No self-made man (Luke 16:1-8)

So I get that summer’s winding down (back to school supplies have been on the shelf at Wal-Mart since, like, February).  But there’s still time enough to put together your lemonade stand for the front-yard entrepreneur in your family.

Come on: nothing symbolizes idyllic, suburban America like the screen door, wind chimes, and a plywood lemonade stand.  But while kids can learn a thing or three about business skills, it’s usually the parents that pay the greatest toll, right?

Think about the overheads.  First, the stand itself.  Lumber? Paint?  Maybe just the folding table from the garage?  Then there’s the lemonade.  Mix, sugar, cups—these things add up over time.  And what about your time?  You’ve gotta help out, supervise, tell the kids to get back to work, etc.

And you’re charging, what, like  50 cents a cup at most?  Breaking even would be a pipe dream.  This ain’t the Jamba Juice at the local mall.  This is costly.  But when you’re ten, you can look in that cash box and see the $5.00 in quarters and think “Wow!  Look what I did all by myself!” 

That’s laughable.  And you know it’s laughable.  But we take God for granted the same way, preferring instead to count our blessings (job, car, spouse, kids, etc.) and think “Wow!  Look what I did!” 

The reality is there’s no such thing as the self-made man.  God gives the blessings, we are merely his hired hands in managing those gifts here on earth.  That’s what this Sunday’s parable is fundamentally about:

He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions.2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:1-8)

Wait—is Jesus praising the guy for undercutting his boss?  It’s unlikely that Jesus would applaud such shady behavior.  No; we can best understand this story culturally. The wealthy would often hire managers to handle their finances.  In many cases, managers had what we might call “power of attorney,” or at least free range over their employers’ checkbook.  And, in just as many cases, managers could take a private commission for their labors.  So when the manager adjusts the prices, he’s not being shady; he’s adjusting the prices so that everyone can benefit.  The result is better stewardship than simply robotically insisting the debtors pay sticker price.

The gospel teaches us that we’re not the boss.  We are managers of the gifts God chooses to bestow.  Therefore our allegiance should be not to the gift itself, but the Giver of all gifts.  Come this Sunday to explore how financial stewardship reflects a heart of worship.

1 thought on “No self-made man (Luke 16:1-8)

  1. Hi Chris. That is a cool cultural take on this story. The story always seemed a bit “odd” to me when I thought that the house manager was commending the dishonest manager for dishonesty. Now although I can’t say that I yet totally “get it” regarding the meaning of the passage, I think I am closer to understanding it now.

    What you said made me recollect that Joseph was made manager over Potiphar’s house.

    Quoting, “Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned.” [God blessed Josephs management] “So Potiphar left everything he had in Joseph’s care; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate.”
    (Gen. 39:4-6 NIV)

    First Potiphar entrusted everything to Joseph and then he got to the point that he did not concerm himself with anything. So apparently, that practice in the parable of Jesus wasn’t totally unusual.

    I recollect that at one time singer Billy Joel (The guy that ♪♫♪♫♪♫♪ laughs with the sinners♫♪♫♪♫♪) was ripped off by his manager. And yet some media people make a point of making sure that they sign every check. I remember hearing Don Imus reporting that his manager was complaining to him “Don’t you trust me?” To which Don Imus said, “No.”

    I also remembering hearing Oprah Winfrey discussing that she was complaining while signing checks from her manager that she found her clothing bill surprisingly high. Oprah’s designer clothing person was actually buying two dresses and merging then into one, because that was the only way she could get her into some of the most expensive clothes she wanted to wear.Her manager was too embarrassed to tell her that she needed to do this [buy two outfits] to get size appropriate clothing for her.

    Anyway Chris, I never considered the passage from the angle you presented and I’ll have to process this for a while. So the manager had the freedom to set prices and adjust the bill, rather than the impression that I had of someone in a store today, giving discounts to his friends, short-changing established prices – which would be a clear violation of store policy. Makes sense.

    And just to point out how culture is different from one culture to another … A woman from Africa often pays me to give her a ride to or from work. She says in Africa people will set a sales price and they will always haggle and maybe 20% or more reduction in cost will follow. She gets frustrated because in America an advertised price is not decreased when you finally buy the product – it is increased. You end up paying for add-ons not mentioned in the original sales price. Or there is bait and switch. Taxes also get added on. Delivery gets added. Accoutrements or warranties etc. There is also a term for this practice called “Up-selling”. Whether any of this relates to the specific passage under discussion, I don’t know. But it does show how things differ across cultures. And maybe the American tendency to hold the line on prices, rather than come down on prices, blinds us a bit to the meaning of the passage. (I’ll need a nap if I am to make it to church. God – bless.)

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