This morning’s offering at Howland (ME) United Methodist Chruch.
Blessed are you, Sovereign God, Creator of all, to You be glory and praise forever. You founded the earth in the beginning and the heavens are the work of Your hands. In the fullness of time You made us in your image, and in these last days You have spoken to us in your Son Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. As we rejoice in the gift of Your presence among us let the light of Your love always shine in our hearts, Your Spirit ever renew our lives and Your praises ever be on our lips. Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Blessed be God forever.
The night has passed, and the day lies open before us; let us pray with one heart and mind. As we rejoice in the gift of this new day, so may the light of Your presence, O God, set our hearts on fire with love for you; now and forever. Amen.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Over the past few weeks, you might have noticed the lectionary has focused on Luke. So, what do we know about the evangelist? Who was he? Was he an apostle? Was he a disciple? Did he know Jesus?
I’m not sure how much you know about Luke’s persona so I thought it would be interesting to look at this writer. Besides, it’s a little easier than trying to decipher this week’s text about the shrewd manager [Luke 16:1-13].
No, Luke wasn’t one of the 12 original apostles and he wasn’t a first-generation disciple. In fact, although there is some divergent theological thought on who this writer was, there is strong evidence he did not know Jesus personally and probably never met Him. How in the world, then, does he write so expertly on the life of Jesus?
What most theological scholars believe is Luke was a gentile from Antioch, a Greco-Roman city on the eastern side of the Orontes River, now in ruins near the modern city of Antakya, Turkey. He was a physician by profession, although that designation doesn’t have the same connotation as today. He was a long companion of Paul, and most theologians again believe Paul was the spark that led Luke to investigating — and writing about — the life of Jesus.
Paul was Jewish from the tribe of Benjamin, but you might remember he originally was called Saul and was one of the biggest thorns to the early Christian movement. He did all he could to undermine it. In fact, when Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr in the New Testament, was killed, Saul was there watching the cloaks of those who were stoning Stephen.
On the day Stephen was martyred, a great persecution broke out against the Christian church in Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. At that time, Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off Christian men and women and put them in prison. Eventually he obtained letters to Jews from the Jewish religious leaders in Damascus and he went there to bring the Christians — known as followers of the Way at that time — back to Jerusalem to be punished.
As he came near Damascus, a bright light from the skies flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute Me?”
“Who are you Lord?” he asked.
“I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting” and Jesus instructed Saul to get up and go into Damascus. Because of the bright light, Saul had been blinded. For three days he could not see … in fact, his companions had to lead him into Damascus by hand.
While in Damascus, Jesus instructed a devout follower of the Way to pray for Saul so his sight could be restored as a witness to the Way. When he did, immediately Saul could see and he was told he would be Jesus’ witness to all men of what he had seen and heard. It was his “aha” moment. Saul got up and was baptized a follower of Christ Jesus and was forevermore called Paul, an apostle to the gentiles (non-Jews).
He met with Peter, James and John.
As an aside, it’s interesting Paul and Peter had wildly different views on the Christ. Peter, apostle to the Jews, was more legalistic and concentrated on form as a part of function. Paul had a different zeal, not from first-hand knowledge of Jesus, but as a witness to the power of Jesus in individual lives. It’s an interesting study, but it’s just an aside, not particularly relevant to today’s topic.
Getting back to our story, Paul and Barnabas — also not of the original 12 — were directed to preach in Antioch and spread the word to the gentiles from there. It is presumed that’s where Luke comes in. Theologians, in dissecting every jot and tittle of early church writings, generally believe Luke first met Paul in Troas on Paul’s second missionary journey. On Paul’s third missionary trip, we find Luke living in Philippi. It appears he was also a constant companion of Paul through his first imprisonment in Rome and even during his second imprisonment to some extent.
He was Paul’s medical advisor, undoubtedly prolonged Paul’s life and rescued him from many a serious illness. He was a medical missionary. Although never explicitly named, it is probable Luke was at the beheading of Paul, perhaps from a distance. More than likely it was the good doctor who buried the body of his friend, co-worker and fellow traveler on the road of life.
There are some life lessons from Luke that have parallels today. We know he was learned and a physician in the Hippocratic tradition, which is patient and holistic centered. We can see Luke’s life and writings minister to the whole person — body, soul, and spirit. Dr. Luke used the 52 chapters of the gospel that bears his name and the Book of Acts to minister to our physical needs (body), emotional needs (soul) and spiritual needs (spirit).
From his writings and tradition, we can conclude Luke showed humility by not calling attention to himself or his family, but rather focused on the person of the Lord Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Luke used his medical training and ability in the mission field and as a tool to further the gospel. You often find him spending more time on the physical healing than the other evangelists, referring many times to sicknesses and diagnoses.
