The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20
September 18th, 2016
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Today’s gospel parable has always been one of the most challenging ones for me as both a parishioner and priest.
We so readily cast Jesus in the role of the hero of his parables…Jesus as sower of the good seed…Jesus as the Good Shepherd…Jesus as the Father of the prodigal son, running with outstretched arms to embrace and welcome his lost children home.
But the parable of the dishonest manager doesn’t so neatly fall into this pattern.
For years, I questioned if Jesus could really be seen as a rich landowner who demanded accounting of his managers…namely all of us who struggle to follow the gospel and take care of the temporal aspects of God’s kingdom that we have inherited.
I bristled at the idea that this rich landowner Jesus would be so quick to dismiss us…and also balked at the part of the parable when the rich man commends the dishonest manager for his actions.
Could this parable really be trying to say that Jesus’s approval is as whimsical as the rich man’s seems to be…ready to dismiss us on hearsay in one moment, and strangely supportive of us the next when we actually prove that we are willing and able to squander his property?
It presents a dilemma for sure.
But this week, I encountered a commentary on this parable that changed my understanding of its potential meaning.
To enter into that new understanding, it’s important to consider the context in which Jesus tells this parable, and to explore a theme arising within the entirety of the Gospel of Luke.
Remember that Luke’s Gospel begins with the detailed narrative of Jesus’ birth and the promise of that birth.
Luke and the Gospel of Matthew contain the texts we read each Christmas, so we may have greater familiarity with them as a result.
However, Luke has some special elements that Matthew does not, and one of these is The Magnificat, a poetic utterance from Mary about the purpose behind her miracle child’s birth.
Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord” and goes on to say why.
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
The mere presence of Jesus in Mary’s womb inspired her to hope for a renewed sense of economic justice…an economic justice that formed the backbone of the law and prophets, but had been gradually lost over the years.
Later in Luke, after Jesus is baptized and tempted in the wilderness, he appears in the synagogue in Nazareth, ready to begin his public ministry.
What does he do?
He reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jubilee, debt-forgiveness, radical mercy and liberation.
Jesus’ ministry is clearly about these things, and the disciples he calls to join him in proclaiming and enacting those promises are signing up for a life oriented along alternative economic arrangements.
The problem is that there are all sorts of people who benefit from the status quo, and they quickly become threatened by such talk…moving from suspicion to public challenge to plotting to be rid of this economic rabble rouser named Jesus forever.
The main charge the Pharisees and the Sadducees levy at Jesus is that he is a blasphemer…that he ignores the tradition passed down and is misrepresenting God and God’s purposes.
In short, they claim Jesus is squandering their master’s property.
He has been a bad steward of the tradition they have received.
He heals on the Sabbath, eats with known sinners and tax collectors, and is preaching a gospel that undermines their economic foundations.
In their mind, I can see why they would complain to the God they were so keen to please and praise…one who would more readily be characterized as a rich man with extensive wealth and property than the Father God being espoused by Jesus.
Jesus’ claim at the end of the parable today, “You cannot serve both God and wealth” takes direct aim at the system through which they have flourished, and which, he claims over and over again, has left them further from the true purpose of the covenant, the law, and God’s actual kingdom.
It was common practice in Jesus’ day for lenders to charge exorbitant interest when making loans to those most desperate for money…loans which had little chance of being paid back and would send the debtors into a vicious downward spiral of interest repayment that could ensnare and enslave them to the lender for life.
Some contemporary analogues for us might be pay-day loans, ballooning adjustable rate mortgages, or predatory student loans, on an individual level, and the increasing debt of developing countries on the global-political level.
Such lending is about preying on the weak, and the inability to repay such loans is an expectation, rather than a possibility.
Jesus knows that the law is clear on this subject, at least as it relates to Jews lending to other Jews.
“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. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.” Exodus 22:25-27
Does that cloak reference remind you of another famous part of the Gospel?
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your cloak do not withhold even your shirt.” Luke 6:29
By now I hope you are starting to see an aspect of this parable that I had previously missed for years.
Jesus is the dishonest manager.
He has been accused by the powerful and religious authorities of squandering God’s tradition and property, and they expect the master to dismiss him.
But Jesus’ response is to reduce the debts the poor owe…cutting out the exorbitant interest and returning to the original principle.
He eliminates the part of the loan that leads to debt slavery, while still asking people to be accountable for that which they actually borrowed.
It is an extremely radical practice, and one that threatens those whose livelihood and position of power depend upon such dubious practices.
In the parable, the dishonest manager loses his cut of the money, but gains friends in the process, and surprisingly, the master praises him for it rather than punishing him further.
The “dishonest wealth” by which he has made friends is about acting in a way that reminds God’s people of the core of the covenant, instead of dwelling on the fringe prescriptions of the law.
Jesus’ primary mission is to call people back into relationship with God and each other, not to put more stumbling blocks in their way.
Notable characters hear his call and respond in the Gospel of Luke…one of the most famous being the wealthy tax collector Zaccheus, who after encountering Jesus in Jericho restores what he has defrauded from God’s people four fold.
But what about us?
How might we hear this parable anew today and respond?
It is clear that God’s kingdom, the one Jesus is proclaiming, has an economic component that directly affects our spiritual future.
If we are to be his disciples, we too must figure out ways to be forgivers of debts, both financial and spiritual, and privilege right relationship in community over broken and ultimately unhelpful financial practices.
Spend some time this week reflecting on how you might do that.
Because somewhere in between our understanding of these radical gospel ethics and their application in our world, awaits the Savior we proclaim, calling us forward into newness of life.