Quid pro quo

Luke 16:1-13

16Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And 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. 10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

            This is one of the most difficult parables in the Bible for me to interpret.  I often enjoy looking at scriptures, especially parables, and looking for new ways to look at these passages.  I like to try to find fresh ways to apply the timeless scriptures to our lives in the 21st century.  That being said, I feel that I should tell you that I did not enjoy looking at this one.  I did not enjoy looking at it because every way I tried to look at this passage made problems for me as I tried to work through it.  I tried and I tried, but there just isn’t a good way to look at this that doesn’t leave a lot of questions unanswered. 

But in my studies, as I read through a number of different commentaries, I found a statement that helped me more than anything else.  Walter Brueggemann, who is actually an Old Testament scholar, said this, “The parable of Luke is exceedingly difficult, as we cannot be sure of its meaning.”  If Walter Brueggemann, a retired Seminary professor and dean with at least two doctorate degrees, says that this parable is exceedingly difficult and we can’t be sure of its meaning, maybe I shouldn’t beat myself up over struggling with this parable!  So what I would like to do today is to look at a couple different possibilities and hopefully we can shed some light on a difficult passage that is usually just skipped over by most people.

            Our scripture finds Jesus talking with his disciples and he begins to tell them about a rich land owner.  The land owner is an absentee land owner, which would have been common in Jesus’ day.  He may have lived in a nearby town, or maybe he just didn’t really want to be involved in the daily business transactions involved with the property.  So this man had hired a person to manage his property and his finances.  But the rich man found out that the manager was “squandering” his property.

            The word that is translated here as squandering is the same word that is used to describe how the Prodigal Son had burnt through the inheritance money that he got from his father.  So there is this connotation to the word that not only did the manager lose and mismanage the money, he likely was spending excessive amounts of money on things that the land owner would not approve of.  He was buying stuff for his own pleasure with money that really belonged to the land owner.

            So the rich owner calls in the manager and he asks him to give an account for all of his spending.  They go through the books and have a mini audit.  And in the end, the manager is given the boot.  He loses his job.

            What is the manager to do?  He doesn’t think that he is physically able to be a laborer, and he is too proud to beg.  And the chances of someone actually hiring him to be a property manager again is pretty slim.  So how is he going to make a living?

            He is a wise man, so he comes up with a plan.  He calls in the land owner’s debtors and he begins to slash the amount that they owe.  One guy owes 100 jugs of olive oil, and the manager tells him that he now only owes 50 jugs.  Another guy owes 100 bushels of wheat, and the manager tells him that he now only owes 80 bushels.  That is a huge reduction!

            If you are really listening you might question why one person’s debt is reduced by 50% and the other’s is reduced by only 20%.  But actually, they are both reduced approximately by the same value.  And that value is a lot!  So why the big discount?

            You see, the first century was a little different than what we experience today.  If someone gave you a big break on some outstanding loans, what would you do?  You would probably celebrate in some way.  I know I would!  Being the good steward that I am, if someone told me that they were relieving me of 50% of my debt I would probably go out and splurge on a big steak dinner!

            But in the 1st century, especially in this Palestine region, if someone gave you a major gift like relieving you of 50% of your debt, you weren’t really relieved of that debt.  Now you were indebted to them in a different way.  You owed them, but just not olive oil or wheat.  You owed it to them to make sure that they were okay, that they were taken care of for the rest of their life.  This is a culture of reciprocity.  If someone does good for you, you owe it to them to do good to them.

            We see this all of the time in movies.  And they don’t have to be set in Jesus’ day.  I think of the movie The Count of Monte Cristo, which is set in the 1820’s.  In this movie, Edmund Dantes escapes from prison, only to find himself surrounded by pirates.  Dantes is challenged to a knife fight by the captain of the pirates.  But he isn’t going to fight the captain.  No, he is going to fight Jacopo, the best knife fighter on the entire crew of the ship.

            Dantes easily defeats Jacopo, and the scene comes to a high point as Dantes has Jacopo in a position to take his life with one stroke of the knife.  But Dantes instead stabs his knife into the sand and allows Jacopo to live.  Does Jacopo go off now and celebrate with a big steak dinner?  No, he says to Dantes, I owe you my life, and he becomes Dantes servant and sticks by him through thick and through thin.

            So Jesus tells this parable about how this manager forgives a portion of the debt owed to the master so that they would then be indebted to the manager.  Now they would look after him for the rest of his life in place of owing the land owner the oil or wheat.  If he needed a place to sleep, there was a bed available to him at the olive oil guy’s place.  Did he need a bite to eat?  Stop by at the wheat guy’s place and there would probably be some bread there.

            This is where my sermon title comes from.  Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase that means “something for something”.  It is an equal exchange of goods or services.  You give someone something that they want or need in exchange for them giving you something that you want or need.  The manager relieves the debtors of their financial obligations so that they might provide him the life essentials of food, clothing, housing, etc.

            Now here is the part of this parable that makes it so strange.  The owner finds out about the manager’s dealings, and he doesn’t seem to be angry.  What the land owner does is he commends the manager.  He is impressed by what the manager just did!

            Now we need to be sure to note that the land owner never applauds the manager for being dishonest.  The owner applauds the manager’s shrewdness in coming up with a plan to take care of his personal finances when he is out of a job!  This manager has come up with a pretty good plan for himself.

