Should We All Be Robinhood?
Growing up, one of my favorite heroes was Robinhood. He was the one who fought the oppressive and selfish rich people and gave everything he took to the poorest and neediest. It seemed like a great narrative. I especially enjoyed the silly Disney cartoon version. The sly foxy Robinhood stealthily stealing from the arrogant Lion, who viewed the people not as his subjects to be ruled justly but instead as his slaves, working only for his pleasure, I ate it up. Add in all the comedic moments like a bear kissing the rings of the lion and coming up with a mouthful of gems, and it was easily a movie I wanted to watch again and again. But reflecting on the act of one man taking what belonged to another simply to give it out to the less fortunate, is that dishonesty really to be commended? Well one look at our gospel reading for today could leave someone with that idea.
Today’s parable is another odd one. If you look at just the parable, just verses 1-9, you could come away with the impression that Jesus is saying, being dishonest for the right reasons is commendable. That doesn’t really jive well with a full understanding of love your neighbor as yourself. What is Jesus’s point with this parable? As we reflect upon the words of Jesus in this story, I think there are many other parts in the Gospel of Luke that can help us understand what Jesus is wanting his disciples to know.
First let’s consider the context of the parable. 16:1 begins “[Jesus] also said to the disciples.” It is very possible that the location this is taking place is the same location that Chapter 15. Chapter 15 as you might recall begins “Now tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” Jesus then tells three parables against the Pharisees, and it is quite probable that the disciples were present as well. So these two chapters should in some way be viewed together, more on that later. Secondly, Chapter 16 is part of the Journey to Jerusalem section of Luke’s gospel which began in Chapter 9 and ends in Chapter 19. As you might recall from a previous sermon, during this portion of Luke’s gospel, Jesus seems to have 2 main goals that he works toward. The first is his ultimate mission, namely his death and resurrection. Jesus knew that he would be handed over to the Roman authorities by the Pharisees, and so part of that mission was creating tension between himself and the Pharisees. Now how Jesus created the tension is important. He didn’t think to himself “I am going to go pick a fight with them” then go walk over to the Pharisees and say “hey idiots, your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.” Actually, if Jesus had done that instead of what he did do, they probably would have just shrugged him off and paid him no attention. Instead, Jesus upset their known world, for they were certain that they were following God’s will, but Jesus demonstrated how they weren’t, in many profound and subtle ways. For instance, one time Jesus was invited by a Pharisee to dine with him and Jesus didn’t ceremonially wash himself like the Pharisees did, and the Pharisee is like “ you can’t possibly be a prophet, for you aren’t adhering to proper ceremonial laws, and Jesus responds to the pharisee’s astonishment by commenting how the Pharisees are like a dish where the outside is pristinely cleaned, but the inside is full of greed and wickedness. Then there was the time when it was the Sabbath, and Jesus healed a woman who had been disabled for eighteen years. The Pharisees were indignant because Jesus had done “work” on the day of rest. Surely this man is not a Prophet they thought. But Jesus points out how the Pharisees would care for an animal by feeding it on the Sabbath, and is not this daughter of Abraham more valuable than an ox or a donkey? Why then is it contrary to God’s will for Jesus to give necessary care to this woman? So these are the beginnings of the tensions between the Pharisess and Jesus. But the tensions amp up more when the Pharisees go to where Jesus is doing the work of the kingdom, by bringing tax collectors and sinners to repentance, and the Pharisees grumble at the work Jesus does. So Jesus speaks words of truth against them and their nature. He says in the parables of the lost Sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, if you were really righteous like you presume to be, then you would rejoice that God is working to try and win back that which belonged to Him which was lost. So part of Jesus’s mission to die and rise again is to continually point out to the Pharisees how they are not actually a part of God’s people like they presume.
The second goal of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem was continuing to instruct his disciples in everything they need to know. He knew that he would be departing from them soon. First for a short while, and then for a much longer while. But He wanted to prepare them for the time that would soon arrive. So he teaches them about prayer, and he warns them against the Pharisees, and he tells them to not fear anything, even death. He tells them do not be anxious about anything and always be ready to follow where the Spirit leads. He warns them that because of his work in the world the result will be division, so do not be alarmed when this happens. Jesus was ever mindful of his desire to teach his disciples what they needed to know to be prepared to do the work of the Kingdom of God.
Both of these missions are in play with Jesus telling of the Shrewd Manager. Jesus says “there was a rich man who had a manger and charges were brought to the rich man that the manager was wasting his possessions. And so the rich man calls the manager 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 a manager.” So in Jesus’s story so far, we don’t know exactly how the manager was wasting the rich man’s possession. There are a lot of ways that a person could waste something that rightly belongs to another, but when we look at Jesus’s conclusion, Jesus isn’t actually concerned with the specifics. It is also interesting that the Rich Man doesn’t allow a defense to be given by the manager, nor does the manager offer a defense. It is just to be understood that the charges brought against the manager are accurate and he is getting what he deserves. “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. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.” So the manager calls together everyone who owes his master some share of their goods and tells each of them to reduce down what their bill says that they owe. And Jesus says “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. 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.”
Should we take this parable at face value? Being a modern day Robinhood, gaining unrighteous or unjust wealth is alright as long as you use it to make friends for yourself? No, the response of the Rich man to the manager is just as ridiculous as the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to go find the one, or the woman who, after finding the 1 lost coin throws a party which probably cost more than the value of the coin. Or as ridiculous as the father whose son wanted him to be as good as dead, so that the son could get the money that was eventually coming to him, today. The father gives it to the son and the son squanders it, comes back to the father and the father receives him back again as a son. Not that I am eluding that the Rich man is the same person as the people in the lost parables, but the story has a bit of oddity to it, in order for the disciples to pay attention to the main point Jesus is making. Jesus’s main point comes in verse 13: “no servant can serve two masters, for 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 God and money.” This truth is one that he wants to both teach his disciples and use as further division between himself and the Pharisees. The next verse says “the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.
Jesus is not commending dishonesty. After all in verse 10 he notes “the one who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and the one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” The so called shrewd manager was dishonest, through and through. He was wasting the possessions of the rich man at the start. Then he was using what little authority he still had to take more that might have gone to the rich man. Instead Jesus with the parable is highlighting how easy it can be to love money. The manager never truly loved the Rich man, but instead only served his own interests. Jesus is not saying that money in and of itself is evil, or that if a person has a lot of money they are automatically going to love money more than God. Jesus is warning his disciples that money has great potential to become an idol. Jesus is saying be a faithful manager of the things that God has given you, which rightly belong to Him. Resist any temptation to being dishonest with those gifts, for it can lead to ruin.
Just as Jesus desired to teach his disciples that walked the earth along-side of him, so too he desires to teach you through the work of the Holy Spirit. Be on your guard against fearing money, loving money, and trusting in money above all things. Instead by the power of the Holy Spirit you are invited to be faithful with the little that God has given you, trusting in him to provide for all your needs. You do not need to be swayed into the temptations to receive unjust wealth, to steal from others, to fail to properly pay what is right and fair, or to withhold for yourself what belongs to another. You are free instead to fear God, to love God and to trust in God above all things, believing that He will provide for you. Amen.