Luke demonstrated loyalty to his friend Paul. Dr. Luke stuck close to Paul in his darkest hour when everybody else had left him for another task, or even deserted him completely. There are haunting words from Paul in 2 Timothy 4:11, Only Luke is with me.
Luke was a man of prayer. He did it and he wrote about it. Luke ministered, by his life and writings, to the whole person.
So, if Luke wasn’t a first-generation Christian, i.e., not an actual witness to Jesus’ life and ministry, how did he come to write his gospel or Acts?
As I said, most theologians believe he was a learned man. If he had a question, he sought answers. He researched. He made it a point to verify the accounts that were passed down by the two authoritative existing manuscripts of the time, the writings of Matthew and Mark.
Luke penned his words about 60AD, not too distant from actual events. As he explains in the first four verses of his book, it was written to give a reliable and precise record of the history of the life of Jesus Christ’. Not only as an historian, but also as a medical doctor, Luke paid great attention to detail, including dates and events that happened throughout the life of Christ.
Luke took advantage of this time in Israel and visited the sites in Jerusalem, Samaria, Perea and Galilee where Jesus had ministered and he interviewed the people who had seen and heard the Christ. I suspect he spent time in Nazareth talking with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and obtained the details of the birth of the Lord Jesus from her. The account in Luke 1 and 2 as written included ample medical language. Perhaps he stopped in Naim to interview the widow woman’s son who was raised from the dead (Luke 7:11-17), an account only Dr. Luke recorded as a medical miracle. Luke had access to historical records and other contemporary writing. He carefully researched and interviewed the disciples and others who were eyewitnesses to the life of Christ and incorporated those words into his. Luke is careful to give a detailed and accurate record of his investigation so readers can trust with certainty Jesus is God.
A theme emphasized in the Gospel of Luke is the humanity of Jesus Christ and His perfection as a human. His conclusion was Jesus was the perfect man who gave the perfect sacrifice for sin, therefore, providing the perfect Savior for humankind.
Luke, perhaps because of his Hippocratic background, portrays Jesus’ profound interest in people and relationships. He was compassionate to the poor, the sick, the hurting and the sinful. He loved and embraced everyone. Our God became flesh to identify with us and to show us His genuine love. Only this perfect love can satisfy our deepest need.
Luke’s Gospel gives special emphasis to prayer, miracles and angels. Interesting to note, women are given an important place in Luke’s writings.
So that’s the persona of Luke as most theologians view him. It doesn’t really have much to do with today’s particular reading, which is in itself a kind of strange inclusion in the book, but gives you a little insight into the background of the writer.
But we should address this week’s words. I’m pretty sure most commentators and those standing on this side of the pulpit would have difficulty with this text. I know I did, which is one of the reasons why I opted to give some general background rather than try to explain the parable of the shrewd manager.
Despite a close connection with the other synoptic gospel writers, Matthew and Mark, this account stands alone in Luke. It may serve as a bridge between two other stand alone parables — the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31), which we’ll discuss next week. Like the prodigal in the preceding story, our dishonest manager has “squandered” what was entrusted to him (15:13; 16:1). And, like the story that follows, this parable begins with the phrase, There was a rich man (16:1, 19).
So there appears to be a series of lessons on money by Dr. Luke. But how or why they are incorporated into his text is really not known since only Luke addressed the three parables, not Matthew, Mark or John.
The story itself, actually, sounds quite contemporary. A dishonest manager is about to lose his job because he has misspent his employer’s assets. Because he doesn’t want to do manual labor or receive charity, he goes around to all the people who owe his employer money and reduces their debts. He does this so they will be hospitable to him after he loses his job. To our surprise, though, the employer commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. Later, in Chapter 19, for example, the conservative slave is put down precisely because of his conservatism.
Why is this manager commended? What is Luke trying to tell us? What is the connection he was trying to make?
Although our dishonest manager does not repent (like the prodigal) or act virtuously (like Lazarus), he nonetheless does something with the rich man’s wealth that reverses the existing order of things. For Luke, reversals of status are at the heart of what happens when Jesus and the kingdom of God appear in everyday life.
Some commentators have suggested the manager has reduced his own commission in the debts owed and this is what is being commended. Yet others have suggested more generally the employer is simply commending the manager for responding shrewdly to a difficult circumstance.
Still scratching your head? I know I did.
We have to remember this is a parable — a short, fictitious narrative designed to illuminate a spiritual truth — and not an example story in which we are told to go and do likewise. In fact, we need to be especially careful not to treat this text as an example story.
Lois Malcolm, a professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, proposes four interpretations of the employer’s commendation.
First, the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light (16:8). In other words, Jesus’ disciples — often referred to as “children of light” (see John 12:36) — could learn something about acting prudently from the “children of this age.” Or, said another way, there are ways to approach problems other than old traditions.
