The Wise Embezzler
Scriptures: Luke 16:1-9; Luke 12:32-34
This may be one of the most confusing parables in the New Testament. The story is not confusing. A manager has been squandering his master’s money. At this point he has not been stealing the money, he has been wasting it. It's the same word used of the prodigal son in last week’s parable. The prodigal son did not steal his inheritance, he squandered. The manager has been squandering the master’s money, so the master fires him. Worried about how he will survive once he's out of a job, the manager goes to his master's debtors and helps them falsify their accounts so they will owe less money. Note that the manager isn’t stealing the master’s money for himself. He is giving away the master’s money to win friends, hoping they will take him in and give him a job once he is out of work.
The surprise comes in verse 8: "And his master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly." The master praises him for his actions. Then, to make matters worse, Jesus says we should imitate him. Verse 9: "I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes." What kind of moral lesson is that?
This is a difficult parable to understand, but let me try this comparison. If you have seen the movie Schindler’s List—which is a very difficult grim, movie to watch, I admit—but if you have seen the movie Schindler's List, it makes an interesting comparison to this parable. For if ever there was an unlikely hero it was Oskar Schindler. During World War II he was a member of the Nazi party, a German businessman devoted to wine, women, and making money. He figures during the war to make a fortune manufacturing supplies for the German army. So he converts an old factory for making pots and pans into a factory supplying canteens, mess kits, and other military supplies. Then, to get contracts he assembles baskets of wine, cognac, fresh fruit, chocolates, and Cuban cigars (all of which he obtains on the black market) to give as bribes to German officials, who sign contracts with his factory.
What kind of hero is this? We are still wondering that when Oskar Schindler gets involved with the Jewish community in Krakow, Poland. He does this for two reasons: 1) he wants their financing for his factory, and 2) he wants their people as a source of cheap labor. This is a hero?
Gradually, however, Schindler builds relationships with the Jewish people he hires. At one point the German government orders the closing of the labor camp where his Jewish workers are kept. Orders are given for all of them to be sent to Auschwitz. Schindler then offers to pay the labor camp officers as well as other German officials to have them shipped to his hometown in Czechoslovakia where he plans to open a new factory. This is Schindler's famous list. One by one he adds names to the list of those he wants transferred to his factory. For each person he pays a large sum of money in bribes and fees, but he keeps adding more and more names to the list, over a thousand Jewish men, women, and children. He spends all the money he has to get them out of Poland. Even then, a trainload of Jewish women who were supposed to be sent to his factory was diverted to Auschwitz. Schindler rescues them by giving diamonds to the officer in charge to put them back on a train headed for Czechoslovakia. When an officer threatens to report him, Schindler says, "I am protected by powerful friends"--by which he means the German commanders he has been bribing all along.
At the end of the movie, however, Schindler's protection takes a different turn. On the night before his factory is captured by allied troops, Schindler tells his workers, "I am a member of the Nazi party, a munitions manufacturer, a profiteer from slave labor. When the war ends, you will be free, but I will be hunted like a criminal." At midnight, as Schindler is leaving the camp to flee from the allied troops, the Jewish workers present him with a letter signed by every one of them, explaining what he has done to save them and why he should be pardoned for any crimes associated with the Nazi party. It is a moment of supreme irony. All through the movie Schindler has been protected by the bribes he gives to German officials, but at the end of the movie, when the final judgment comes, he is protected by the money he has spent on saving his Jewish workers.
Now let's go back to our scripture reading. Like Oskar Schindler, the manager in Jesus' parable is headed for judgment. How does he respond? He responds the way Oskar Schindler would have responded: by using money to win friends.
And the master praises the manager. Why? Because this time, at least, the manager is not wasting the money. He is not spending it on frivolous, meaningless stuff. He is using it to build relationships with people who will welcome him into their homes when he loses the home he’s been living in.
This parable is what I call a "how much more" parable. There are several parables like this in Luke’s gospel. Next week we will read a parable about a man who goes to his neighbor at midnight asking to borrow some bread. The neighbor tells him to go away, but the man keeps on knocking until the neighbor gets up to give him what he needs. At the end of the parable Jesus says, "How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" This is a "how much more" parable. The point is not that God is like an obstinate neighbor. The point is that if even an obstinate neighbor will respond to persistent pleas for help, how much more will God.
The same idea applies to this parable of the dishonest manager. The dishonest manager is not a model of upright living. Neither was Oskar Schindler. But if even a dishonest manager, if even a manipulative womanizer character like Oskar Schindler, knows that to survive in a crisis you need to give away your money to help people--if even a jerk knows that, how much more should the followers of Christ.
Near the end of Schindler’s List as Oskar Schindler is leaving his factory at the end of the war, he thinks about how he has used his money in the past. He says, "I could have done more. I should have done more. That car--why did I keep that car? I could have paid for 10 more people, saved 10 more lives. This pin"--he takes off a solid gold pin from his lapel--"this pin could have been traded for another person, two people, human lives that would not have died."
It is a poignant moment in the movie. But here is the point: if even a dissolute character like Oskar Schindler realizes that the money he spent on fluff--the money he poured into expensive clothes, expensive cars, and expensive wine could have been used to save people--if even Oskar Schindler realized that, how much more should the followers of Jesus.
Of course, unlike Schindler, the manager was not giving away his own money; he was giving away the master’s money. Guess what? So are we. Jesus makes that very point at the end of the parable in verse 9: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” His reference to dishonest wealth means wealth that we did not earn. It is God’s money given to us to use. And by referring to being welcomed into the eternal homes, Jesus raises this story to a new level, helping us see that what we give away can bless us not only in this life but in the life to come. As Jesus puts it in our first scripture reading: “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
Jesus wants us to see the lasting importance of what we give away to help others. If even a Nazi business man recognizes that. If even a conniving embezzler recognizes that, how much more should we.