The Rascal, Jesus, and Crashing Heaven’s Gate

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Luke 16:1-13

It is hard to know what to make of the story Jesus tells—a dishonest manager shrewdly casting his employer’s bread upon the waters, illicitly reducing their debts so as to bind them in obligation to himself.

By Phillip Medhurst - Photo by Harry Kossuth, FAL,
The Unjust Steward by Jan Luyken

You can almost imagine the fellow trying to slip past the pearly gates, telling St Peter that he is only visiting friends: go ahead and buzz them, if you don’t believe me. The rascal is honestly praised in the story for his brazen and brilliantly manipulative deception.

It gives the lie to the notion that good people do well in this world. We know that story. We have all heard it, whether we believe it or deny it. Work hard, do the right thing, always be honest, and all will be well with you.

In heaven, maybe. Here, not so much. Here, Balzac’s observation that behind every great fortune is a crime seems closer to the mark.

Neither does Jesus meet our expectations. We always hear about his kindness, his patience, how much Jesus loves us, but in this passage Luke captures another side—the satirical Jesus, ripping into the crowd with his sharp words.

“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.” It’s tweet-worthy. You can imagine it on social media today, a zinger from @JesusHimself perhaps.

The Unjust Steward, by Andrey Mironov
The Unjust Steward, by Andrey Mironov

What if we are wrong, and there is no afterlife? What then? Paul wrote to the rowdy bunch in Corinth that if there is no resurrection, if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:19) Is an afterlife the only way to understand Jesus? Without a second life of greater reward, are we fools to live lives of honest work and simple means? Perhaps, if this heaven is a future place, that might be so. On the other hand, we might well note that such an afterlife is the one in the expectations of the audience, not one that Jesus elaborates upon in this passage. After all, Luke is the gospel where Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is within you.” (17:21) It is the modern church insisting upon future rewards, not Jesus.

The kingdom of God is within you, he said. Present. While we hope for a life beyond death, something new, something more, we are promised something now. One does not preclude the other. There is no either-or, no choice between a future and a present. We need not wait for that second life to embrace the gospel vision of reward. How will you be trusted with the true riches? Who will give you what is your own? Jesus asks interesting questions. And what is eternity if not the present?

God, of course, gives the true riches, and what is our own is within us. All the riches of the world can be taken away, but that which is within you is eternal.