This morning’s parable from the gospel of Luke is one of the toughest pieces of scripture in the whole Bible. Preachers all over the country groan when this passage comes up in our three year cycle of readings. It is hard to figure out just what on earth Jesus is talking about.
|Photo by Max Romersa|
While the prodigal son had his moment of epiphany when he wakes up sleeping among the pigs in some far off land, our manager has his moment of epiphany as he heads back to his office to pick up the accounting ledger.
My life is ruined, he thinks. Without this job I have nothing. I’m too weak to do physical labor, I’m too proud to beg. Without the ability to find work, in that economy – the manager was as good as dead. All of that laying up of riches on earth couldn’t help him now… he had squandered it all. And in the process of doing so, he had made enemies too numerous to count.
So like the prodigal son, he gets an idea… I’m going to throw myself at the mercy of those I wronged.
The prodigal returned home, not as a son, but as a servant… and the manager returns to the debtors – not as someone who is there to collect what is owed, but as someone who is going to provide relief.
He finds the debtors one by one… What is it that you owe? 100 jugs of oil? Make it half. Pay back half and the debt is gone. What do you owe? 100 bushels of wheat? Make it 80 and your bill is paid.
He bows down, falls at their feet, and waits to see what will happen.
What we often miss here is the fact that the chunk of change the manager is forgiving is NOT the piece owed to the rich man. The portion of the debt he is forgiving is the interest he himself was charging.
He had a choice. He could have collected all that he could and kept a little nest egg back for himself – something to retire on – or he could side with the poor tenant farmers, and pray that they might in turn show mercy in return.
The story of what the manager did makes its way back to the rich man… and he praises his employee for his shrewd behavior.
But now, here comes the tough part.
Jesus finishes up the story and turns to the disciples and says in verses 8 and 9: The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light… So you, too, Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they make welcome you into the eternal homes.
What? Jesus – did you just tell us to be like the people of the world and not like children of the light? Did you just tell us to go out and use dishonest wealth to make friends?
In fact, Jesus did.
And here is why I think he does this.
First, Jesus doesn’t try to pretend that we are angels. He knows that we are sinners. He knows we are of this world. He knows that we are already dishonest and squandering managers. As much as we might try to pretend we are the debtors, we are a part of the wealthiest country in the entire world. No matter how much debt we have or how little we make, we are richer than 80% of the world’s population. Don’t get me wrong – poverty is real in the United States, and the safety net for the middle class is failing all over the place in this tough economy – but we are still richer than we can possibly imagine.
We buy products made in sweatshops. We waste water and food and resources. We store up for ourselves without thinking about who might get hurt in the process. We might have a relationship with Jesus – but we have little to no relationship with the people that Jesus loves.
William Herzog and Alyce McKenzie write that “it is not shrewd for someone with wealth and power to be indifferent to those who are poor or on society’s margins… in reality, such a state of living precipitates a crisis in one’s condition in light of the kingdom to come. It leads to figurative and literal poverty and death.”
When we act like that dishonest manager and squander away treasurers for ourselves on earth… when we use and abuse our fair share of the gifts God has given us… we are setting ourselves up for failure. Remember, Jesus says the first shall be last.
So maybe, this morning, we are the ones who find ourselves called in before the master. We are the ones whose books are being called into question. Jesus confronts us with a hard truth – what are you doing with what I have entrusted to you? Are you squandering it? Are you wasting it? Are you serving me or are you serving yourself?
And faced with that question, we have a choice. Are we going to keep watching our own back, or are we going to be shrewd? Are we going to use what we have been in creative and active ways? Are we going to finally realize that our salvation depends not on the money we have in the bank but the relationships we make?