Pentecost 15 – September 22, 2019

Luke 16:1-13 Make friends for yourself

What is Jesus saying to us? – in this rather strange story of a dishonest manager – who, facing loss of his job, unilaterally reduces debts owed to his boss – and wins the approval of his boss?

If we’re puzzled by this story that Jesus tells, we’re in good company. Church father St. Augustine back in the 4th century, who believed the bible was absolutely always the word of God – considered this story of the Dishonest Servant so hard to understand that he couldn’t quite believe Jesus really said it.

And what we hear in any story of course always depends on what we bring to the story. In his book, What Do They Hear?, seminary professor and bible scholar Mark Allan Powell explores ways people hear the stories in the bible differently.

For example – Powell likes to have his seminary students read a bible story aloud, then retell the story from memory. He once asked a dozen seminarians to retell the parable of the prodigal son (the familiar story we talked about last week). All the students told almost all the story accurately – but all of them left out the part about the famine that occurs while the younger son is off in a far-off land and all the money he had is gone.

Curious about this omission, Powell followed-up with a more extensive study, involving 100 American seminary students from diverse ethnic, economic, and denominational backgrounds – and still only 6% mentioned the famine. Later, Powell taught for a semester in Russia, and did the same exercise with seminarians there. There 84% named the famine when they retold the story – and most heard the famine as an essential part of the story.

Why such radically different results? It didn’t take Powell long to realize – Russian seminarians’ families had experienced famine, within living memory. In follow up conversations Powell also learned the parable of the prodigal son was nearly universally interpreted in America as about a sinful son repenting of spending his inheritance on womanizing and strong drink. In Russia, however, the parable was interpreted not as about what the money was spent on – but about the son leaving home in the first place – and putting a monetary value on family.

The larger point is – we all hear selectively. It’s almost impossible not to. Where we hear the main message of a story depends on how the story intersects with our own experience. What we like in a story usually corresponds with what we like in life. And so – I like what Jesus says about those who are faithful in even a little are faithful also in much – since I think I can be faithful in a little. I’m not so sure I like what Jesus says about those who are unfaithful in even a little are unfaithful also in a lot – because I know I’ve been unfaithful to God some of the time…

I usually like the way the parables of Jesus make me think outside the box. I don’t always like the way his parables keep seeming to change meanings on me… every time I consider another part of the parable.

Like – why does Jesus keep reminding us of this manager’s dishonesty? (We over-hear the manager talking to himself about being too weak to shovel, too ashamed to beg – and he sure doesn’t seem to be contesting the charges against him.) And what’s up with Jesus talking about the master commending his manager for what sounds like embezzling or stealing from him? Why is Jesus giving us these strange details?

Sometimes the best answer I can come up with is that Jesus probably has a robust sense of humor. Which reminds me of a contemporary parable about money and ethics told by Rabbi and bible scholar Burton Vizotsky in his book, The Genesis of Ethics. (I’ve edited the story Vizotsky tells, but it’s his story):

A wealthy businessman, one of the largest contributors to his church, comes to see the pastor. He’s looking tired and stressed, as he says: “Pastor, you know I’ve tried to be a generous giver to the church. I need to tell you up-front: my contribution’s going to be much less this year. Business has tanked. I thought I better let you know now – I can’t give much if anything next year – because I know this will effect the church budget.”

The pastor replies, “You’ve been such a great help to us over so many years. Is there anything we can do to help you?”

“Pastor, ” the man replies, “Thanks for offering – especially since I’ve just told you I’ll be giving a lot less. But you’re a pastor, not a businessman. What could you possibly do to help?”

“Well,” the pastor says, “The bible speaks to every part of life. When believers of old experienced troubles, they would pray for wisdom, then sometimes they’d open the Bible at random. Wherever their eyes fell on the page, they took the words they saw there to be God’s word speaking to them, and acted accordingly.”

“Pastor, that sounds pretty desperate to me,” the man says. “But hey, nothing else seems to be working. I’ll give it a try when I get back to the office. Thank you for your time and your prayers.”

