What kind of Gospel have we just heard? “And the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” What do you suppose Jesus was thinking when he came up with this crafty story? This is the kind of Gospel text that sends preachers running to the other appointed lessons for the day to see if there is something that might preach better or at least appear to make more sense.
We don’t come to church expecting dishonest or cunning behavior to be held up as a virtuous. We come here to get our values ordered, and even challenged when they need to be. We look to our sacred texts for role models. On almost any given day we can go to the morning newspaper to find a story about some creative financial scheme and its attendant scandal. Recently, we’ve been reading all about politicians scrambling to return campaign contributions to donors whose shady business dealings have been exposed. But this is not the kind of thing we’re looking to hear about when we open the Bible.
Folks who wrestle with the Bible for a living seem to agree this is the most perplexing story Jesus ever told. Some have even argued that this could not possibly have been one of Jesus’ authentic teachings. Let’s recap what we’ve just heard. Jesus tells of a boss who was informed about a dishonest manger by some disgruntled whistle-blowing employees. The boss wants a full accounting, maybe before some outside investigators or the press gets wind of the situation and the whole thing really blows up. The slippery manager knows his days are numbered. So he cooks the books in such a way that it appears everybody wins. And when the master discovers what has gone down, even he has to admit, as one who knows all the tricks of the trade, that he’s impressed with the manager’s brazen actions. Several years ago, Arianna Huffington wrote a sobering and at times hilarious book called Pigs at the Trough about corporate greed and political corruption in America. Today’s gospel sounds like an episode out of her book!
Scholars have tripped over themselves trying to make sense of this parable. John Howard Yoder in his book, The Politics of Jesus, explains that at the time of King Herod, the situation for peasants in Israel was aggravated by the widespread absenteeism of landowners. A hierarchy of intermediate functionaries, like the manager in today’s story, contracted for the collecting of debts. They extorted from the sharecroppers arbitrary sums, which widely exceeded the rent and debt and taxes that were really due. One interpretation is that the steward reduced the demand from the sharecroppers by the big sums by which he had increased their obligations. Or that he simply gave up his commissions on the outstanding loans as a way to reduce the amount the debtor owed. So it was a win-win for everyone and the dishonest manager wasn’t so bad after all. It was creative problem solving, with even a little last-minute honesty, that the master was commending.
Another interpretation is that the cunning of the manager is held up as an example for the disciples, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Since we followers of Jesus cannot should not attempt to remove ourselves from the world, we can learn some useful things from “the children of this age.” This sounds like a first-century version of advice often given to church leaders today. If you want to attract more people, you’ve got to be wise about using market-driven business and advertising practices, they say. Other teachers of the Bible point out that this story is like the Near-Eastern rouge stories that circulated in the popular culture of the time. Clearly there are lots of stories of clever tricksters in the Bible where God seems to bless their shady dealings. Remember when Abraham denied Sarah was his wife? Moses murdered a man, and Jacob duped his brother Esau out of his inheritance, just to name a few.
Now, we already know that Jesus is more than capable of being provocative. Remember the Gospel reading from a couple of weeks ago when we heard him say, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself cannot be my disciple”? Elsewhere Jesus says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. The demands of discipleship are tough. But recently we’ve also been hearing in the Gospel texts a lot about God’s extravagant grace. Last week Jesus was again accused of eating with crafty cunning people, just like the manager in today’s Gospel. In response Jesus told a parable was about a shepherd who would not give up searching even for one lost sheep. It brought to mind the words of the psalmist, “Lord you have searched me out and known me; you trace my journeys and my resting places; you press upon me behind and before.” We know that parable is about Jesus, the Good shepherd. And in thankful response we stood here last week and robustly sang “Amazing Grace.”
The truth of this morning’s parable about the dishonest manager and his wealthy master is right at the intersection of Jesus’ demanding, counter-cultural requirements of faithful discipleship and God’s extravagant grace.
You see, Jesus knows all about our love of money and our worldly ways. It’s not that we, “children of the light” in our innocence and naiveté, need to learn a few tricks from the “children of this age.” Rather it is that we who claim to be children of the light are also very much children of this age. We are so much wiser in the ways of the world than in the ways of Jesus. And we give so much more energy to the ways of this age than to following Jesus. Dorothy Sayers in The Man Born to be King has Jesus explain it this way to his disciples, “Worldly people, you see, use far more wisdom about their trifling affairs than unworldly people do about the affairs of God. They give their minds to what they are doing. Learn from them.”
