Strangely enough, the hero of Jesus’ parable this morning is a dishonest manager. Not an evil ruler, a wicked person on a grand scale, but a practitioner of everyday, run of the mill, corruption. Here’s a person who’s been stealing, skimming from the top and cooking the books; when he’s found out and in danger of punishment, he doubles down on thievery and takes even more of what doesn’t belong to him. Again, the corrupt steward is the hero of the story, a small-scale villain who’s wise in the ways of the world, and looking out for himself.
In fact, the manager is the original “wise guy,” like the crook in one of those movies about the Mafia who we’re actually tempted to admire. Jesus, after all, holds him up as an example of sorts. The manager knows what’s what, and so should we: as Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Lk. 16:9). It’s almost as if Jesus is telling us that we should be modeling ourselves on Marty Byrde in Ozark, the money-laundering ally of ruthless drug dealers. At least Byrde loves his family, though it leads him to murder.
Of course, that’s not really the point of the parable. Marty Byrde is not our moral exemplar. But in his stories, Jesus uses a variety of vivid figures like this in order to make his point. Just over the last couple of weeks we’ve been given the king who goes forth to war, the shepherd who goes in search of the sheep. In a few weeks we’ll hear about an unjust judge and a persistent widow. None of these are necessarily moral exemplars: the shepherd is just doing his job, after all, and an unjust judge is simply that, unjust. We’re not really supposed to believe that he dishonest manager is admirable.
Instead, what shows forth in these stories are the values of the kingdom, the characteristic actions of faithful disciples. The dishonest manager acted shrewdly: quickly, resolutely, and with intentionality. Those who follow Jesus as his disciples need the resourcefulness of the dishonest manager if they’re going to follow through faithfully. When faced with adversity, we’ll need to double down. It’s going to take everything that we can muster in order to walk the path, including the ability to see what the objective is, and how we’re going to get there. When your plan doesn’t work out, you need a new plan!
The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote, “Creative action springing from faith is impossible without new thinking and planning that springs from hope” (Theology of Hope). The dishonest manager may have been dishonest, but he was creative in his improvised plan. He was hopeful about the future, and from that seedbed came new thinking and planning. No matter how dire it seemed, he was imagining a future ahead.
Hope is always about the future; about creating the conditions for the future. Remember the future orientation of the parable. “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Lk. 16:9). As disciples, we aim ahead; we look to the future. We’re expecting good things ahead. We have faith that God will be with us, whatever lies ahead, and that God is trustworthy, come what may.
As Christians, we know we are not in control of the future. Our thinking and planning cannot guarantee the outcome. It’s God’s future, after all. But as we prayed in our collect this morning, “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, when we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure…”. Our simple persistence in the face of “the changes and chances of this mortal life” (as another old prayer says), of the things that are passing away, is a sign of hope, as we orient ourselves to the wider horizon of everlasting life that belief in Christ opens up to us.
You all at the Church of the Holy Cross know that the future that God is always creating for us requires us to walk through the door that God opens for us. The dishonest manager acted shrewdly: quickly, resolutely, and with intentionality. May we walk the path of discipleship in the same way, stepping forward in hope, and trusting in God.