The Rev. Carolyn W. Metzler+
Amos 8:4-7; Luke 16:1-13
You have heard the Gospel appointed for today, and now you know why all the clergy except Judith chose this Sunday to leave town! This is a story which has flummoxed readers and preachers for centuries. It flies in the face of everything we hear Jesus saying about how to be a Christian. Or—does it?
It helps to remember what a parable is. It is a piece of mischievous story-telling. It's like a zen koan. It takes what we think we know and turns it upside down. It confuses us before it enlightens us. Here Jesus is messing with our heads again. Remember also that parables as told by Jesus are always about the Kingdom of God. This is not a story about how not to do business, not about morality. It's about what the community of God looks like. Also, parables are stories where we can usually recognize ourselves, usually in every character at different times. The parables in Luke's gospel present multi-dimensional, complex people. We are them. They are us.
So—having been discovered in his shady business practices, this manager, or steward, is about to be sacked. A steward is someone who is employed to look after another's property, or assets. This man had not done well by his employer and he gets the dreaded pink slip. His security and livelihood is about to vanish. Notice what he does not do. He does not defend himself, argue that the rich man was being unfair, beg for another chance. He accepts the new economic reality and pulls an idea rabbit out of his hat.
Calling in his master's debtors, he takes the original debt—I looked it up and did the math—580 gallons of oil and 1400 bushels of wheat—and reduces them by 50% and 20%. The size of the debts is a clue to me that Jesus is telling this story with a twinkle in his eye. Really? 580 gallons of oil? How on earth did anybody get to owe that much? Jesus—if you haven't noticed—is a very funny guy. I can see the disciples rolling their eyes at each other as they realize the outrageousness of the story.
What happens as a result? The debtors are grateful to the master for his generosity, and certainly turn themselves inside out to be nice to him in the future. And, as a vehicle of the master's generosity, they are also grateful to the shrewd manager, and will—as he anticipates—do what they can to stay on his good side. Everybody's happy! The Master bellows with laughter when he realizes what this slick manager has done, and slaps him on the back. Like most parables, we don't know how this one ends either. Is he rehired? We are the ones left scratching our heads, wondering what just happened.
So let's scratch a little more deeply. If this parable is actually about the Kingdom, what is Jesus saying through it?
First, let's remember that there is dishonesty and maybe more than some shady things going on in the acquisition of this wealth. Isn't there always? Is there any money out there not tainted? In George Bernard Shaw's play “Major Barbara,” Major Barbara Undershaft becomes angry and disillusioned when her beloved church, The Salvation Army, accepts money that comes from armaments and whiskey dealing. She rages that the receiving of such dirty money is utter hypocrisy. How could they even consider doing so? By the end of the play she accepts that more to the point is what happens with the money from here on, not where it came from. Shaw places these words in the mouth of an officer: “They would take money from the devil himself and be only too glad to get it out of his hands and into God's." Our world has become so globally interconnected, that there is no such thing as untainted money anymore. Maybe there never was.
Whatever we purchase is somehow tied up with things which as Christians we abhor: slave labor, human trafficking, prostitution, big business, products and practices which are raping our planet. All wealth is ill-gotten at some level, even that which is earned by hard, honest work. There is no escaping it, and it's so hard to know the real picture which is surely bigger than we have any idea. When I make my confession I always include what I call those “sins of default:” participation in those global enterprises which “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” (from our baptismal vows). I can do little about it, but I do believe it has to be named before the Throne of Mercy. The prophet Amos rips into these injustices with outraged eloquence: “Hear this you who trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land...buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat [how's that for describing third world labor practices?] Surely I will not forget any of their deeds!” Let Wal*Mart beware.
The Gospel is very clear about the real problem with money. It divides people into creditors and debtors, haves and have-nots, owners and owned. Success is measured by how much of it you have. So the story begins with people in these polarized places: the rich man, the steward who manages the rich man's assets, the debtors who owe the shirts off their backs.
But look what happens when the shrewd manager starts playing with the figures: first, he ceases to be the debt-collector with the power of the thumb-screws. He realizes he might need the hospitality or those same debtors one day, and soon! So he comes down from his lofty position and meets them halfway. And they, who aren't in such back hock anymore, are raised up. Sound familiar? “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.” The shrewd manager is humbled. We might even call this story “The Taming of the Shrewd.” (Not an original joke! I found it at desparatepreacher.com) There is always a switch in status whenever God shows up! To be part of the Kingdom agenda requires real change, a letting go of personal power, a humbling, a meeting of hearts as equals before the Holy One.
What a remarkable paradigm for leadership! We in the church still don't get it. When we seek ordained leaders we generally ask about their gifts and want stories of their successes. Why don't we ask about how God has used them in failure, a character flaw? Why don't we ask about how their weakness has been transformative in ministry? How they have been emptied of egotism so they could be filled with mercy and love? Why don't we ask about the things we say we most value?
Maybe this parable is really about forgiveness and how it builds community. Jesus told this parable not to hoards of people on a mountainside, but to his clueless little band of disciples.
“Pay attention!” he says. “This is how we walk together even when we screw up. We forgive. We use our resources carefully, not for exploitation but for the common good. You are not a franchise! You are a body. You are not a business! You are a family. You won't ever get it all right. But it's OK. Forgive each other. In doing so, you build relationships which will carry the Kingdom forward into a broken and hurting world.”
This is one in a series of stories Jesus tells to show us how to use wealth and resources. Jesus talks a lot about money, and hardly at all about sex. The church talks ad infinitum about sex and very little about money. We are to be stewards of money, and also of our lives. We are accountable for how we use what has been given to us to better the community of the world. I read last night that Congress has just cut $4B in food stamps to the neediest among us. What do you think Amos would say about that? What will you say about that to your congressperson? How does decision that affect the community of the world?
I would end with the Collect for today. This prayer was composed during one of the Barbarian invasions of Europe, when the whole world seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket. It is an invitation to a kind of grounded peace in the midst of all the upheavals of our world. It is not passivistic. It does not tell us not to do anything. It reminds us not to be anxious, to discern what is true and lasting.
Please read it with me. “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
I am indebted to the following authors:
The Rev. G. David Deppen, “Accounting for Life”
The Rev. Tom Brackett, “Jesus the Rogue Rabbi”
Greg Carey, “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13”
Lois Malcolm, “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13”