The Sure Thing

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 25
September 18, 2022
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: If only people of faith could show the same enthusiasm for giving that greedy people show for accumulating wealth!

Jesus tells more than 40 parables in the New Testament. Some are simple: easy to understand and apply to our lives. A few of them are, frankly, baffling.

One of those is the parable of the Unjust Manager. The problem is that nobody in it is good! Every character is looking out for number one.

What's even more astonishing is that Jesus seems to consider this normal, and even suggests that his disciples ought to "make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth." Those are exactly his words in verse 9. Could it be true that Jesus is recommending dishonesty?

A true crime story

Well, let's dig in. There's a rich landowner who goes off for many years, leaving one of his senior servants to manage the estate. If you owned a large agricultural operation back then, you needed labor. If you didn't have slaves, the next best thing was sharecroppers: poor laborers who were paid a pittance.

It's a crushing, unjust system. Right in the middle of the whole shameful enterprise sits the estate manager, reclining in luxury in his master's vacant house.

The manager keeps the books of the whole operation. This means he has the unique opportunity to steal from everyone.

He charges the tenant farmers exorbitant prices for seed and supplies, and when the harvest comes in, he conveniently forgets to record all the profits due his master. Everything he skims off the top goes straight into his pocket.

But the absentee landlord somehow gets wind of this. He sends a message to his manager: "Get ready to be audited."

As soon as the manager opens that letter, he knows his goose is cooked. There's no way his years of thievery will go unnoticed - and there's no way he can return the money because he's spent it all.

So, what's a grifter to do, when the arm of the law seems about to grab him? He could head for the hills with a sack of coins over his shoulder - but the law would catch him eventually.

But there's another alternative: one that's risky and bold. He could use the assets still under his control to build himself a fortress of protection.

Here's how he does it: The landowner has entrusted his wealth to his manager, but he's also given him something else to take care of: his good name. What if the manager could find a way to make himself so indispensable that his firing would make his master look bad: so bad that his departure would be a public-relations disaster?

The manager leaves the remaining money - everything he hasn't stolen - right where it is. Knowing the landowner as he does, he's reasonably certain this highly unorthodox investment is a sure thing.

Inviting the tenant farmers in one by one, he reviews with each of them their financial condition. "What about you? How much do you owe? A 100 measures of olive oil, you say?" The manager extracts his Mont Blanc fountain pen from his pocket. With a triumphant flourish, he draws a line through that figure in the ledger-book. "Make it 50," he says, flashing a beneficent smile.

The next farmer admits he owes 100 measures of wheat. "This book here says you only owe 80." On and on he goes, reducing the debt of each tenant in turn.

He doesn't forgive all their debt - that would be overkill. No, he keeps just enough red ink on the books that the tenant farmers will still be beholden to him. Every last one of them walks away happy - because, with one stroke of the pen, he's given them more money than they could earn in a dozen years.

"Don't thank me," says the manager, magnanimously. "Thank our generous landlord, may his name be praised."

Well, the landlord shows up a short while later, his team of auditors in tow. But they never crack open the account books: because something else is going on.

Those tenant farmers - a big chunk of their debt forgiven - are lining the road, welcoming the landowner like a conquering hero! Is he going to admit to this adoring multitude that he really is the skinflint they always thought he was? Not a chance!

The landowner looks at his manager for a long and very tense moment. The manager doesn't blink; he just stares right back. The landowner shakes his head. A wry smile lifts the corners of his mouth.

"You sly devil!" he mutters. "I couldn't have finessed that one better, myself. There's a place for you in my organization: on the senior management team. See you on Monday. Wear a suit."

No moral to this amoral tale

Well, what are we to make of this strange story - strange, because it comes from the mouth of Jesus, and it sure makes him sound like he's endorsing unethical behavior?

It's true that Jesus displays a grudging admiration for the cleverness of this unscrupulous operator. "The children of this age," he observes, "are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light."

