Luke 16:1-13 (online here)
Jesus was not above challenging any rule that we think everybody should live by. This lesson is a prime example.
A boss lets his employee know that he’s about to fire him for mishandling money. Before he can be fired, the employee enlists some of the company’s customers into providing him a safety-net by cutting the amounts they still owe his boss. The boss finds out about it, but instead of getting angry, he praises the employee “because he had acted shrewdly.” And Jesus concludes, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
I’m not going to pretend that I have any clear idea why Jesus told a story like this, or offered that conclusion, or why Luke made sure to include it in his Gospel. Commentators agree that it’s one of the most baffling stories to be found anywhere in the New Testament.
We are supposed to be trustworthy, says Jesus (vv. 10-12), and yet he seems to praise this employee for being anything but trustworthy. And he tells us to use dishonestly acquired money to make friends for ourselves.
I don’t get it. If you are ever about to be fired because you were accused of dishonesty, I suggest that you shouldn’t go on to prove your accusers were right. Don’t count on your employer to praise you for that, much less let you keep your job.
But there is something about this story that does appeal to me. A major theme in the Bible is that God is not above working with some of the shadiest characters you’ll ever find in order to make friends with the whole world.
Check out the story of Jacob in Genesis. His name means “heel-grabber”). He lies, cheats, bribes, and finally wrestles his way into God’s blessing, never once apologizing for anything, and never seeming to care about God’s bigger picture, only his own self-promotion. And yet God gives him the name Israel (which literally means “God-wrestler”).
This employee reminds me of Jacob. He broke every rule in the book to make life better for people who were in need, in hopes that they would return the favor. For utterly selfish reasons he wound up creating a community of mutual care. Maybe Jesus is saying that God values a result like that more than the means used to produce it.
That’s just a guess. But sometimes the stories that keep us guessing are the ones most worth telling.