1 Timothy 2:1-7

Luke 16:1-13

If you were paying attention to the parable Jesus told in our Gospel reading, you’re probably as puzzled as I am. There’s a rich man with a servant who managed his property. Mismanaged, as it turns out. Embezzled who knows how much money, and he’s found out. So the property owner calls him on the carpet, demands a final accounting, and plans to dismiss him. The manager, his back up against the wall, decides that he can make friends with his master’s debtors by giving them some of the master’s money too. And when the master finds out that his servant has defrauded him again… well, that’s where I’m left scratching my head.

What on earth happened here? This manager, caught in his embezzlement, has nothing to lose, so he goes for broke. He’s aiming for the “blaze of glory” ending, where he at least gets to take someone down with him. Sure, the master can fire him, but first he’s going to get a head start on the next part of life at the master’s expense. But the story doesn’t end that way.

This parable ends more like the Wizard of Oz, when the curtain is pulled back and the Wizard is discovered operating his “magical” equipment. The fraud is discovered, and he punts. He comes clean about having been a huckster, but then he layers on another sham in the name of making it better. He gives the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion bogus symbols of the real qualities they think they lack, and that somehow makes it better. He comes clean in a way, but he’s a con man even in setting things right. In the same way, the embezzler is a crook even in finding a way out of his crimes. Or he finds his redemption in the midst of covering for his own misdeeds, it’s hard to say.

In this parable, Jesus is talking about living at the end of world. The chips are about to be called in, and we’ve been playing on the house’s money, just like this manager. This scenario tempts many people to go for broke, wasting money, natural resources, or their own ethics, quickly while there’s something here to waste. That approach, I think, comes from a false vision of this “end of the world” Jesus talks about. We tend to talk about this like God will destroy the world and replace it with something else entirely.

Luke’s Gospel corrects that vision. What Jesus talks about is not destruction, but a setting right of the world. Luke’s community looked ahead to Jesus’ return, because then things would be as they always should have been. Even if we view history somewhat differently, Luke’s Jesus invites us to see God’s fullness in the same way: God’s kingdom is coming to fulfillment here. If that were the case, how would you live? What would your priorities be? It’s in that context that Jesus offers those ethical interpretations of the enigmatic story he’s just told.

So, for instance, that last one: “You can’t serve both God and money.” I don’t think that’s primarily about money being bad. It’s not exclusively about money at all, although it definitely is about money on some level. What it’s really about is knowing who your master is. At the beginning of the story, money was the manager’s real master. When the master told him, “you can’t serve me anymore,” what he really meant was, “you never have served me. You’ve only served this money.” Jesus reminds us that money works for us, not the other way around. Thus, we can use money to serve greater ends.

As it happens, the steward learns that by the end of the story. In his second crime, he puts the master’s money in the service of people below him, his master’s debtors, so they could catch him when he fell. This was certainly a shrewd move, as the master says, but it’s also just on some level.

It’s illicit, of course, and I don’t recommend you try this in real life. Those debts were not his to forgive, just like the money he embezzled wasn’t his in the first place. We would reasonably expect the master to be doubly angry and multiply the punishment.

But that’s Jesus’ real point. This parable is ultimately about God, and God is not who we logically expect God to be. God is more pleased with our forgiveness than our prudence, even in our role as stewards of God’s gifts. The master (Master) reacts as if canceling those debts was the point all along. It’s as if God entrusts us with what’s not ours precisely so we’ll squander it through love. As if God gave us money, not that we might serve it, but that it might serve God.

And that’s the testimony. God is indeed Lord of our money, of all our resources. God is Lord of life in general, all of it. So there’s no context where God’s forgiveness isn’t appropriate. There’s no context where squandering your gifts in service to God’s people isn’t a good idea. We’re called to be wise, careful stewards, but we’re also called to remember Whose property we’re managing and what our Master would want done with it. We’re called to trust, in word and deed, that God is Lord of all the world.

What would your life look like – and what would our church look like – if we really believed that God was indeed Lord of all our assets? What would our balance sheets, our checkbooks, our schedules, our homes look like?