The Parable of the Dishonest Manager

A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Theo McCall

It’s wonderful to join the Cathedral community again today, having been one of the speakers at your Creation Care seminar yesterday morning in the Cynthia Poulton Hall. It’s been fantastic to spend some time thinking theologically about the importance of God’s creation and our role in looking after it.

As I began preparing for this weekend, I was looking forward to discovering what the set readings were for the Sunday morning, particularly the Gospel reading, which I normally preach on. Being the year of Luke, with the rich collection of Jesus’ sayings and parables, some of which are unique to his Gospel, I was looking forward to getting my theological teeth into one of the classics. I knew it wouldn’t be my favourite parable, the parable of the Prodigal Son, because that’s always read in Lent, but perhaps it would be another gem, the twin parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Silver Coin, or even the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus – appropriate for me as Chaplain of one of the country’s top schools, where we are constantly stressing the critical importance of generosity and service to others – but no, what does the Lord give me? The confronting and shocking Parable of the Dishonest Manager! For those of us who live in 21st Century Australia and have just had a Royal Commission into the banking sector, what on earth can this parable teach us?

An inept manager is mismanaging his rich master’s property. Eventually this information makes its way up to the boss and so the difficult conversation must occur, the conversation that no sane boss really wants to have with middle management, “Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

The “middle” manager, panicking that his lifestyle and indeed very means of living are on the line, begins to rewrite the master’s debts, getting what his debtors to reduce what they owe, using the shrewd logic that he would then be welcomed into the debtors’ homes. His logic makes a great deal sense in ancient Middle Eastern culture: if you were indebted to someone, that carried a great deal of weight. So, he cleverly reduces the debts, confident that it will pay off when his boss sacks him. Then comes the astonishing climax of the parable, “And his master commended the dishonest manager, because he had acted shrewdly.” How on earth do we make sense of this parable?

During my time as the Parish Priest of Albany in Western Australia, a new parishioner arrived at the church. He’d come down from Perth and had bought a semi-rural property a few kilometres out of the town. Glen had been a successful businessman in Perth. But he’d had some bad luck with the business: over time began to suspect that his business partner was defrauding him. Glen ran the sales and marketing side of the business, while his partner was the financial officer, responsible for making the purchase orders, invoicing and keeping the books. Glen realised that the numbers just weren’t adding up. So he quietly hired a forensic accountant to examine the figures, and when the report came back he phoned the police, who charged his partner with fraud. The business was wound up. When Glen came to us in Albany, he joked with me, “Fr Theo, I’m down to my last million!”

Is Jesus in fact condoning Glen’s partner’s fraudulent behaviour in this parable?

As Anglicans we never interpret our passages of scripture in isolation. When interpreting the Bible, we have a rich vein of scholarship and tradition to draw on. The long history of Christian ethics, and everything else we read about Jesus, tells us that Jesus is not condoning fraudulent behaviour or recommending it as a way of life. So, I’m hoping that everyone here can agree with me that Jesus is not recommending fraudulent financial behaviour. Are we all happy to agree on that?

What, then, is the point of this parable? The parable is meant to shock: Jesus does this quite often. The parable of the Good Samaritan, which we had a couple of months ago, is a good example of it. Jesus’ listeners would have been shocked that the hero of the story was a Samaritan.

The point of the parable is not that the manager was dishonest, that’s simply the rhetorical device that Jesus uses to grab his listener’s attention, but rather, the point is that he had created a community through his generosity. He had gathered together a community. Knowing that he was going to lose his job, he gathered around him people who would look after him. It is a parable about generosity and gathering a community together.
This is also where the context of the parable, the placement of it in Luke’s Gospel, is critical. As it happens, it follows the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is all about forgiveness and generosity and re-establishing a broken family. Today’s parable is then almost immediately followed in turn by the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which is also all about generosity and not ignoring your neighbour. It too is about community.

The theme of generosity and gathering a community together is what Jesus is talking about. The shocking nature of the parable forces us to think: how will I be generous? How will I gather friends together? The final saying of Jesus is the one which frames the parable, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” And we show where our true loyalty lies in the way we are generous and in the way we gather a community together. The meaning of the parable is found here: in the creation of a community through being generous, through using our resources.

The generous gathering of the community together is arguably more critical now ever. We live in a world which seems to be fracturing. My main source of news these days is the ABC news website, but there are some evenings when I choose to watch a mindless t.v. show rather than catching-up on the latest crisis in Hong Kong or watching a bit more of the Amazon Rainforest burn in Brazil. But such events do bring home just how important this generous gathering of a community is! Wherever we are, wherever God has placed us, now is the time to work on our generous inclusion of others.
The steps we take now to include others echo in eternity. God notices! God notices and remembers for ever our efforts to include the stranger and the outcast. God notices the efforts we make to include the person who feels awkward or out of place. We are creating a place of welcome and inclusion every time we are generous.

The Creation Care focus this weekend is also a reminder that this generosity has to extend to the non-human realm as well. Our actions in preserving our planet are not just critical for our very survival – though they certainly are that – but our actions are also noticed and remembered by God.
With that thought in mind, about our generous community needing to extend to the non-human realm as well, let me conclude by telling you about one of my greatest triumphs, which was also an abject failure, in the beautiful parish of St John’s Albany, Western Australia.

As the Parish Priest I was the chair of Parish Council and we had been looking for some time at the possibility of installing some solar panels on the roof of one of the church properties. On the Sunday preceding the critical meeting, when we would decide whether or not to proceed, I preached what I thought was a wonderful sermon about looking after God’s creation. I spoke about how every part of the natural world was valuable to God, that reducing pollution through the use of solar panels was a good thing for Christians to do, because we were all part of the intricate and fragile web of life, and that we had been given the precious gift of this blue/green planet to look after for a brief time, before we passed it on to our children.

When it came to the Parish Council meeting, that sermon appeared to count for nothing. The discussion quickly descended into a robust discussion (borderline argument!) about the longevity of the solar panels vs. their cost and the rebate being offered by the Western Australian government at the time. My brilliant sermon had, it seemed, been ignored. The debate was only finally resolved when the Treasurer said, “Well, it makes economic sense to me, so let’s go for it!” The parish council approved the installation of the solar panels, which then occurred, and the parish didn’t look back. On the surface, I had won! Underneath my ego was battered and bruised! But life is like that, sometimes: we may not always receive the accolades we feel we deserve – sometimes we won’t be praised or even acknowledged in our efforts to create a generous, welcoming community.

But these little sacramental actions are important: these small steps or little sacraments are important. God notices, our children will notice, and the beautiful wedge-tail eagle soaring in ever so slightly clearer air at 10,000 feet, well, I like to think she notices too.