Praise for the Dishonest Manager

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 25), September 22, 2013

Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I saw that this text was coming up in the preaching schedule, I groaned.  And, this week, at the pastor’s Bible study I go to, we all complained about it.  If you were listening when I read the Gospel, you probably understand why.  Jesus said, “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.”  How the heck do you preach that?  There are many excellent commentaries where great scholars and preachers go through the Bible and discuss it, but even the best of them gets to this parable and falters.  A lot of them try to cop out by finding all sorts of reasons why Jesus didn’t really mean what he said; others invent all kinds of backstory for the characters in the parable to make their actions more palatable.  And while those interpretations are very comforting, in the end we have to go back to the story that the Bible gives us.

Remember that in chapter fifteen, the Pharisees were grumbling about Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors.  So Jesus told them the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, and then the parable of the Prodigal Son, and then he finished up with the parable of the Dishonest Manager that we just read.  And what a parable it is!  It’s no surprise that the Pharisees ridiculed him for it.  If there are scandals and things that don’t make sense in the parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Prodigal Son, there isn’t really anything in the parable of the Dishonest Manager that makes sense.  It doesn’t make sense economically and it doesn’t make sense morally.  A man cheats his master and gets praised for it?  This is not the kind of thing one would expect any self-respecting religious leader to preach about—even one so disreputable as to eat with sinners and tax collectors.  On an economic level, we modern Americans are lovers of money, just like the Pharisees.  Like the Pharisees, we want prudence, hard work, and honest dealing to be rewarded with riches, and we want fraud and embezzlement and wasting money to be punished.  On a moral level, we want that too—we want good people to be rewarded and bad people to be punished.  For a lot of people, that’s the main point of Christianity: to scare people into behave by making sure they know that good people go to Heaven and eternal reward and bad people go to Hell and eternal punishment.

This parable turns that whole system of belief on its head.  Jesus flat-out tells people that cheating and fraud are good!  It’s no wonder the Pharisees ridiculed him!  I think if Jesus showed up today in any church in America and told the same story, we’d react just like the Pharisees did.  Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth?  Learn from the “shrewd” tactics of the children of this age?  Give away other peoples’ wealth in order to buy friendships?  Come on, Jesus!  That’s not what any good, God-fearing person—lover of money or not—wants to hear.

Let’s back up for a bit.  What do you think Jesus meant by dishonest wealth?  What do you think constitutes dishonest wealth from God’s point of view?  The 7th grade confirmation class and I were studying the Israelites wandering in the wilderness during the Exodus, this week, and we talked about how God provided all their needs for forty years.  The ones who had a lot didn’t have too much, and the ones who only had a little didn’t have too little.  No one could save or hoard anything; they had to depend on God’s grace to provide what they needed.  Those who had a lot didn’t have too much, and those who had little didn’t have too little.  That doesn’t sound much like the distribution of wealth in the world; here in America, the gap between rich and poor has been widening for the last twenty years, the middle class has gotten smaller, and more and more people are falling from working-class into poverty.  And if you look at the world as a whole, the distribution of wealth is even more out of balance.  And part of that comes from unjust things done by previous generations where rich and powerful nations took advantage of poorer nations.  Part of that comes from unjust things being done today, where many companies manufacture goods in poor countries where they don’t have to worry about pesky little things like the safety of their workers.  Consider the conditions in Bangladesh, where over a thousand workers in a garment factory died when their factory collapsed on top of them this last April.  We profit—we get cheaper clothes—because their working conditions are disastrously unsafe.  Then consider today’s first reading from Amos.  God condemns dishonest business practices—and I can name the modern equivalent of every one, things that are common in the American economy.

