âMake friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.â Jesus didnât really say that, did he?
Imagine the disciples hearing this story. They probably ask Jesus to repeat himself, clean the wax out of their ears, and look at each other for verification: did he really just say that?
It seems he did. Someone remembered this story, and Jesus has demonstrated a knack throughout Lukeâs gospel for telling memorable stories. Most of them are parables, which invite us to remember the story and mull on it. It is always a mistake to treat parables in the same way we treat allegories, and this story in particular could represent real trouble for the interpreter who treats it as allegory. Who is God in the story? Who is the dishonest manager supposed to represent?
Thatâs not what Jesus is doing. Itâs difficult to know precisely what he is doing, but he hasnât stopped believing in and demonstrating the kingdom of God, a reality that includes perfect justice and mercy; so we assume that the dishonest manager, who operates entirely out of self-interest, isnât a direct stand-in for God, or for us.
This story highlights our need to take great care in interpreting pieces of scripture in light of their context. If we were to read this passage under the rubric that we are to take everything in the Bible literally, weâd find ourselves in real trouble, and probably in jail.
Clearly, the startling image of the dishonest manager as the âheroâ of Jesusâ story will help us to remember it. But if itâs not literal, what are we supposed to make of it?
The story in Luke that comes immediately before todayâs story is the much-beloved story of the prodigal son, the cranky older brother, and the ridiculously forgiving father. Todayâs story may well highlight the same situation: someone in trouble stumbles into grace practically by accident. In the story of the prodigal, the younger son does not acquit himself well. He makes some very selfish choices that offend nearly everyone, and only comes to his senses to the degree that he realizes something must change so that he can survive. Continuing to act in his own self-interest, he returns home to discover that grace and forgiveness have been waiting for him the whole time, and we have a sense that he may finally get what it means to be loved.
In todayâs story, the dishonest manager is in an equally bad situation, and for the same reason: he has acted entirely selfishly without concern for how his actions will affect others, just so he can slip some money into his pocket that doesnât belong to him. When his employer figures out what heâs done, he figures his goose is cooked, and so he continues to act in his own self-interest by cutting deals with his employerâs debtors. What he wants is for these people to owe him something, because he is sure that manual labor is beneath him, and begging is so embarrassing. Whatâs disturbing to those of us listening to his story is that it works! It works even better than he had planned; not only do the people who owe money to his boss get a better deal, the manager himself has regained some status in the eyes of his employer because of his shrewdness.
This is just crazy, upside-down grace. We who hear his story want him to pay for his dishonesty, not to get out of a sticky situation smelling like a rose. What kind of moral example is this?
Well, it isnât one. What Jesus seems to be highlighting in this story, which we can perhaps see more clearly by comparing it to the story of the prodigal son, is the ridiculous nature of Godâs grace, and our call to live in it.
This foxy manager and self-serving younger son sound a lot like Jacob, whose name became Israel; he connived and manipulated, wrestled and argued, when Godâs blessing was available to him from the beginning.
Jesus commends the shrewd â and shady â manager as an example, not for his dishonest dealings, but for his clever solution. But Jesus doesnât stop there. He says this manager â who is âof this world,â meaning someone whose values are entirely plebian and self-oriented â has managed to scratch and claw his way into a better situation; what can Jesusâ followers do, he asks, with the grace of God behind them?
What Jesus thinks his followers are capable of is what he himself has been busy doing: healing, reconciling, truth-telling, and proclaiming the kingdom. We must be as clever as the manager in todayâs gospel, with a different goal: serving our self-interest, alongside the best interests of the world that God loves, by building the kingdom of God.
Todayâs collect contrasts being âanxious about earthly thingsâ with âloving things heavenly.â It would be simple to imagine that âloving things heavenlyâ means some kind of ethereal, spiritual experience, bathed in light, with some harp music playing in the background. However, the stories Jesus has been telling in this long narrative of his journey to Jerusalem donât sound ethereal at all. They are earthy, everyday stories that connect right into regular human lives. Itâs once of the central ironies of the Christian life that in order to âlove things heavenly,â we must turn toward the dust and dirt of which we are made, and try to envision and build the reign of God.
Todayâ gospel is a reminder of a couple of things: when we get anxious about money, status, power, what letters come before or after our name, what kind of car we drive, what brand of clothes we wear; when we get anxious about those things, we end up using our best skills for ourselves alone. Itâs also a reminder that in spite of ourselves, we are bathed in grace and forgiveness.
We are called to be shrewd about recognizing grace and sharing it. We are called to love things heavenly, by loving Godâs creation, seeking justice for everyone,
Perhaps most importantly, todayâs gospel is centered on one action: forgiveness. The manager intends to make his own situation better when he forgives his masterâs debtors, but the more he thinks about it, the better it gets: the people who have owed his master more than theyâll ever be able to repay are suddenly going to have their burden lightened, and thatâs going to make the master look good, and thatâs going to make the master happy, and that means the manager wonât lose his job. Everybody wins. Forgiveness â which is an act, not a feeling â has positive consequences for everyone.
We can get hung up on the undeniable fact that the person in the story who forgives is acting dishonestly and manipulatively, and weâd like to distance ourselves from that kind of behavior. But Jesus chooses his story illustrations carefully, and this one sticks in the memory precisely because itâs outside the boundaries of any conventional morality tale.
Forgiveness and its consequences are central in this gospel and in the story of the prodigal that precedes it. No matter who does the forgiving, itâs going to create ever-widening circles of positive consequences. Forgiveness, Jesus seems to be saying, is the starting point for building the kingdom of God, and of course, this cycle begins with Godâs grace toward us. If God kept score, we would be in some serious debt, like the people who owed more than they could pay in todayâs gospel. But Godâs grace precedes our entire existence, and if we choose to be kingdom-builders, we begin by accepting Godâs grace, and extending our own forgiveness to others. There is really no other way to transform our limited sense of tit-for-tat justice into an expansive sense of Godâs justice and mercy.
The Good News is todayâs gospel isnât immediately obvious, but itâs there; forgiveness is the engine that drives our journey toward the kingdom, and we who receive it gladly are called to share it freely.