The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20), Year C.
Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, `What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?’ He replied, `A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, `Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 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.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.”Luke 16:1-13
After careful study, hours of research, and perhaps just a bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth, I’ve come to the profound conclusion that this parable is a bit of a pickle. Upon researching the parable, I found no less than 16 different scholarly interpretations that I will of course be presenting to all of you in excruciating detail and testing you on when you approach the altar rail.
There are many parts of this parable that cause us to scratch our heads. Why are we supposed to admire the dishonest manager? Why would the master be happy with only receiving half of his expected payments? And why would Jesus tell us to “make friends by means of dishonest wealth?” You almost feel dirty after hearing it. Even Luke wasn’t sure what to do with it and was clearly uncomfortable enough with it to follow up the parable with a far more idealistic, albeit contradictory, lesson about man not being able to serve wealth and God.
Now there are many ways preachers have tried to wriggle out of the problems of the parable. Early Christian sermons on this passage treat the story allegorically, the rich master is God and the dishonest manager is Jesus. The debts are our Sin and allegiance to the devil. Jesus cancels the debt of Sin owed to God and steals us away from the devil’s clutches to the delight of God who loves us.
While things are wrapped up nice and tidy, there is still something wrong.
It feels wrong to think of God as a trickster, cheat, or deceiver. If God is willing to lie and steal, even from the devil, how can we trust that He is being honest with all the rest of us? The allegory doesn’t quite fit within the logic of the explanation of the parable anyway. In the explanation, Jesus observes how cynical and worldly people are shrewder than the “children of light” and calls on his followers to be shrewd like them. Jesus doesn’t say that the parable is meant to illustrate God or heaven as he often does in other parables.
Another common “solution” to this problematic parable is to say that the story is less concerned with spiritual warfare and more interested in business ethics and wealth distribution. The explanation is that the dishonest manager is cancelling his own commission on the loans. Thus, the master is a fool who believes that the dishonest manager has simply reclaimed the payments in full while the dishonest manager has some new friends and gets away with his crime. They conclude that the parable is railing against interest rates, corporate greed, and deception. Another tidy solution that leads us into unacceptable conclusions.
Strictly historically speaking, charging interest on loans was forbidden in Torah, unless it was to foreigners. Compounding on that is the amount of debt that is cancelled. These are massive sums that Jesus is describing. That 50 jugs of oil that the dishonest manager cancels would represent a 50% commission or interest rate, and a sum that would be the equivalent of three years of wages for a day laborer. It is a sum far too large to represent a commission or interest rate. Secondly, the context of a master and manager, a manager would not receive commission on loans, he was beholden to his master’s household, paid and sponsored by the master. Trying to make his own profit off the master’s loans would be a crime worthy of death, not simple dismissal.
This story is uncomfortable to us partially because in our interpretation, we seek the most clean and elegant solution that reconciles what we already know about God with what Jesus is telling us about God. Yet because all the characters are unscrupulous, we are left perplexed, wondering, “where is the Good News?”
We are used to the Good News being rather simple, God loves you, forgive those who wrong you, God ensures no suffering is meaningless; but in the case of the dishonest manager, the good news lies in its very complexity. In order to understand this parable, we must first give up the simplest way to interpret a parable: allegory. We love to interpret Jesus’ parables with allegory. Now for the 97% of us who are not English professors or literary theorists, allegory is a figure of speech designed to teach complex ideas through intuition and emotion, that uses story, images, or symbols as stand-ins for the idea that it represents. The common interpretation that God is the master, Jesus the dishonest steward, and us as the debtors is the allegorical interpretation of the parable. Because all the characters are shady in this story, allegory leads us into strange and disturbing places.
A better way to understand this parable is to interpret it as an analogy. Analogy is making a comparison between two things that are otherwise dissimilar and comparing them based on similarity. For example, comparing a knight’s sword to a writer’s pen is an analogy, as they are both weapons wielded by their owners. If we read this parable as an analogy, where does that leave us? We do not have to worry so much about the moral ambiguity of our characters, since they are not direct representations of God and Jesus. In this story Jesus is telling us His followers to be shrewd. He is pointing us to a more nuanced reading of Scripture and understanding God’s will.
You see we often crave simplicity from God. God is perfect, morally upright, and expects us to be idealistic and upright as well. But to see God and read Scripture that way misses the complexity of the world, and leaves us, the children of light, vulnerable to despair and cynicism. What is often overlooked in the study of Scripture is that there are two threads that run through the Old and New Testaments. The first is God’s moral perfection, idealism, and high expectations. How God intended the world to be. The second thread is God working with humanity because we so expertly screw things up. God recognizing the world how it currently is.
The alternative Old Testament reading for this Sunday comes from the prophet Amos, and gives us one of the most often quoted, and scathing lines in the whole Bible, “You who buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals”. It is a stinging criticism of an economic system existing primarily by exploiting the most vulnerable and needy people, a problem as old as Amos’ prophecy and as modern as today. This is the sort of idealism and perfection we expect from God’s prophet, and it makes you want to tear the whole system down. But how many of us here, if we were to take off our shoe, were to look at the tag on the tongue for it to read “made in China”. We know that shoe comes from exploiting our neighbors, paying them pennies to work long hours in dangerous conditions so we can have cheap clothing, only for us to throw them into a landfill when worn out. We bought the poor for our sandals. But what about when instead of throwing out those clothes we donate them to our needy neighbors? Is that gift of charity displeasing to God because the clothing came from sinful origins? Sin is so built into our way of life; is every good thing we do rendered worthless because of it? If we were to only listen to Amos, yes, we would be wholly incapable of doing any good, as we all profit from sin. But the parable of the dishonest manager shows us that God is not so rigid.
This is why Jesus tells us a story about being shrewd and warns us why the children of this age are far shrewder than the children of light. To be a child of this age is to be worldly, to see the sin that we are trapped in, and to be cynical. Our collective disillusionment and disappointment have led many to lose hope. To be shrewd is to recognize that we are still deeply trapped in sin of our collective making.
However, my children of light, Jesus calls us to look forward, toward God’s coming kingdom; where creation will be restored to the goodness and perfection that God had intended before our sin. We have been given hope, and through God’s incarnation and defeat of death we have been given freedom. Even though we still are in a world full of sin, we know that through grace God has redeemed us. That every act of kindness, of love, of goodness, even though it is not perfect and does not come from a perfect place, it is never wasted. All goodness, no matter how feeble the attempt, is building God’s kingdom on earth. Be shrewd, recognize that we are all tainted by sin, that we are all dishonest. Also be shrewd as a child of light; recognize that we are wealthy in love through God’s redemption. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when this age is gone, we may all live together in eternal homes.