September 18, 2022

Proper 20C – Luke 16:1-13

Holy Cross Church Valle Crucis, NC 

The Rev. Samuel V. Tallman

 

“You cannot serve God & wealth.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has more encounters with
rich people, people of wealth, than in the other Gospels
Would be quite straightforward to offer summary of those teachings in Luke
But that would be to overlook the nuanced details of Jesus’ teaching in this parable—
teachings we need to hear for our life with God
Now, this is a confusing story—the rich man commends his dishonest steward, even
while firing him—huh?
A look at some of the details can help


First of all – notice the rich man himself comes under no condemnation—in Luke, that’s a
common characteristic of Jesus’ encounter with rich people—Jesus’ focus is what they
do with their wealth
Now looking at the dishonest steward – notice there’s so accounting given of how he
squandered the rich man’s property
What we do know is the utter fear he had of losing control of his life – “What will I
do?...I am not strong enough to dig, & I am ashamed to beg.”
All of a sudden—he’s the everyman – He’s the one we can learn from for who hasn’t
feared loss of life’s control when their livelihood is taken away from them?
There follows his discounting of bills owed to the master to gain favor—NYC, there was
a saying: I’ll stroke your back if you stroke mine
Scholarly knowledge of this period’s practices would indicate the manager also
acts as agent in sale of master’s products earning his compensation by
commission on the sale
In effect, in rewriting the bills, he cuts what he would have made for himself—
not cheating the master of what he was to receive
Thus the master commends the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly
Little vignette of these two players becomes an odd reflection of how many, if not most,
people throughout time believe the world works
To have control of your life depends on wealth, on possessions, on material
security

I would hazard to rewrite the dialogue of the rich man commending his steward as:
“I wondered about those charges brought to me about you. But now I see what
you were doing, overcharging so you could make more. Very shrewd. As long
as it doesn’t cheat me—well done. I hope it all works out for you.”
A knowing pact of how the world works.

But then follows Jesus’ enigmatic teaching:
Whoever is faithful in a little is faithful also in much
Whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much
No slave can serve two masters
You cannot serve God & mammon
Mammon is an Aramaic word – most often translated as wealth
All the Gospels are written in Greek – and here appears this word mammon without
translation into the Greek word for wealth
Now Aramaic was the language spoken by Jesus—a language derived from Hebrew—
the Hebrew word from which mammon derives has multiple meanings besides wealth—
one of which is “that in which one trusts” – THAT IN WHICH ONE TRUSTS
Why was it not simply translated as wealth into Greek? First, it is the word Jesus would
have spoken. Second, the scholarly Greeks knew of the Hebrew word’s variant
meanings
Thus, another reading could be: “You cannot serve God and that in which you trust.”
Jesus’ teaching can start to rub: Could “that in which you trust” be what you trust the
most to stay in control of your life?
Whatever “that” is – Jesus is saying you can’t serve that & God?
This is beginning to come close to what Jesus said to the rich young ruler who came to
Jesus, asking what must he do to inherit eternal life – the answer – “go and sell all your
possessions”
Jesus is saying: whatever you trust the most, if it’s other than God, will fail you
Might Jesus also be saying that being in control of your life is but an illusion –
there is nothing you can trust save God for your life?

In so many visits in nursing homes & hospitals—especially Medicaid nursing homes—I
have seen how trust in the things of the world—money, power, status—they have all
evanesced
Jesus, in his fullness of human experience, knows this teaching is meant for everyone
who wants to follow him
He knows how each one of us is drawn to want to trust something other than
God for our life
So he offers a start in how to live trusting in God
Be faithful in little things – trust God for how things turn out simply in a single
day

Faithful in little things becomes faithful in great things, important things, life-
changing things

Following Jesus requires that in our prayer life we reflect constantly on how our trust in
God might lead us & to live faithfully into that
As a way to start in response to Jesus’ teaching, I offer the words of hymn #605—the
words of Albert Bayly written in mid-20th century
“What does the Lord require for praise & offering?
What sacrifice, desire, or tribute bid you bring?
Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.”