It's like that classic remark of Batman or Superman, in the comics, after they've vanquished some super-villain: "If only he could have used his powers for good!"

Jesus grudgingly admires the manager's shrewdness, and his boldness in betting everything on one roll of the dice. He never does endorse the man's thieving ways: but he doesn't exactly go out of his way to condemn that behavior, either.

Jesus looks out on the world as it is and sees so many people who are like that unscrupulous manager. They're smart, daring, bold and absolutely committed to achieving their purpose. Then, he looks around at so many of the religious people he knows. They're timid, fearful, hesitant and always second-guessing what they ought to be doing.

"If only you people could have the passion, the boldness - the chutzpah - of the dishonest managers of this world," is what he's saying. "If only you did, there's no telling how far God's purposes could be advanced! Claim those powers you've all got within you: but use them for good."

Henry Ford's comeuppance

There's an old story of Henry Ford - perhaps apocryphal - that's oddly similar to this parable.

In 1912, Henry Ford visited Ireland, the home of his ancestors. The story goes that, while he was staying in Cork, a couple of trustees of the local hospital paid him a call.

"Mr. Ford, we're building a hospital here in Cork. We think it would be a marvelous memorial to your dear departed father - who left his native land for the fair shores of America - if you would make a gift to support this worthy endeavor!"

The great Henry Ford took out his checkbook. He handed over a check for #5,000 on the spot.

The next morning, at breakfast, he opened the local newspaper and saw the banner headline: "American Millionaire Gives Fifty Thousand to Local Hospital."

Ford summoned the two hospital trustees. He waved the newspaper in their faces. "What's the meaning of this?" he demanded.

"Mr. Ford, we apologize. Such a regrettable error! But we can fix it. We'll get the editor to print a retraction in the very next edition, declaring that the great Henry Ford has given not fifty thousand, but five."

Ford again pulled out his checkbook. He wrote out a check for #45,000, and handed it to them.

You can't serve God and wealth

There may not be a moral, in the technical sense, to this baffling parable of Jesus. But there is a quotable quote: "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."

Taken out of context, as it often is, that final line can sound like an absolute condemnation of money. But it's not that. In the context of the parable, its meaning is clear. People like the dishonest manager - and his boss, the landlord, who promotes rather than punishes him - have chosen to pursue wealth at all costs, even if they have to mortgage their souls to do it.

Don't be like them, Jesus is telling his disciples - as well as some wealthy Pharisees who happen to be listening. To paraphrase him: "Your money can buy you great pleasure in life. But there's one thing it can never buy: your salvation. The price of your salvation isn't measured in silver drachmas. The only currency that can buy it is your love for God and neighbor, lived out in meaningful ways."

We would of course point out - from the standpoint of what happens later in the Gospels - that the true price of our salvation is Jesus' offering of himself upon the cross. Part of our acceptance of that wondrous gift is that we commit to offering in return our time, our talent, and - yes - even our treasure, to do Christ's work in the world.

There's a homely old fable about a one-dollar bill and a $20 that meet each other in the teller's drawer at the bank. "Where ya been?" says Washington to Jackson.

"Oh, I've been to places you've never dreamed of," says the head of Andrew Jackson. "Fancy restaurants, casinos, shopping malls. Every week brings something different. How about you, George?"

"Oh, my life isn't nearly so exciting as yours," admits Washington's head, dejectedly. "Every week it's the same old thing: church, church, church!"

Why is it that the work of God so often takes second place - not only in terms of money, but also in terms of time? As hard as the children of light work and as generously as they give, there always seem to be "children of this age" who are working harder and contributing more - but not to the work of Christ. They offer up their own sacrifice on the altar of greed and self-interest.

Neither you nor I can serve both God and wealth. The more we can find ways to use what wealth God has given us - our time, our talents, our treasure - to serve the Lord by serving others, the more we'll be blessed with joy, in this life and the next.

It's a sure thing!

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