This is NOT a confusing Parable
Being an “interim” pastor has altered much about the way I see myself and how I approach well as work. I found myself out of step this week with my fellow pastors. They were writing and commenting on this Gospel text’s puzzling subject matter. I found myself brushing aside the series of events and looking more at the conclusion.
The parable Jesus tells does make a few twists and turns with the potential to confound our thinking on topics of great importance to the children of our age. But the place Jesus goes is crystal clear for children of every age.
This will be easier to illustrate if your copy of the bible has those headings over the sections. My study bible does not; my digital bible does. If you have such headings, maybe you could share the “helpful title” attributed to Luke 16:1-13. My digital bible has “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.”
I looked back at my old sermons for this Sunday in the Luke cycle of readings, and in every one I did my best to try to explain how and why Jesus would applaud the dishonest acts of a manager previously accused of squandering his master’s property.
My friend, former campus pastor, now Bishop of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod posted “even a dishonest manager can sometimes do the right thing.” His very appropriate words of encouragement for each and every one of us. He wrote to encourage us to look past our shortcomings and merely do what it is that God has put in our hearts and hands the capacity to do.
But, Bishop Girlinghouse was still approaching this passage through the lens of how we come to grips with Jesus seeming to honor an accountant who tells debtors to rewrite the numbers on their accounts.
While I have every intention of dismissing the details of this exchange, let me dive a bit deeper into what is happening here. Many if not most biblical scholars say that the manager is doing precisely what we fear he is doing. He is reducing the amount the debtor will be required to repay the master. Some, however, wonder if the manager is merely sacrificing his commission. That the amount agreed to is what the master is expecting, which would explain why the master praises the manager’s actions.
There is a further possibility that the manager was being fair. Interest, compound interest – these are challenging enough for those of us who can read and do a bit of calculus. For illiterate dirt-farmers, living in a time before the introduction of the mathematical concept of zero – this was too much. When they went looking for a loan, all that concerned them were the containers of wheat which would prevent their family from starving. Any talk of debt and repaying and interest was merely jibber-jabber between my asking and being told whether the loan would be extended.
The wealthy still use such techniques to take advantage of the desperate. I am referring to the plethora of rent-to-own appliance stores and pay-day lenders.
We need to realize our limited ability to understand exactly what a manager was allowed to do in the days of Jesus before we can draw absolute conclusions about the actions of this manager.
There is a technical, theological concept which helps us be aware of our tendency to misread what we think are facts. It is called “The Plain Sense of Scripture.” Even when we hear references to this concept, we tend to think it tells us – “That’s what it plainly says!” And “Anyone can read it for themselves.” But what it actually refers to is an attempt to understand the sense the parable would have meant to the original hearers. And they are likely to have heard it differently than us. Our society is oriented toward the wealthy; Jesus’ community was not. If we do have a list of unforgivable sins, messing with my money is one of them. So much so, that when we repeat The Lord’s Prayer, we fail to remember that the petition regarding “debtors” looks with disdain upon anyone with capacity to be able to offer a loan, wondering why the exchange is not simply an act of sharing.
This Parable of the Dishonest Manager, trips thoughts and emotions in us which differ from the thoughts and emotions of those living in the first century of the common era.
Now that I have talked about the subject matter of a parable in which I told you the subject matter was unimportant, let me get to a conclusion.
All of this is told by Jesus as a way of illustrating how crafty and skilled we are in the affairs and dealings of the society and culture in which we live. Look at the second half of verse 8. Jesus says: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” “The children of this age,” the children of any age, learn fast and well how to deal and how to manage so as to preserve their place and status. “Why,” Jesus is asking, “are children of the light slow to understand how they are to deal with the culture and world around them?”
I want to go back to the aforementioned blog post from Bishop Girlinghouse. He makes a strong point. He asks his readers (presumably children of light) how we approach our debit and credit sheets. Do we expect accuracy to the fifth decimal point? Or do we consider how an hour of our time could change the life and lives of a debtor being held captive by their debt?
“No slave”, (Remember that in Jesus’ time everyone was a slave to someone. The masters who owned slaves were themselves slaves and servants of the empire.) “No slave can serve two masters.” Jesus says. And it is true. Who is your master? And while we recoil at any mention of slavery, one advantage of such imagery is to remind us that a slave’s body and actions and words were as much of their servanthood as is the attitude of their hearts. To love a master means we think of them in a particular way; it also means we act in a particular way.
“No slave can serve two masters.”
Let me close where I began – speaking of how being an interim pastor is affecting me. Having so recently come among you, I really don’t know the motivation of those gathered here today. Are we here because we have always come here – this is just what we do? Are we here to see how this vacancy goes and sticking it out until we see if we like the permanent pastor? Maybe it is a love and devotion to Pastor Miles.
As an interim, there is so much I don’t know and will never know. What I do know is that these months are the perfect time to ask significant and deep questions with regard to what Jesus calls true riches. Now is the perfect time to ask what sort of home you want to live in. Are you looking toward the homes of those whom you can assist with your worldly actions? Or the eternal home to which Jesus refers?
The manager in our parable was very good at making sure he would be welcomed into the homes of his fellow children of his age. He was very good at it. And most persons are very, very good at it. Children of the light could learn a few things from them – but only a few things. Children of the light could learn to be equally focused on our goal and we could make sure every thought, word, and deed moves us closer.
Children of the light can never learn from the children of this age how to seek and serve and reside in those eternal homes. We can only learn this from Jesus.