The more you look at where our wealth comes from, the more you realize that almost everyone benefits from shady practices, whether done by themselves or someone else, whether done now or in the past.  On some level, all wealth is dishonest; no matter how good and ethical we are, we have benefited from the injustice of others.  We can be very creative about justifying it or pretending it’s not true; it’s something we don’t like to acknowledge.  We tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter because it was so long ago or far away, and that we’re not the ones doing it so our hands are clean, and hey, we’ve been victims ourselves, too, so it all balances out.  If you give someone an unfair advantage, the first thing most people do is make up reasons why they deserve it and other people don’t.  We don’t like admitting that injustices exist, and we don’t like admitting that we benefit from them.  But deep down, even though we don’t even admit it to ourselves, we generally prefer wealth over justice.  Humans have always been taking advantage of one another, sometimes through brute force and sometimes through trickery.  It’s part of the brokenness of the world, part of what divides us and hurts us all.  So we make up reasons why it’s not a problem; and, failing that, we convince ourselves that what we do with our money doesn’t matter to God, so we can do whatever we like.

The problem is, God actually talks quite a lot about money in the Bible.  God wants a world where everybody has enough, and where nobody has too much.  God wants a world where all business practices are just and honorable, where everybody has a fair chance and nobody profits at someone else’s expense.  God wants a world where money is simply a tool, and not the be-all and end-all that we strive for.  God wants a world where people prize justice and mercy more than they do wealth.  God wants a world where no one is trapped by debt.  Until Christ comes again to heal the world’s brokenness and create all things new, we will not live in that world.  But that doesn’t mean that we should just bury our heads in the sand and keep on as we have been.  And it doesn’t mean that we should spend all our time bemoaning the injustices of the world but not doing anything.

The point of the parable isn’t how bad a manager the steward was to have that dishonest wealth; the point of the parable is what he does with it once he has it.  And what does he do with it?  He gives it away.  He takes the wealth entrusted to him, and he forgives people’s debts.  They haven’t earned it; they don’t deserve it.  But their burden is lifted through no merit or worth of their own.  It’s grace.  As someone with student loans, I can imagine what that must feel like.  I’m sure any of you who’ve ever borrowed a chunk of money to buy a house or a car or a piece of farm equipment can, too.  If the bank ever said “we’re wiping half your loan off the books, you don’t have to pay us back”, wouldn’t that take a huge load off your shoulders?  Wouldn’t you thank God?  Wouldn’t that free you up in all sorts of ways?

Have you ever been to a church where, in the Lord’s Prayer, they say “forgive us our debts” instead of “forgive us our sins”?  That’s because, in several places in the New Testament (including the Matthew version of the Lord’s Prayer), “debt” is used as a metaphor for sin.  Our sins are debts we owe the world and God, charges we’ve racked up in the great balance sheet.  So, especially in a parable, when someone’s forgiving a debt there’s usually a deeper meaning.  Who else forgives debts?  Jesus.  That’s what Jesus came to do on Earth, is to forgive people.  So by forgiving peoples’ debts, this guy is participating in God’s work.  He’s not being faithful to his employer or to the whole system of business and debt, but at the end he is being faithful to God’s wishes for the world, in his own small way.  Granted, he’s a crook who’s only doing this because he hopes to get something out of it.  And granted, he’s using somebody else’s wealth—wealth that he doesn’t deserve, wealth that doesn’t really belong to him—to do it.  And granted, he’s only doing a partial job; he’s not forgiving the whole debt, just reducing them.  He’s not a nice guy.  He’s not a good guy.  He’s not a trustworthy guy.  But he’s still doing God’s work, in his own small way.

So I guess I can understand why Jesus praised the guy, after all.  And it gives me hope.  We, too, sin; we, too, have access to advantages and wealth that we didn’t earn or deserve.  We, too, do good things for the wrong reason.  We, too, do good things only half-way.  We, too, are sinners who deserve to be dismissed by our master.  We are more like the dishonest manager than we’d like to admit.  And yet, he is proof that even dishonest wealth can be used for good; even sinners can participate in God’s work; and even people who do the right thing for the wrong reasons can be forgiven and rewarded.  May we, too, learn to use our wealth to be faithful to God rather than to the world.

Amen.

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