September 18-19, 2010
Here’s what others have to say about this parable:
“Here’s an interesting story that has perplexed preachers for generations.”
“You might want to preach Amos […] or 1 Timothy this week. This is a tough one.”
“I find our text to be one of the most confusing texts in Scripture.”
“What an impossible reading to reflect on!”
“Every time I come to the parable of the dishonest manager, I’m baffled.”
And then there’s Episcopal priest Sarah Dylan. Sarah writes, “I’m tremendously excited, and don’t tell me you’re not excited too. It’s a very special day […] this Sunday — like a holiday that only that only comes once in every three years!”[i]
You see, Sarah happened to write her master’s thesis on this text. She spent two years studying these 13 verses. Thank God for people like Sarah who help us work through texts such as these! At the end, I hope you’ll think today’s a bit of a holiday too – and look forward to when we hear this story again – in 2013.
It’s a tall order…because, let’s face it – this story doesn’t sound right.
Why in the world would Jesus praise a crooked manager!
It’s like Jesus saying,
“Way to go Bernie Madoff! What a clever guy he is!”
“Three cheers for bank executives who give each other bonuses before the bank gets bailed out! They know how to get by in today’s world!”
Is that what Jesus is saying?
Jesus talks a lot about money in the Bible – but it’s usually about using money to care for the poor. This is the only passage where he seems to say to take care of yourself first with money. And what’s even more offensive, is that he seems to say that it’s okay to take care of yourself first even if you have to be deceitful to do it!
So what’s the deal? Maybe I should go with Amos or 1 Timothy…
First let’s look back at the story….
Instead of starting us off with the main characters in the story – the landowner and the manager,
I’m going to start with the unnamed tenant farmers.
These are the people who owe money to the landowner.
Perhaps years ago the very land they now rent was owned in their family, but they got in debt and sold it to the landowner. The landowner charges outrageous rent to them – and like today’s credit card debt – they can’t harvest enough to pay off the balance but only the interest and so they get deeper and deeper into debt.
Somehow the manager has gotten some education to find his way into middle management. He takes care of the books, and doesn’t have to do any of the hard labor himself.
But the manager gets into trouble over rumors that he’s wasting the landowner’s money. Enraged, the landowner does a Donald Trump, points to him, and says “You’re fired.”
This leaves the manager in a bind. Out of work, with no source of income, he sees only two ways out: he’s either going to have to pick up a shovel and work himself (uggh!) or he’ll have to beg (eww!). Neither of these options appeal to him.
So the manager begins to scheme. He knows that he’s been fired – but the tenants don’t yet! He’s still the voice of the landowner to them. So he calls them in, one by one. And one by one he takes away their debt – and they think it’s official.
You owe 100 jugs of olive oil? The landowner wants you to make it fifty.
100 containers of wheat? Sign here – it’s now only 80.
In today’s economy, who couldn’t relate?
Your car payment getting you down?
Consider it taken care of.
Mortgage payments a little tough?
Cut them down by half – and by the way, there won’t be any penalty.
Wow! It’s like Christmas!
It is a holiday!
Can you imagine what will happen the next time the farmers see the landowner?
They pass him on the street and give him a thumbs up and a high five!
They tell each other, “Have you heard what a generous man the landowner is?”
They get in line to tell him, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!
And then what is the landowner to do?
He is getting so many accolades, how could he possibly tell the crowd it’s not really true?
How could he tell them it was a mistake and take it back?
Instead he smiles and nods, and receives their love and devotion.
Meanwhile, the manager gets to ride on his coattails.
He is the bearer of miraculous news.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” when bad news comes. The bearer of bad news often receives the blame even though he or she doesn’t really deserve it.
The manager realizes that the opposite is true too. The bearer of good news receives the praise even if he or she doesn’t really deserve it.
His scheme works.
He’s made friends for himself – they’ll do anything for him now.
Despite the fact that his reasons are selfish,
the manager has helped the poor.
Despite his motives, he has discovered that his own welfare
has been best served by forgiving debts.
In an ironic twist, it is through justice that he himself has gotten what he wanted.
Freedom has come from forgiveness – not only to the ones who owed the debt, but to the one who forgave it.
The wealthy landowner whose status depends on honor and prestige,
unwittingly has discovered something too.
He has learned that more honor is paid to him
by forgiving debts than by building them up.
Through justice he has gotten what he wanted too.
He no longer has to play the role of tyrant.
Freedom has come to him from forgiveness too.
And thirdly, we hardly need to mention the effect of forgiveness on the farmers.
Freedom came to them in the most concrete of ways
in the forgiveness of their debts.
Ask any of the 44 million – one in 7 of us in the United States who now who live in poverty.
Where does freedom from the bondage of debt come from? In forgiveness.
Jesus goes on to say about the parable in the gospel of Luke,
“You can’t serve God and wealth.”
We all serve something or someone.
Something or someone is our god.
Jesus says, make your ‘little g” god, the capital “g” God.
You can’t serve more than one god.
The characters in the parable served money and that kept them in bondage.
Money kept the tenant farmers in bondage to their labor and master.
Money kept the manager in bondage to his boss. Money kept the landowner in bondage to the necessity of amassing greater and greater wealth in order to keep his authority. There was never enough.
Money was no longer a commodity to serve their purposes – let alone God’s purposes.
Instead, they served money.
Freedom from bondage came only with forgiveness.
Freedom came through dishonest means and with rather dubious intent – but ironically enough through providing justice and serving God.
What can we take from this story?
Forgive. Forgive it all. Forgive for any reason.
Even if it is for selfish reasons – forgive.
Forgive anyone who owes you.
It might be money.
It might be a debt of even greater significance.
But forgive it.
In forgiving you will be serving God.
And in forgiving you will be freed yourself.
So let’s call this a holiday.
Take the day off. Have ham for dinner.
It’s forgiveness day. The jubilee.
As we have been forgiven, may we forgive.