Luke 16:1-13

The parable of the negligent manager calls for some interpretation. To lead into that I’ll begin with an image. Picture yourself beside a pond. You gaze at its surface and you see the blue sky reflected, perhaps white clouds and green trees, maybe even a bird flying by. Then, gradually, your eye penetrates the surface. You look down to the bottom of the pond and you see a sodden grey log half buried in the mud and a mosaic of brown leaves covering the pond floor . An olive green fish might dart across your view. The sky and the clouds are still there, but you are looking through them, so to speak. I am trying to describe two worlds, different, yet simultaneous.

The parable of the negligent manager surprises us on at least two counts. First, usually we are meant to find ourselves in Jesus’ parables, but not here. Here we have the rich man, whom we have no trouble identifying as God. Then we have the negligent manager, but he does not represent us, who are disciples of Jesus. When the rich man learns how careless the manager has been about looking after his – the rich man’s – interests, he fires him. The manager has a day or two to collect his things, and to think about his future. The prospect looks grim indeed: no income, no friends, no home, no job and perhaps little hope of being hired. Suddenly he has a thought. He can make a place for himself when he leaves his post, and it will not cost him a penny. Moreover, it will not cost the rich man a penny either.

Many people in the community owe the rich man for loans he has given them. Part of what they must pay back is a commission to the manager, who arranged the loans. In the short time remaining to him, the manager rewrites all the contracts with these debtors, subtracting his commission. Now they owe much less. They manager has not lost anything, because once out of his job, he would not collect his commissions. The rich man will not lose anything, because he was never expecting to collect the full amount. The rich man cannot help but admire the sheer ingenuity of the manager and he says so.

I said the parable surprises us on two counts. The second is that usually Jesus’ parables simply teach, but here the parable gently chides. When he ends the parable, proper, telling how the rich man commended the dishonest manager, Jesus continues, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” What does he mean by “the children of this age”?

The children of this age are those who, so to speak, live on the surface of the pond, amidst all the glitter and beguilement it offers. They see no deeper. They see nothing else. They live for themselves, their appetites and their own interests, full stop. They are exceptionally shrewd about dealing with the people and things of this world – money, power, connections, influence, and so forth – to gain their own ends. The dishonest manager illustrates this sharply. Or in our day, think of Bernie Madoff. Jesus says to his disciples, you would do well to model yourselves on his example. Why cannot you show the same determination, the same ingenuity, the same passion, to gain your ends?

What ends do Jesus’ disciples seek? How do they differ? Go back to the image of the pond. Jesus’ disciples see beyond the surface, seeing also what lies below. They know that when the sun sets and darkness falls the surface world will vanish, while the world underneath will carry on as before, as always – teeming with life, interacting, interdependent, bubbling to eternity with endless creative potential. Jesus’ disciples seek to live at that level. That is the end we seek – to participate at the surface level, as we must, but to live at the level of the real, the enduring, the source.

So what does it mean to “make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth”? First we have to understand “dishonest wealth.” When Jesus says “dishonest wealth” he does not mean wealth that is gained in a crooked manner. He means dishonest in the sense of illusory, not real, fool’s gold. In this sense all of the things of this world are like leaves on a tree seen on the surface of the pond – dishonest in that sense. They have no enduring reality. Yet we can use them. They serve as resources to prepare our way, to help us “make friends who will welcome us into the eternal homes.”

Let me illustrate with another image. When we lived in California we used to visit Wilbur Hot Springs, which were a series of pools of hot mineral water. As I recall, there were five, the first only quite warm and the last nearly scalding. If you went straight to the last of the pools you could not bear the temperature, the pain was too great. If you worked your way to it gradually, getting accustomed to the heat pool by pool, the last pool felt blissful.

Jesus uses this parable to warn us that we need to prepare ourselves for eternal life. We need to make use of the things of this life with the same sense of urgency, determination, ingenuity and passion that the negligent manager used, to the end that when this life is taken from us – when we lose our job, so to speak – the next life will feel blissful.

At this point you may think I am over-working the image of the pond, but let’s go a bit further. I am using the world at the bottom of the pond to stand for the kingdom of heaven. It has a quality of warmth and Oneness, of everything working together like a symphony, perpetually creating new life. Is that going to feel good to us when we become part of it? Yes, if we have practiced Oneness in this world, in this life. You could say that Jesus made it his whole effort to teach his disciples how to practice Oneness. Love your enemies, he said. Forgive without being asked. Spend time alone with God as you would with a loving papa or mama. Give freely of your time and all your resources. Realize that whatever you do to those you consider the least important people you do to me. These are some of the ways, as Jesus said, “… to make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome us into the eternal homes.” Practice Oneness, Jesus said, in the spirit of the negligent manager.

I want to end on a practical note. We cannot practice Oneness with the people and things of this world unless we practice Oneness with God. All else flows from that. So we need to be determined, urgent and ingenious to find all the ways we can to draw close to God. Carve out prayer time and find a place for it. Prayer is like stepping barefoot into the warm mud at the bottom of the pond and wiggling our toes. We may feel awkward at first, then soon enough our feet feel at home. It becomes a place of renewal, of peace, of feeling connected, of letting the cares of the surface world drop away. It becomes a place of bliss.

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