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You’re Fired

September 12, 2016

Donald Trump isn’t the first person to use that line. Jesus tells the story of a “shrewd” business manager: “There was once a rich man who had a manager. He got reports that the manager had been taking advantage of his position by running up huge personal expenses. So he called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? You’re fired. And I want a complete audit of your books.’” (Luke:16:1-2, The Message).[1] After he is fired, the manager goes to the owner’s debtors and reduces their debts, for which the owner commends him.   Jesus continues with this warning: “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke, 16:13, NIV).

One interpretation of the gospel lesson is the straightforward warning by Jesus in verse 13 that we should avoid replacing God with money in our lives. God should be the main focus of our lives and not building up our bank accounts. The manager had clearly put the acquisition of money above his own integrity. An emphasis on acquiring wealth and things can cause us to neglect God. But it doesn’t explain why the owner would commend the fired manager for reducing the debts owed him.

N.T. Wright explains that the business owner himself had engaged in shady business practices by charging interest on loans, forbidden by Jewish law. The manager deducted the illegal interest charges from the bills, making the debtors happy, and precluding the owner from bringing charges against him because of his own illegal business dealings. “Thus, when the master heard about it (I think ‘the master’ in verse 9 is certainly the master in the story, not Jesus), he could only admire the man’s clever approach.” (Wright, Luke for Everyone (2001) Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 193-194).

Wright further suggests that the master in the story is God, and that God’s “property manager,” is Israel, which had failed in its task, and should be fired. Instead of hoarding the assets with which they were blessed, they should be used to help others.

Jesus is not advising us to use shady practices in business or in our handling of our personal finances. Instead, as the manager removed the excess charges from the debtors’  accounts, the verses suggest that we reduce the number of rules and regulations we impose “on one another, not least in the church, which are over and above the gospel itself . . . What should traditional churches do when faced with their own mortality? Perhaps they should learn to think unconventionally, to be prepared to make new friends across traditional barriers, to throw caution to the winds and discover, again, in the true fellowship of the gospel, a home that will last. . . God entrusts property to people and expects it to be used to his glory and the welfare of his children, not for private glory or glamour.” (Wright, Luke for Everyone, pp. 194-196).

If the traditional church has been “fired,” Jesus encourages those remaining to make good use of the assets at their disposal to reach out to those in need and to help others come to faith: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 19:9, NIV). This interpretation is consistent with Scripture in general, and with the other readings for Sunday. The psalmist expresses God’s concern for the poor and the oppressed: “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the dust heap; he seats them with princes and with the princes of their people” (Psalm 113: 7-8). In the reading from Amos, the Lord decries merchants who cheat their customers to make an extra buck. (Amos 8:5,6).

The church is to use the assets entrusted to it for God’s purposes and not to line its own coffers. The gospel is the main thing—it is the principal in God’s account. If traditional churches are to survive in the twenty-first century, they must give up rules and regulations over and above the gospel message, stay close to the gospel, and apply their resources to reaching out to befriend those in need, as well as to the poor in spirit and the broken-hearted.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost are Psalm 113; Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-15; Luke 16: 1-15.

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