This is one of the more difficult passages of Luke’s Gospel, and the interpretation of it divides commentators and preachers.
What are we to make of it? I think the key to it is, once again, to look at it in the context of the central theme of Luke’s Gospel – what does it mean to be a mature servant of Jesus?
The recipients of Luke’s Gospel were a group being persecuted, both by the Roman authorities, and also by the Jewish authorities. At this point in the young church’s history those following the Way of Jesus were still largely Jewish, and still largely formally worshipping in the synagogue. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem led to an exodus of members of the Jewish authorities, to Greater Antioch, which we think is the first place Luke’s Gospel was circulated. These Jewish authorities faced a huge challenge – how to maintain the Jewish faith in the absence of the temple, which had been all important. One of the things they thought was important was to ‘purify’ their faith, and that meant getting rid of Jesus’ followers.
So when the hearers and readers of Luke’s Gospel heard about the dishonest manager who had to ingratiate himself so that he could be cared for and safe, they probably heard something that touched on their circumstances quite directly. For them their world – their very lives – was under threat.
What about for us? What are we to make of this passage?
Jesus is very up front about the purpose of life. He leaves neither his disciples nor the hearers of his words in any doubt about it. The purpose of life is to be God’s. It is to, as he said “love the lord your God with all of your heart, all of your mind and all of your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself”. There is absolutely no doubt about where Jesus says you need to put your time, your energy, your enthusiasm, your money and your goods.
This Gospel reading is about that, really. Jesus is telling his disciples that they need to make a choice – the same choice that each of us needs to make. They need to decide whether they serve and belong to God, or whether they serve and belong to the world – in this passage symbolised by money. There is no half-way measure here. You’re either a servant of God, in which case everything that you are and have is devoted to that end, or you’re not. The consequence of not being a servant of God is clear – being outside the Kingdom of God.
Each of us, probably every day, if we’re taking God’s call to us seriously, struggles with this choice every day, and it comes down to hundreds of little choices. Do I put watching Junior Masterchef above praying? Do I put reading the paper above reading the Bible? Do I spend as much time praying, worshipping and serving God as I do watching TV? Do I accumulate money and goods in God’s service, or to make me feel better, or more secure, or to prop up my self-esteem? Do I hold my tongue and guard my thoughts, or do I lash out?
There are, obviously, some other messages in this reading, but they all revolve around this central idea – put your time, your energy, your enthusiasm, your gifts, your money where God wants it to be – in God.
There are practical applications to this, and they usually have to be worked out on a one-by-one basis. Faiths that try to impose hard-and-fast “you must tithe” type solutions tend to be inflexible and neglect the needs of their adherents. There are some general principles that we need to keep in mind, though. Making money simply to make money is unlikely to fit in with Jesus’ ideals.
What it comes down to, at base, is this – as Christians we have an idea, clear for some, not so clear for others, of where we’re going, of what this Christian journey is all about. It is really about being in relationship with God, and the consequences of that necessarily spread through our lives. We need to be faithful in small things so that we can be faithful in large things – we need to be faithful in depending on God, and choosing to put God above all else, and we need to come back to that again and again, 100 times a day if necessary. Because those of us who walk in Jesus’ way, just like the earliest disciples, are called to something that is about the whole of our lives, not just something we do on Sunday, or for half-an-hour a day. Who we are in God – a daughter or son of God – needs to shine through in all that we do or are.
All of this is easy to say, but harder to live. And that’s what Jesus is getting at. Know who your master is, and obey that master. It is either going to be the obsessions and illusions of the world – wealth, fame, experiences – or it is going to be God. The lucky thing is that we get to make this choice not just once, but again and again. Part of coming to church each Sunday is that turning once again to God. Just like we did when we came back to church last Sunday. We come back every Sunday, asking God to forgive us, asking God to heal us and renew us, asking God to feed us and teach us, asking God to receive our worship, our prayers and our adoration. And because God is our Father, he stands ready at each moment to welcome us, as though we’d never left.
It is decision time in the gospel, and it is decision time for us, too. What is the purpose of your life going to be?