Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Creator and Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
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 NRSV
What a Gospel reading we’ve just heard! The Oxford dictionary defines “parable” as
“a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, as told by Jesus in the Gospels.”
With that definition, I wonder if this story can possibly be a parable? What is going on here?
This is no simple story. It’s about poverty and wealth, hunger and plenty: the struggles we face and our neighbors face as children of this age. The story is about food, lots of food. Fifty of these jugs of oil amounts to something like four hundred gallons, and twenty wheat containers is over two hundred bushels of wheat. That’s the difference between starvation and survival for a pretty good-sized town. To read it as a series of squabbles about abstract money is a mistake, an anachronism. It’s about life and death.
It’s about power and powerlessness, pride and shame, homelessness and shelter: We hear the fear of one person: “What will I do? … I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg, … I know what to do so people may welcome me into their homes.” This is about me and you and people we know, not just about a farm-boss from long ago. We all know people who’ve had to take harder jobs, people who didn’t want to take public assistance, and people who scramble to find a safe place to live. Maybe it’s a parable, but it sounds plenty real to me.
This is no simple story. It features a bunch of rascals: a rich absentee landlord, the landlord’s crooked manager, and several people – sharecropper farmers, maybe — who owe large amounts of food to the landlord. It includes the “property” the manager was accused of squandering. Finally, there’s another actor: “charges were brought” about the manager. Who’s that sneaky behind-the-scenes person, concealed behind the passive voice, who brought these charges? Jesus told a story, yes, but it’s not simple.
Oxford says a parable “illustrates a moral or spiritual lesson”. Is there a tidy lesson in this story? I wonder? Jesus concludes the parable by saying “You cannot serve God and wealth.” OK, that’s a straightforward enough lesson. But how does the story of all these rascals illustrate that lesson?
In this season of reading the Gospel of Luke we’ve heard plenty of parables with straightforward moral lessons. The famous traveling Samaritan, who cared for the mugging victim on the Jericho road, was the best neighbor, and Jesus said “go and do likewise” to his listeners. That’s a tidy moral and spiritual lesson. It may be hard to DO, but it’s easy to UNDERSTAND.
In another parable, the man who figured “I’m all set” and stored up riches for himself in his barns learned the hard way that what really matters is being rich toward God. Another lesson that’s easy to understand and hard to do.
Even Jesus’s story of the return of the prodigal son – no simple story – has unambiguous moral and spiritual lessons in it. “My son was dead and now he is alive! He was lost and now is found!” Repent! Forgive! Rejoice in love!
Compared to those parables, this one is full of moral ambiguity and spiritual complexity. We desire our parables to be epic battles between bad and good. We yearn to have the good guys win. This story frustrates our desire. It carries us beyond tidiness to a more complex world. Or maybe, we already live in that complex world. Maybe this parable serves to open our eyes and our hearts to that world.
Who are the characters: the landlord, the manager, the sharecroppers, the anonymous one who brought the charges. Did I miss anybody? … Yes, the families of the characters, and the sharecroppers’ villages.
These characters all have something in common. They’re bound up in a life-denying system. They’re all afraid of something, aren’t they? It’s not surprising that those people living between Galilee and Jerusalem feared starvation: they all – from the landlord to the sharecropper’s child – lived in its shadow. It’s not surprising they feared violence and power: their land was occupied by the Roman army. It’s not surprising they all scrambled to get any advantage they could. Fear and scrambling were tolerably good choice for them: to stay alive, to keep their families from harm and hunger, they needed to do these things.
That’s something most of us understand. How do you scramble for advantage to keep your family safe? What do you fear? Which character in this story are you? (You might be more than one of these folks.)
Are you one of the sharecroppers? Do you sometimes get discouraged because you owe the fruit of your work to somebody far away? Do you have to remind yourself why you work so hard to produce metaphorical huge baskets of grain and tubs of oil, just to have many of them taken away from you? Is it hard to remember that the work you do is life-giving to somebody? Maybe it is.
Maybe you’re a sharecropper family member. Maybe you wonder why so much hard work is so frustrating, and why you have to struggle amidst so much plenty.
Are you sometimes the manager? Do you find yourself caught between people, and tied up in peoples’ red tape, all the time? Do you constantly feel like some powerful person is calling you on the carpet for doing something wrong that you don’t understand? Do people often say to you, “what do you have to say for yourself?” Has anybody ever said to you, “you can’t work here any more?” and you’ve thought “I’m not strong enough to dig and I don’t want to take unemployment.” I won’t ask for a show of hands, but many of us have had that happen.
Have you ever been the anonymous critical one, the one who complained to the boss about the manager? I know I have. That can be tough love. Sometimes a weaker more compliant kind of love can’t persuade somebody to try to deal with wasteful habits and you run out of options. But tough love can really hurt, and it can backfire.
Are you the landlord? Have you ever been the one who needed to cope with somebody like the manager in this story, and used your power to do it? Have you ever wished you didn’t get tongue-tied and say silly life-denying things like “you’re fired, you crook. Now prove to me you’re honest?” There are lots of ways of saying that, of course. “you get a D on this paper. You can do better.” “I’m breaking up with you, I don’t want to be your sweetheart any more. I know you can be kinder,” and even “this food tastes awful, and what’s more, the portions are too small.” We know we’ve all said this kind of thing. Those are the words that Jesus put in the landlord’s mouth.
Joking aside, we’re children of this age, you and I. We find ourselves, once in a while, walking in the shoes of one or more of the characters in this parable of Jesus. None of those shoes are particularly comfortable, but we’ve gotten used to the way they pinch our feet. We live in a world of expectations, rules, and relationships. If somebody wrongs us, we want them to be punished, and if we do something wrong we expect to be called to account for it. There’s nothing terribly wrong with this way of living.
But what if there were another way? What would need to change? Lots of us have wondered that, haven’t we? After an episode in your life where you’ve been like one of these, haven’t you wondered, “what should I have done? What could change this?”
What if the realm of God could somehow let us take off our badly fitting shoes, and dance with joy? This parable provides a hint, doesn’t it? One of the rascals in our parable figured out how to kick off his shoes. He – the wasteful manager – had his world shaken up, and so broke the rigid rule of accounting, and the rule of distrust.
He did the opposite of making deals with people—he acted outside the system. Something happened to him: his boss fired him. When that happened, he set the sharecroppers free to unmake their deals and feed their villages. He set himself free … instead of demanding their future generosity he just trusted in it. And he set the landlord free too … free to rejoice in generosity.
What about you and me? What moments in our lives set us free from the systems we live in? Hopefully we don’t have to get fired from our jobs, or lose our sweethearts, to see these moments. How can you and I reframe our lives around receiving and giving trust and generosity? We are certainly children of this world, but we’re also children of light. By God’s trust and generosity, you and I may claim our places in God’s light.
Let us pray: May the time to come offer us opportunity after opportunity to see beyond the regulations of our world. May the Holy Spirit fill us and work through us to give us hope beyond our fear and generosity beyond our neediness. In Jesus’s name. Amen