This past April, I had the privilege of officiating the marriage of one of my Cathedral colleagues in Sumter, South Carolina at the bride’s Presbyterian church. My colleague is an Episcopalian, the son of an Episcopal priest. When it came time in the liturgy for The Lord’s Prayer, her pastor spoke up and said that the Presbyterians should feel free to pray their version, while we Episcopalians could pray ours. We all chuckled, and the tower of Babel ensued followed by more laughter. Why? Different translations.
We Episcopalians pray, “Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…” The Presbyterians, among other Protestant denominations, pray the original translation, “Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…” from Matthew Chapter 6. I won’t go into the reasons why there are different translations of the prayer but know that Jesus used the Aramaic word translated as debts and debtors. This is important because the theology matters, especially when one has to make sense of a parable like the one told in today’s Gospel.
This parable certainly provokes and has confounded biblical scholars for millennia. I’d bet my life that no children’s minister has ever explicated this passage in a children’s chapel! I’m thinking that the verse, “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,” would go over like a lead balloon in Sunday School. This passage also has one of the hardest-hitting punch lines. Jesus says that how we relate to money is an important barometer of how we relate to God. Material wealth is one measure of our spiritual health.
Most likely, the original hearers of this parable would not have identified with the rich boss but with the debtors, or maybe even with the manager, who would have been part of the retainer class—by no means a peasant eking out a subsistence on the wealthy landowner’s estate, but still a dependent currying favor with an elite family in order to survive. Knowing that he would be fired, the money manager cooks the books of his boss’s clients so that they will owe him favors when he loses his job. The commendation is directed not toward the manager’s dishonesty per se, but “because he had acted shrewdly” (v. 8).
It’s also possible to read this parable from the age-old perspective in which peasant farmers, sharecroppers or indentured servants are often indebted or exploited by their landowners or some middleman who gets rich by buying their goods at low prices and then selling high. From that perspective, the actions of the so-called “dishonest” or “unjust” steward do not seem dishonest or unjust at all. They seem almost heroic.
Yes, he reduces their debt out of self-interest, but the debt relief is nonetheless real for those who are granted it. It was within the power of the steward to reduce the people’s debts, and he chose to do so. It is important to note that nowhere in this text does Jesus call the steward’s actions “unjust.”[i]
Our head-scratching occurs when the master commends the steward for, essentially, cutting his profits. What accounts for his strange reaction? Perhaps his guilt is assuaged. The percentages by which the debts are reduced suggests that the steward is eliminating the interest on the debts; it brings him into compliance with Jewish law which forbids usury and predatory lending that creates even more debt. From Exodus 22:25: “ If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” For a strange moment, everyone’s best interest is served at once. The poor get relief. The money-manager has a path to survival. And the rich man is liberated from his unjust practices. The universe’s axis tilts toward justice.
William R. Herzog identifies this moment as an example of “communitas,” the dissolving of social stratification when the group enters a liminal space—in this story, ostensibly, the transition to “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Perhaps this is where God is in this parable—in the spaces between the wealthy, the middle management class, and the poor, who for at least a moment join together in collective liberation.[ii]
Now at the risk of sacralizing a government policy preference, I believe a recent and relevant illustration of this parable is President Biden’s plan to forgive $10 to $20,000 in student loan debt for borrowers making less than $125,000 a year. This plan stirred up a hornets’ nest of controversy, even from Christian conservatives who, in this instance, argue one should not use biblical prooftexts to support a policy position. The reason why is because scripture is replete with verses about debt forgiveness. The fact is, as Christians, we owe our very existence to debt forgiveness.
During my time in college and in seminary, I accumulated something like $25,000 in student loans; it took me 15 years to pay them off. Does that mean I begrudge others whose loans are forgiven? No! And it’s not because I am some Mother Teresa of Debt Forgiveness, especially after I had to do the hard work and make sacrifices to pay off mine. Is it unfair? No. I would argue that in general, life is unfair. Is it fair that I was born white to middle class parents already positioned on second base? I believe the feeling of “unfairness” as expressed by detractors runs counter to Christian morality.