            Now I would assume that the land owner was pretty upset that the manager had done all of this, though the text doesn’t say so.  And a lot of people have tried to get around this by saying that the debt that the manager was forgiving was really his commission from the dealings.  And if that is true, maybe we should all get into the property management business, because that is one large commission!  No, I think that the manager was essentially stealing a little more money from the land owner before he had to officially leave his position as manager.  So why would the land owner commend the manager for this? 

            I know that there are a few of you that enjoy sports, or maybe board games, or something else competitive.  I am not a real competitive person at this stage in my life, but I have gone through my competitive stages.

            Have you ever been playing a game and you have just lost, but you were pretty impressed by the move that the other person just made?  Maybe you are playing chess and someone brings their queen out early and just gets you into a checkmate and your like, Oh my goodness!  Where did that even come from?  Or maybe you a playing golf and you are winning by a stroke and the other golfer gets an eagle on the last hole.  Yeah, you are disappointed that you lost.  But if you really are honest, you are also impressed with what just happened!

            I think that is what is going on with the rich land owner here.  He just lost money, but so what.  He has plenty of money.  He is a little upset about this, but this manager has been squandering his money for some time now.  What he is really impressed with is the entire plan that the manager had come up with. 

I think that the main point of this parable has to do with a change in priorities for the manager.  The difference is that before the manager had been squandering away the land owner’s money, and now he has begun to invest it well, and that is what he is being commended for.

Jesus says in at the end of verse 8, “The children of this age are more shrew in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”  Jesus isn’t encouraging his disciples to steal money from their master, or from anyone for that matter.  He isn’t advocating some Robin Hood approach where we are to steal from the rich and give to the poor.  What he is doing is saying that this dishonest manager made the decision to be a good steward.  And he is contrasting this to the Pharisees of his day, who I think he is referring to when he talks about the children of the light.  He is saying, “If a wicked and dishonest man can make the decision to use the money available to him so that he builds friendships and relationships, then why can’t the ‘religious’ people do the same?”

            If we are to read just past our scripture for this morning we find that the Pharisees were listening in to what Jesus was teaching his disciples.  And Luke tells us that they were lovers of money, so they didn’t like this teaching by Jesus.  They didn’t like hearing that they should be investing their money in people and relationships, not in jewels, fancy robes, and the fastest camels.

            Every month I get a document in the mail that I am never any too excited to open.  It is my credit card statement.  Inside the envelope I find an itemized list of how I have spent “my” money over the last 30 days.  I spent $20 here on this day on gas, $50 dollars here on groceries.  I went out to eat on this day, and I bought a book on that day.  Every purchase is listed in order giving the name of where I spent money and how much I spent there.

            But these numbers don’t really bother me all that much.  I am not surprised to see that I filled up with gas on the 22nd for $20.  The big surprise for me comes at the end of the document.  And I am not even talking about the total at the bottom of the report.  What tends to catch me off guard is a service that my credit card provides.  They make a pie chart that shows, not how much I spend, but what percentage of my total expenditures for the month went to what area.

            What do you think the largest chunk of my pie is?  The category that makes up just over 1/3 of my pie chart is labeled “merchandise”.  I would all it “stuff” or more appropriately “stuff I don’t need”. 

            Now this pie chart is not completely accurate because not all of my spending is done by using my credit card.  For instance, my giving to the church and paying my mortgage is done by a check so it doesn’t show up on the pie chart.  But I think that it would be a very good exercise sometime to sit down with all of my documents and reports and spending histories and see where I am spending money.  I would like to include categories like “church” and “hospitality” and “missions” on my pie chart.  I think many of us would probably be shocked by how little money we spend on others and how much we spend on ourselves.

            Jesus teaches us in his Sermon on the Mount to not store up for ourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust will destroy.  Here he is encouraging us to invest in things that will not fade away.  Invest in people, invest in relationships, invest in the Gospel, invest in the kingdom of God.

            I also think that one thing that Jesus was trying to do in this parable is to contrast the kingdom of God to the whole quid pro quo mentality of giving.  The manger in the story gave of his master’s money so that the debtors would become indebted to him.  He gave something of value with the intention of receiving something of value in return.  I don’t think that this is something that Jesus is trying to encourage by telling this parable.

            If we only give gifts so that we will receive something in return, then we are no different than the dishonest manager.  But when we give with no expectations of receiving anything in return, then we are becoming more like Jesus.

            When Jesus healed the blind and the lepers, how much did he charge them?  What did he expect in return?  Nothing; nothing but maybe a little love and appreciation.  When Jesus sat and taught all day long in the temple courts and in the city streets, how much was the tuition for those lessons?  $0.00.  When Jesus brought back to life the widow’s son, Jairus’ daughter, and Lazarus, what did he demand from those people to compensate him for his time and efforts?  He didn’t demand anything!  He rejected this quid pro quo mentality.  Instead he gave what he had to build relationships, to help others, and to watch the kingdom of God spread.

            The dishonest manager realized that he was using his resources for personal pleasures and on things that were temporary.  He was squandering the resources available to him.  But Jesus encourages us to not store up for ourselves treasures on earth, but instead invest in kingdom living.  Invest in relationship, invest in people, invest in the Gospel, invest in the kingdom of God because you cannot serve God and wealth.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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