The parable of the prudent manager


Luke 16.1 - 13

Sermon preached on 19 September 2004 by
The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden

It is not a bad idea for any preacher to find himself out of the way when the gospel for the day is the passage we have just heard: indeed, such a one is almost as prudent as the manager (or steward) in the story!

I do not know how you respond the scripture readings. It is not easy to do other than let them pass over, except perhaps when the sermon actually faces the readings, or one of them, head on. But even then, by the time the service is over, so much else has happened that the 'word' part of it is eclipsed. It is perhaps surprising that hardly ever does anyone say on leaving church how difficult or strange a reading was. (By then lunch is beckoning!) But today's gospel is one of the biggest puzzlers of all.

Focus on the story or parable that starts and dominates the passage. (The later part is made up of a series of statements that comment loosely (some very much so) on the story that comes first.) To that story: it is outrageous, is it not? The employee defrauds his employer, then, to try and save his skin, makes his number with the boss's debtors by means of further dishonesty -- and, at the end, gets praised for his conduct! Gets praised indeed: what sort of a world is this? It is a world where morality has gone haywire -- so it seems.

As a first comments, I take the mantle of the suave man in the insurance advertisement on the TV: 'Calm down, dear, it's a commercial'. In this case, 'Calm down, dears, it's a joke' -- a joke by Jesus of a certain kind, a joke to make people sit up and take notice. So the poor preacher is reduced to the terrible role of having to explain the joke -- which, I know, usually destroys it. However, let us try.

The wretched manager is given credit for one thing: that he acted shrewdly. The man was in a fix, and at least he had taken action -- which is something.
And then we ourselves have to think: are we not often in a fix over God, over his purposes for us and for the world around us? In a fix over our sense of the urgency and the beauty of God's call to us? In a fix over the vivid love of God which we take in our stride? In a fix over the way, as churches, we fuss about matters that are far from central to the heart of the gospel, when nothing else should move us? The story, in other words, is a wake-up call -- given so ingeniously that we easily miss its force. Shock-tactics is the word for it.

All the same, it is interesting that the rest of the passage talks about our relationship with God in very down-to-earth, even mercenary terms: if you stick to God, you'll get your reward, all right; and meantime, be careful about the dangers of wealth and possessions. Some of the sayings towards the end of the passage seem indeed to be only loosely to do with the rest: they look as if Luke simply tacked on the parable a set of sayings of Jesus that had some kind of connection of theme. Anyway the passage drifts a bit -- and even lowers the tone!

Now it is probably not a problem with you, but there is a widespread feeling in some circles that religion, prayer, the things of the soul, belong is a sphere of their own, shut off from the bustle of life. Anne Widdecombe, the other morning on the Today Programme, was going on against the modern response to 'The Lord be with you': 'And also with you', replacing the old 'And with thy spirit'. Religion, she said, is to do with the spirit, our spiritual selves; and God is concerned to develop us as such. She was wrong on both counts: not only does the old response make the distinction she made, but religion, God, relates to us as whole selves, not just to some inner private sphere. Life is as it is and we respond shrewdly to the demands of love and generosity that God gives to us. Then our hearts will soar for God, even with our feet firmly on the ground of God's world.

The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden

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