Trust me, I understand the argument, “I struggled to pay off my loans and it would be unfair if others didn’t have to struggle like me.” But is this what Jesus taught? I struggled so you have to struggle! I suffer so you must suffer? I sacrificed so you must sacrifice? Where is the grace in that? And the bootstrap argument doesn’t work either when two-thirds of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day and can’t afford leather boots to begin with.
In God’s kingdom social and economic dimensions are spiritual. And this is where the tension lies. Jesus said over and over that he is not of this world and neither are we—our citizenship is in heaven. This gets hard and inconvenient when we prioritize a capitalist ideology over and against a Kingdom theology.
In the Gospels, Jesus shares two other examples of how Kingdom theology is not of this world. In Matthew, chapter 20, he tells a parable called Laborers in a Vineyard which likens the kingdom of God to a landowner who hires a handful of workers throughout the day at different times — some work a full day while others work only an hour. Tensions escalate when the landowner chooses to pay all the workers the same wage.
The other is Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son. The Kingdom of God is like a son who has squandered his inheritance. When he returns home in disgrace, his father runs to him, arms of love open wide as if his son wasn’t a moral and financial reprobate.
There is much grousing about fairness in both of these parables. One of the workers complains to the vineyard owner, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But the landowner rebuffs this complaint and frames matters of economic fairness in terms of a generous justice: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (12-16).
And in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the older brother gets all bent out of shape because he’s been faithful to his father and worked hard the entire time his younger brother had been cavorting with prostitutes and squandering money. But the father makes it clear that he’s relieved that his younger son has returned and that past transgressions are forgiven. What’s more, he says to his older son, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” You see, in God’s economy there is always enough to go round and then some. Even if someone gets to cut in line, or jump to the front of it, that doesn’t mean that the shelves will be empty by the time I get there. Why are we so hung up on the notion that someone else is going to get something they didn’t deserve—and the related notion that someone else’s benefit comes at my expense?
In both stories, and in today’s parable, we get a picture of the type of economy God has in mind: one without scarcity, struggle, or exploitation.
Before I close, it is important to note that our other scripture for this morning, from the prophet Amos and Psalm 113, speak of the poor, the needy and the barren. How we treat money and how we treat the poor are two sides of the same coin. The psalmist describes the high and mighty God who “stoops down” from the heavens to tenderly care for the poor. He longs to “raise the poor from the dust, and lift the needy from the ash heap.” He would reverse their fortunes, and “seat them with princes” (113:5–8).
People can be poor for many, complicated reasons — illness—physical and mental, lack of marketable skills, bad choices, misfortune, economic downturns, lack of educational opportunity, systemic racism and so on. But Amos employs graphic language to describe people who are poor, simply because rich people exploit them:
Hear this, you who trample the needy
and do away with the poor of the land,
Saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath ended that we may market wheat?” —
skimping the measure, boosting the price, and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat” (8:4-7).
This text becomes all the more powerful when we remember how the rich often blame the poor for their poverty. As I stated, poverty has many causes, but sometimes there really is a powerful oppressor and a weak victim. Debt forgiveness stories like these make it clear: What we deserve is not based on how much we work, what we can produce or how far we’ve fallen; instead, our worth is found in the simple but profound truth that we are beloved children of God.
Friends, let us be joyful when God’s generosity gives the less fortunate a break. Our turn will come if it hasn’t already. And let’s commit to forgive debt in a way that benefits the disenfranchised and impoverished more than it does the powerful and wealthy—loving each other as Christ loves us. The moral of these parables is that it doesn’t matter what you have done or not done or even the bad decisions you have made — God forgives our debts because there is no scarcity of grace in the kingdom of heaven.
[i] Enfleshed, Liturgy that Matters, September 18, 2022, Nichola Torbett, Commentaries Author (I am indebted to Ms. Torbett for her explication in this section of the sermon).
[ii] Herzog, William R II. Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994.