I honestly like my house. This may be the first home that Steven and I have lived in that I really liked. It’s not the nicest house in the world, maybe not even the nicest on my block, but I like it. We put down new floors this summer and I really enjoy the laminate flooring we have.
I feel settled, secure, safe, perhaps for the first time in my adult life. We live in a nice neighborhood with kids about the same age as our kids running around. It’s a quiet neighborhood, except when my neighbor has his band over practicing like he did last night. I have wifi, cable TV, the roof doesn’t leak and the air conditioner runs well enough. I like the security of my situation. I don’t have everything anyone could want by any means. In fact, there are dozens of things I can think of right off of the bat that I’d like, starting with a car big enough for my family, but even with that I know that I am blessed and more than that, fairly content.
And that my friends, might be why I really don’t like our parable for this morning. It is unsettling. It is disturbing. It is confusing. I don’t like it, and I am not alone.
The most common thing I read when studying this text, the thing almost all commentators agreed upon was this: This is perhaps the hardest passage in the Gospel of Luke, perhaps even in all of the Gospels.
The parable of the dishonest manager is troubling at best and worrisome at the very least. Why would Jesus tell this story? Why must it be so unsavory? Why must it be so confusing? Why tell a story about money to begin with? After all money is a touchy subject and when a church or preacher bring it up it makes people uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that many, including me, try to avoid the topic at all costs!
And why tell this story about money, Jesus? Why tell us a story where the ending is so unsatisfactory? Why tell a story where the bad guy wins?
There is a strong taboo in our society against speaking of or preaching about, money. But in Luke, and throughout scripture, God makes it very clear that money matters. Why talk about it so much if it doesn’t? I think one of the main reasons it gets brought up is that people in Jesus’ day, just like today, struggled with money. How much is enough? How much do I need? How much do I share? And while this parable doesn’t give clear answers it does “present us with characters who also struggle with money, characters with mixed motives and yet who change overtime in relationship to their circumstances. Characters, perhaps, not unlike ourselves.”[i]
That is the beauty of parables. They are stories connecting the ordinariness of our life with the extraordinary nature of God. They give us a glimpse into the present not yet kingdom of God. And while today’s is certainly difficult, its goal is to illuminate a part of the kingdom that is hard for us to see.
What happens in this parable is hard for us to understand. I think with our 21st century understandings of the world, everything about this passage is wrong. The steward or manager is told he is fired and so he goes and cheats his boss out of a large percentage of profit and then he is commended by that same boss for his shrewdness. To do this he goes and negotiates with these debtors with no real authority to do so. This goes beyond bad business practice; this kind of stuff will land you in jail. From the capitalist perspective he is guilty of all charges.
But perhaps some of what we see here is in our world view, most specifically our economic world view. We forget that biblical times were not the same as today. We forget that charging interest for loans was forbidden in Jesus’ day because it exploited the most vulnerable. Exodus 22:25-27, Leviticus 25:36-38 and Deuteronomy 23:19-20 all say do not charge interest.
Theologian Barbara Rossing says “We pray in the Lord’s prayer ‘Forgive us our debts’ but when we encounter a debt collector who actually reduces poor people’s debts by 20% to 50%- namely, reducing their debts to what was probably the original amount borrowed, without hidden interest charges- our first instinct is to judge him.”[ii]
Here we have a man reducing debt and he seems like a bad guy. Why is that? Well partially because he is seen as cheating his master out of potential gains. So we get put off by these actions. But the master, he commends the man for these actions. Not only that, but Jesus tells the crowd to make friends with dishonest wealth so that you will have a place in the eternal homes. Clear as mud right?
But maybe we are looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps the economics of the situation are clouding our vision. Let’s try something else. Perhaps if we look at this parable through another modern day parable.
Biblical Scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer tells this story:
When she was in her junior year of high school she played a trick on a teacher based on this very scripture. This was a VERY unpopular teacher. Students thought she was humorless and inflexible as well as very, very odd. A lot of teachers occasionally let the class order and chip in, one by one, for pizza to munch on during class, but not this one. A few friends and Sarah decided to see what this teacher was really made of.
