
If we don’t have a vision of what we can do, then how will we accomplish our goal? Bruno was pretty quick on devising a plan and he accomplished it. I think we need to outline a more detailed discipleship plan. I need to be better at helping us do that. So, I’m not scolding you, I’m thinking out loud, and wanting that to be something we work on more specifically over this next year.
- If we’re sloppy, not trustworthy, with what we have, then we’ll not be given more opportunities.
As a church and as individual Christians, we need to pay attention to the way we handle our money because if we don’t do that well, it will impair our witness, our relationship with God, and our opportunity to serve God. Having our finances in order personally, and here in the church is important. That’s why we make budgets, that’s why we do our best to stay within our budgets, that’s the reason we monitor our spending. We as individuals are accountable to our own personal budgets, and we at the church are accountable to one another, which is why we give out offering envelopes (to help you keep on track), why we send financial statements and thank you’s. We’re currently in the process of catching up with the times and are ready to share a way for our membership to give electronically. Many of us have been paying our bills like that for years, and it’s time for the church to offer that possibility of giving, as well. It’s important to do our best at keeping up with what’s available and that will help us offer our resources and then make use of them.
- Finally, we can’t serve two masters at one time.
That would be like standing on a pier with one foot on the pier and the other on a small fishing boat; eventually you have to decide where you’ll stand.
Perhaps the greatest idol in our culture is money. It trips a lot of people up, even those of us who want to live out a dynamic, real relationship with God. There’s so much good we can do with what we have, with what we earn. So much good. There’s not a thing wrong with enjoying what we have. Wesley said, “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”
Being shrewd means have sharp powers of judgement, being astute in our decision-making. May we be shrewd and faithful overseers of what we’ve been given. Amen.