He’s out the door…. And no one sees the man in church for a long time. Till one day, months later, he comes to the pastor’s office again – driving a brand new car – looking calm, happy, tanned, relaxed. Walks in, hands the pastor a check – larger than his previous biggest contributions together – and says, “Pastor, thank you so much! I owe it all to your advice!”

The pastor – quite surprised, asks “What happened?” “I did just what you said. I went back to my office and prayed – opened the Bible. There it was! I read it. I did it. My finances did a complete 180! Thank you so very much!” “Now I’m curious,” the pastor says, “What did you read when you opened your Bible?” “Pastor, there it was. I opened the Bible, and read – clear as can be – ‘Chapter Eleven!’”

***

If we’re a banker or businessman whose customers owe us big time – probably this story Jesus tells isn’t so funny. Probably we’ll keep opening our bibles looking for a second opinion. (If we’re the International Monetary Fund, Chase Manhattan, or Uncle Sam, and the poorest countries of the world owe us a few trillion dollars, we too, may ask the Lord for a second opinion.)

But if we’re heavily indebted peasant farmers, or working-stiffs-who-owe-our-souls-to-the-company-store – or recent graduates who can’t find a job and owe two years wages in student debt – if we’re the ones in debt over our heads – hey! – this manager sounds like a very decent guy – somebody I’d be happy to return the favor for if he cuts my debt in half… So I bet this dishonest but shrewd manager will find plenty of spare couches, in many a home, when he needs a place to crash while job hunting.

And what Jesus says perhaps gets less difficult to understand – as we remember Jesus does teach us to pray, saying, forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us. Remember Israel’s supposed to cancel debts every seven years in the Sabbath Year (Deuteronomy 15). Remember Jesus tells us do for others as we’d like done for ourselves.

Still, we may be wondering – how can this master approve of an employee bailing himself out – by writing off debts owed his master? More than one answer is possible, but –

Some scholars think the shrewd manager is eliminating interest on loans. Jews are forbidden to charge interest to other Jews in the Torah, yet some religious leaders helped the wealthy create theological loopholes – like off-shore tax-shelters today – saying it’s ok to charge interest or not cancel debts if you get the debtor to sign away his rights in advance. Some suggest the manager is canceling his own commissions, which is also likely. Jesus seldom explain the details of his parables – but – by the time the master hears what his manager has done – surely all the master’s debtors who’ve had their debts reduced are telling each other what a great guy this master is. And this now suddenly very popular master is going to lose face in the community – big-time – if he should choose to tell everyone it was all a mistake – and admit he’s been fleeced by his steward. (Judging by the size of the loans described in the parable, the master’s still going to be plenty wealthy.)

Anyway – now for all practical purposes, it’s rather late to try to reverse what the shrewd manager has done – for himself – and for others – and even for the Master – who is looking good in the community now… And this, again, is a parable… And…

Jesus tells us all things belong to God – and we can’t serve God and money. Something John Wesley our Methodist God-father also often said. And Jesus and Wesley were both quite aware – that even when God-incarnate tells us we are to forgive debts and worship only God, never money – so far, this hasn’t actually changed human behavior much.

So – Jesus tells a strange story – not about good folks doing the right thing for the right reasons – but about a dishonest servant, doing the right thing to save his own sorry rear end – (and maybe even his soul). A story about making friends for ourselves by means of other people’s wealth – remembering all we have belongs to God, not us – so when money is a thing of the past – as it soon will be – we will have friends in God’s kingdom… to welcome us into homes that don’t perish.

And the Master commends this manager – for understanding real-life bible-applications better than most of us. Because at the end of the day, whatever his faults – this shrewd manager surely knows how to do unto others as he wants done for himself. He knows God’s chapter-eleven-extreme-start-over-option’s still available – even for dishonest managers. God’s law of radical grace still applies – whenever, however, we turn to God – and even in small things – do as Jesus says.

And Jesus doesn’t quite tell us so directly – but I’m guessing – this shrewd manager must be working now for our True Master. Since this is – our Master – telling this parable for us. So maybe best thing to do is to stop here – say Thank you Jesus! – for every parable – every word of grace – given in love – by you – for us.

Amen?

Thanks be to God. Amen.