They collected money from peers, sworn to secrecy, to buy pizzas for the whole class.
Sarah ordered the pizzas in the teacher’s name, but had the cash on hand to pay for it.
The pizzas arrived, with the deliverer proclaiming that "Mrs. ____" (the teacher) had ordered them. The teacher looked flummoxed and panicked.
But within a second, Sarah sprang to her feet and said, "Mrs. _____, it's SO generous of you to buy pizza for the whole class. But I can't do that. Some friends already pooled some money for lunch, and we'll spring for it."
Her teacher had a choice to make in that moment. The whole class was applauding her for ordering pizza for all -- which she hadn't done. She looked at Sarah with a raised eyebrow, accepted delivery, and then paid for the pizza.
She could have let the class eat pizza but let the class pay for it, but Sarah thinks the teacher is a good person, and she decided that since everything was disrupted anyway, she might as well accept the acclaim of the class for her generosity, even if it wasn't her idea.
She had an in-between choice not available to the landlord of the "Unjust Steward" parable: she could have accepted the applause of relaxing class discipline, but refused the cost of the pizza.
But things were already upset. She did what I probably would have done in her shoes, and took the applause and affection of the crowd. She was a little different from then on; Sarah thought she saw a glint of mischief in her eye after that, and Sarah likes to think it was a glint that was always there, but was before suppressed. I suspect she wasn't so married to the order of a traditional "orderly classroom" as they all thought, and she welcomed the freedom to do things differently.
Maybe the landlord in the parable felt the same. Maybe he felt freed to function in ways that would make him a "Bad Landlord," but a better human being.
The Steward in this story doesn’t tell the farmers that he has been fired, that he has no real authority to make these changes, any more than he tells them that the landowner didn’t authorize this generosity.
“The result is that the farmers believe that the landowner is more generous than just about anyone else in his position would be. The landowner is now a hero in the farmer’s eyes- and the steward is also, by extension.
Dishonest this manager may indeed be, but he understood how to use what was entrusted to him for a greater good. We should take note of that Jesus says. How much more must the children of God do with the riches entrusted to our care?
What, precisely, is it that the steward does, albeit without authorization and with deception?
The steward forgives debts.
“The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that's the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a position from which it seem he couldn't be reconciled, to the landowner any more than to the farmers.”[iii]
Forgive. Forgive everything. Forgive it for whatever good or bad reason you may have, or for no reason at all. Forgive for every reason in the world.
Forgive because you were forgiven. In the realm of God, debts are forgiven and slaves are set free.
This is so radical to us because somewhere along the way being in debt became normal to us. Owing someone something, whether it be money, favor, power or pride, became an everyday occurrence. Somewhere along the way we lost the freedom in God’s vision for God’s people. We stopped hearing the joy of God’s voice telling us that we are all beloved children of God, just as we are. Somewhere along the way we buried our treasures and are not sure where to find them.
What is important is not how much we have, how much we accumulate, how much we are owed. What matters is how we use what resources we have in light of our relationship to God and to those God loves. We, my friends, you and me, we have been entrusted with the resources of God’s kingdom. Will we act on behalf of God’s kingdom with the same sense of urgency and creativity as if our own personal well-being depended upon it?
You cannot serve two masters. It’s there in black and white, or red and white if you have a red letter bible. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can have two separate lives, one Sunday mornings and another the rest of the week. We cannot bounce back and forth between serving two masters when it is convenient.
“When faced with the pronouncement that we cannot serve God and Mammon we might do well to remember that whereas the Lord’s attention, care, and providence are constant; Mammon proves to be a pretty fickle and ultimately untrustworthy master.”[iv]
In the end my friends, this parable is like so many of Jesus’ parables. It expands our knowledge of the kingdom by pushing us to look outside of what is comfortable and into what, through Christ alone, is possible.