Fifteenth sunday After Pentecost: September 22, 2019
Year C, Proper 20: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 113, 14-16; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:19-31
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The parable in today’s gospel has a reputation for being one of the most difficult to understand in Jesus’ ministry. This story has been called the parable of the Dishonest Manager, and the parable of the Dishonest Steward, the Unjust Steward. It’s also been called the Parable of the Shrewd Manager.
It’s certainly easy enough to see why. The man has taken his owner’s assets and has without authorization, without any justification reduced the debts owed to the owner. And it appears from our Gospel that the owner, and Jesus at least to some degree, agrees with his actions.
Think about this parable by contemporary standards. How many times have we heard about financial misdeeds by companies and individuals over the last decade? A few years ago, Wells Fargo was forced to a $100 million settlement because employees set up fraudulent accounts to get bonuses.
In 2008, our financial sector collapsed badly in response to market failures brought on in many cases by financial mismanagement that a first-year economics or accounting major should catch.
I won’t say fortunes were lost because most of the losses were borne by hard-working people who had saved for many years to have a small nest egg. Nest eggs were demolished. People who thought they could retire suddenly couldn’t. For others, it would take the next decade to bring their savings back to pre-crash savings.
As I searched this Gospel passage for meaning, I couldn’t help but think of the movie “Wall Street”. If you’ve ever seen or remember this movie, you might recall the iconic phrase by Gordon Gekko who was played by Michael Douglas – “Greed is good.”
“Greed is good.” Is greed really good as proclaimed by Gordon Gekko? Is it yet another alternative title for this gospel passage? I assure you that is not the case.
Some gospel commentaries have suggested that the manager reduced his own commission in the debts owed and that is what the employer commended. Perhaps the owner knew that he was unlikely to get full payment anyway and figured it was better to get 80 cents on the dollar than nothing. And still, others suggest that the steward was protecting his own position and making himself popular with the tenants by reducing their debts. The manager was certainly making himself into a bit of a hero and he knew where he could get his next meal and lodging when he lost his position.
I’ve got to admit – the manager did something extraordinarily clever. The manager gathers all the debtors and tells them that their debts have been reduced. The landowner had a choice to make. He could go and tell what was surely a happy bunch of people – that the steward was dishonest, it was all a terrible mistake and that legally these reduced debts weren’t worth the paper they were written on.
Or, he can take credit for the steward’s actions, in which case he’ll continue to take in the acclaim of his tenants.
Make no mistake: what the manager does is dishonest. Jesus specifically refers to him as the dishonest manager. He’s guilty of the charges: of taking the landlord’s property and squandering it.
We know Jesus well enough to understand that the parables he tells us give us much different insights than we might otherwise have.
What the manager does, without authorization and with deception is to forgive debts. He forgives things he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct.
But the moral of this story, and its position as one of the parables unique to the Gospel of Luke, is the emphasis on forgiveness. FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.
Luke, however, especially in the parables that we are seeing over these past Sundays and to come, often raise the moral point: the arrival of the kingdom of God is no occasion for scorekeeping of any kind. The coming of the kingdom or reign of God is about forgiveness, about faithfulness.
Why forgive someone who’s sinned against us, or against our sense of what is obviously right? We don’t have to do it out of love for the other person, if we’re not there yet. Forgiveness if very complicated. But we can forgive the other person because of what we pray in Jesus’ name every Sunday morning, namely, “forgive us our trespasses (or sins) as we forgive those who trespass (or sin)”. And in some translations, it’s even more related to the question of debt in this passage. “Forgive us our debt, as we forgive our debtors”.
Honestly, who among us doesn’t need forgiveness at times? I know that I need forgiveness daily.
There really is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena – financial and moral – can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace.
I ask a question of you and myself this morning? How do we squander God’s resources with which we have been entrusted? For me it’s when I refuse to offer love, compassion and forgiveness, in short, faithfulness, to others.
Forgiveness and faithfulness are what Jesus is talking about in today’s parable and sharing God’s extravagant love and forgiveness is a good place for us to begin.
If a guy who was a thief and sinner can forgive debts to save his job or give himself a safety net after he’s been fired, we who have experienced real grace – grace from Jesus, grace in this community – have much better reasons to forgive.
Our mission is to be faithful stewards, to be children of the light, not of the world where shrewdness or cleverness count. It’s about being faithful.
Jesus is bringing the realm of God, the love of God, the fellowship of God, the forgiveness of God. And his expectations of his disciples, and we are his disciples, are that of the owner’s and manager’s. We are entrusted with far more. Jesus expects us to continue his work in the world.
At the end of the lesson, Jesus makes it clear that the priorities of the steward are not those of God. We are the slaves of God, not of wealth: “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.”
We can only serve God. Amen.
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