The Rev. Jennifer Adams- September 18, 2016 – Proper 20, Year C: Luke 16:1-13
So the problem I have with this parable is that I don’t really like it. And I believe that a congregation deserves to know when a preacher simply just doesn’t like a passage. It’s bound to color my interpretation a bit, and so I offer full disclosure right up front – I am not a fan of this one.
Look at the guy for heaven’s sakes. The main character in this parable is called “the dishonest manager” right up front and it’s not like he makes a whole lot of inner changes as the story goes on. Give me that adorable little lost sheep we had last week or someone like the Good Samaritan whom we heard about earlier in this very gospel – there’s an example of faith! Give me the people passionately seeking mercy or hoping for healing and at times risking everything for such grace! Anything but this guy! I mean, come on. You caught what was going on, right?
This manager had a job collecting rent for a landowner, a master the story says. And at some point, the master discovered that this manager was “squandering” his property and so he threatened to fire him. Given that not so pleasant scenario, the manager considered his options and came to the less than impressive insight that he was, “not strong enough to dig and ashamed to beg.” In other words, he wasn’t cut out for hardship or manual labor.
And so he figured that his only way forward was to get in the good favor of the tenants, the ones from whom he had been collecting. And so the manager went around and reduced all their debts, as if this were his to do. To the one who owed 100 jugs of olive oil he said, “Take your bill, sit down quickly and make it fifty.” To the one who owed 100 containers of wheat he said “Take your bill and make it 80.” Now remember the debts weren’t owed to him. They were owed to the landowner, the master. And the manager only did all of this so that he could stay alive and well and be in the good graces of at least somebody. And so it all still sounds kind of slimy to me. The manager wasn’t merciful, he was shrewd. And then he was praised for it! And I want more! Shouldn’t the bar be higher than that?
If I’m honest that’s why this story bothers me – When it comes to the things of God, the gifts of God – the properties the creation of “the master” – I want a complete change of heart of “the squanderers.” Apparently every time. I want the guy to care about more than his own neck and let the needs of the other be his motivation for cutting rent. I want a complete 180, full repentance, confession, amendment of life, and commitment to the causes seeking justice for those people whose debts had gone through the roof because of his own greed. That’s what I want.
But here’s the thing. God is working with humanity and apparently Jesus knew that when he told this story. God is working with us. And we as humanity don’t generally work the way that I would like for stories to play out. I don’t generally work that way so I don’t know why I think everyone else should. Sure there is the occasional full turn around, that lightening induced, eye-opening, moment where someone experiences a complete overhaul in the course of one experience, but for the most part that’s not how it works. It’s not how we work.
The problem with this parable is that Jesus said what was going on inside the manager too; that’s why it’s so messy. If Jesus had left those parts out the parable the story would be lovely and frankly much more palatable to the discerning ear: There was a manager who had been entrusted with much. And while working for his master, this “wonderful, generous manager” cut the debts of all of the tenants in half and the tenants and manager praised him. The end. Nice, right?
But that’s not how Jesus told the story, nor is it how Jesus lived it. It’s the inner workings of the manager that make this parable messy. And it’s the inner workings of all of us that make life messy too. And so really, I don’t want God or the gospel to leave those parts out. Those are the places I need God to be with me most. I need to take some basic actions that at least accomplish something good for another, but I also need God in it with me for the long haul too – because my heart is messier than a verse or two cover.
So my guess is that the dishonest manager, we’ll call him the manager as our own act of mercy, had some seeds planted in him that day. He opened doors differently and whether his heart was in it or not, his words and his actions were. Through his basic actions, he forgave debts and lightened the loads of others.
And so maybe one of the tenants came back, knocked on his door and brought him some cookies because they were grateful for his actions. Sure the manager got cookies but he also realized those people were not only tenants but people who liked cookies too. And maybe another tenant waved to him when they saw each other in town and the manager realized that that person wasn’t just a means by which to make some money, but a person who walked the same streets as he – someone with a face and a hand and a wave and a name. Those kinds of moments matter in longer-term overhaul sorts of ways. Then maybe one day the manager encountered another tenant when their kids were playing together at the park and he saw the tenant not as a tenant but as Bill or Joe or Sam, the guy with the kids who played with his own. And since the manager also knew that he hadn’t been a complete jerk to Bill or Joe or Sam the last time he saw (remember he’d cut his rent) and so talking to him was easier than it had been before. Neither of them had to hide from the other anymore. And so maybe the manager began to honestly give of himself.
But that’s the longer story. Which is more than a few gospel verses can reveal, but that’s the story we’re called to live. It’s still a littly rosy, but I lean that way, and I think ultimately the gospel does too – maybe not rosy but definitely “hopeful.”
We are called to be a people who give and receive forgiveness, cutting debts of others and letting our own be cut too, whether the intentions are pure or simply a means by which we hope to achieve something better or a different kind of “more” than we have. Remember as we close this out today, that what the manager was seeking was complicated but bottom line the story said was that he was working to be welcomed into a home, a place in which he would be received, and welcomed and celebrated- he was looking to be in the good graces of others. Which was not unlike the lost sheep really, or the prodigal Son, or probably just about anyone.
Sometimes our means of getting there are messy. Because we are. But that’s why God is here working with us. Planting seeds when our doors open a little, so that ultimately we come to be faithful in much.