And Jesus isn’t going to let us fool ourselves that all that we have is simply the result of fair, honest hard work. Jesus sees the inequities in our world—the millions of people without adequate housing, health care, or employment—and he says that what we have is not so much the result of our honest hard work but material gain at the expense of others. He knows all about the unjust systems in which we live, work, and define our identities.
And like the Good Shepherd, Jesus doesn’t write us off no matter how lost we may be. Jesus knows how powerless we are over our addictions to the prevailing values of this age. He knows as his disciples how we are both children of the light and children of this age. So he challenges us to be better stewards of this world even if our gain is because of unjust social and economic systems.
And of course, he challenges us to act as boldly and with as much confidence in God’s providence in claiming the future for God as we do in securing our material future in this age.
Almost every one of the corporate leaders who went down in scandal over the past several years was also known for being a generous philanthropist. Are they off the hook? Is Jesus suggesting good ends justify any means? Not at all. But he does promise that in spite of the pain their greed caused to millions of people, God continues to search them out. When I was development director at one of our Episcopal seminaries, a large gift from tobacco money allowed us to come close to our capital campaign goal for a new chapel. Some students and faculty said the money was tainted and we shouldn’t take it. But we did, rationalizing that it would now be used for a good purpose. I’m not sure what God thought of our decision, but this morning’s parable clearly tells us that God is not impressed by our easy categories of good and bad. And that even at the Eucharistic meal in a chapel built by tainted money, God’s amazing saving grace is extravagantly offered. This is why Jesus has always preferred to dine with tricksters and sinners rather than saints. He finds us much more interesting!
We rationalize our invasion of Iraq because Saddam Hussein was a terrible, terrible dictator. The problem is, years before, when we were supporting him with arms and money, he was a terrible, terrible dictator. At this moment our Episcopal bishops are in New Orleans helping rehab houses and trying to weigh the cost of possible compromises and concessions on issues of human sexuality so that the Anglican Communion will hold together. And yet, just maybe the Episcopal bishop of Jerusalem has it right. As reported in yesterday’s Washington Post, he said to the American Church, “My friends, if you really believe that the truth revealed to you is different from that shown to the rest of the Communion, then you need to uphold that claim with boldness even at the risk of losing unity…you should be true to what you believe is right and accept the consequences.”
Most of us know about trying to do our best in a world that is a thousand shades of gray. And while we don’t come to church just to have confirmed what we already know, we do need to continually be reminded that in spite of our moral compromises and accommodations, in spite of the fact that we are so much wiser in the ways of this age than in the ways of Jesus, the master continually searches us out. God will not abandon us. God’s amazing grace is unconditionally offered.
Of course, the real challenge in this story comes in its most famous line, probably added by Luke and not part of Jesus’ original parable. “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Jesus’ disciples—and that would be us—are to act as urgently and with the same resolve to risk all for the sake of God’s kingdom as the manager did to secure his status in life. But even if we’re not crafty and deceitful like the manager in this parable, most of us spend most of our energy and talent advancing our agenda here rather than working to bring about God’s kingdom. Like the manager who was charged to make the master’s property flourish, we disciples are charged to make the Good News of Jesus Christ flourish in our time and place.
Like the manager in this story, we fall short. And the God of whom Jesus speaks is a God of forgiveness and compassion who continues to search us out.
Today’s parable of the crafty manager is preceded by the story of the Prodigal Son. Jesus uses the same word, squandered, to describe what the prodigal son did with his inheritance only to be saved—welcomed home—by his father’s unconditional love. That is the lesson and the promise in both of these parables: try as we might, we can’t save ourselves, but God will. The demands of faithful discipleship are tough. Jesus challenges us to act boldly and sacrificially because the stakes for the very salvation of this planet and the human family of which each of us is a part are so high. But in the end we can’t save ourselves; God’s amazing extravagant grace will.
Jesus calls us to a discipleship that will move us from our addictions to the world to belonging to God. But Jesus also knows how, in spite of our best efforts, we will fail in that challenge time and again. He doesn’t give up on us. Rather he invites us time and time again to his table to be nourished for what he knows is the toughest, most liberating, grace-filled challenge of our lives.