Second, what they could learn from the “children of this age” has to do with making friends for themselves even by means of dishonest wealth so those new friends might welcome them into the eternal homes (16:9). Instead of using “dishonest wealth” to exploit others (as the rich often do), disciples are to use wealth to “make friends for themselves.” If friendships are based on reciprocal and egalitarian relationships, then releasing other people’s debts not only enriches them, but also establishes a new kind of reciprocity with them.
As a broader context, Luke often depicts how Jesus’ and His followers’ ministry is dependent on the hospitality of others (8:3; 10:7). Moreover, hospitality is often provided by those who are considered religious outsiders or lower down on social hierarchies (e.g., the good Samaritan, 10:33; tax collectors, 5:27-39; 19:1-10; Cornelius, 10:48, etc.).
Third, there’s a connection between being faithful with “very little” or dishonest with “very much.” How one deals with “dishonest wealth” and “what belongs to another” says much about how one will deal with “true riches” and “what is your own” (16:10-12). How we use the resources at our disposal in this life — especially in tight circumstances — matters, even though our “true riches” can only be found in that place where no thief can draw near and no moth destroys (12:33-34).
Finally, the capstone is no slave can serve two masters … you cannot serve God and wealth (16:13). This reiterates a central theme in Luke. The kingdom of God entails giving up all other commitments, including the commitment to economic security (14:33; 18:18-25). Luke places great emphasis on how the reign of God reverses the status of the rich and the poor (1:51-53; 6:20). In Acts, the Christian community is one where disciples share all things in common, distributing to all, as any had need (2:44-45). These texts cannot just be spiritualized. Luke is talking about a different way of using wealth. Our wealth — no matter its source — belongs to God and is to be used for the purposes of God’s reign among us and not simply for our own interests.
So, again, why is our dishonest manager shrewd?
Even though he is still a sinner who is looking out for his own interests (6:32-34), he models behavior the disciples can emulate. Instead of simply being a victim of circumstance, he transforms a bad situation into one that benefits him and others. By reducing other people’s debts, he creates a new set of relationships based not on the vertical relationship between lenders and debtors (rooted in monetary exchange) but on something more like the reciprocal and egalitarian relationships of friends.
What this dishonest manager sets in play has analogies with what happens when the reign of God emerges among us (17:21). Old hierarchies are overturned and new friendships are established. Indeed, outsiders and those lower down on the hierarchical ladder will become the very ones we depend upon to welcome us — not only in their homes in this life, but even in the “eternal homes” (6:20-26)! The lesson of the parable is not that we should be dishonest, but rather we should use every means at our disposal to prepare for our eternal home.
That being said, maybe, just maybe, this text shouldn’t even be read as an ethical issue but rather a missional issue. A reply to a commentary — not the commentary itself — proposes this tact. Perhaps the point is, as “children of light”, we’re supposed to be giving away what was never ours to begin with. Perhaps we’re supposed to be giving away what the “Owner” has entrusted us with — the grace and love of Jesus Christ. It was never ours to begin with … and perhaps if we were giving it away — or at least sharing it — the “Owner” would commend us as well.
Before closing, I’ll touch very briefly on our reading from Jeremiah, the focus of the lectionary this month. This week focuses on the renewal of things to come. Jeremiah 32:15 declares, houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. The waywardness that led to the lament and repentance of the Israelites is now leading to the hope of a new future in God.
As Frank Yamada, director of the Center for Asian American Ministries at McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, stated, the detail in verses 16-25 has a meaningful function in this text. It not only shows the complete extent to which Jeremiah has fulfilled the instruction of the Lord — a perfect obedience – but also his meticulous fulfillment of this command which points to the prophet’s and God’s careful attention to a future that is still very distant and hard to see given the current circumstances. This hope is as certain as the Babylonian armies that were at the gate. Thus, the observers of this transaction are not there simply to verify the purchase of land. They are witnesses to the future the Lord has announced through Jeremiah’s prophetic action.
There is much in today’s world that creates anxiety over the future — climate change, a wavering economy, and increased hostility among nations and religious groups, to name a few. Biblical hope, however, does not resort to despair in such times, nor does it try to cover up anxiety with mere words and false hope.
Today’s passage reminds us God is invested in the future destiny of humankind. Even when catastrophe was imminent, Jeremiah made an audacious and specific financial act – buying the field as instructed — symbolizing God’s declaration judgment that destruction would not have the final word. Judah would certainly suffer the judgment God had announced. Babylon would destroy Jerusalem and Judah and carry off its inhabitants into exile. The prophet, however, activates the future in the present through a symbolic act of purchasing a field. God’s people would be restored and would again thrive in the land (verse 15). Perilous times require the faithful to put into embodied action the hope God has announced, which is already here, but not yet.
Hope often comes in the middle of judgment. Belief and courage become most pronounced in the face of despair.
Just some food for thought.
And the people of God, maybe perplexed with the texts, would say … Amen!
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Forgiveness is the creation of a new beginning.