Make Friends for Yourselves..., Proper 20 (C) - 2010

September 19, 2010

“Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Jesus didn’t 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 Luke’s 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?

That’s not what Jesus is doing. It’s difficult to know precisely what he is doing, but he hasn’t 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, isn’t 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, we’d find ourselves in real trouble, and probably in jail.

Clearly, the startling image of the dishonest manager as the “hero” of Jesus’ story will help us to remember it. But if it’s not literal, what are we supposed to make of it?

The story in Luke that comes immediately before today’s story is the much-beloved story of the prodigal son, the cranky older brother, and the ridiculously forgiving father. Today’s 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 today’s 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 doesn’t belong to him. When his employer figures out what he’s done, he figures his goose is cooked, and so he continues to act in his own self-interest by cutting deals with his employer’s 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. What’s 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 isn’t 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 God’s 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 God’s blessing was available to him from the beginning.

Jesus commends the shrewd – and shady – manager as an example, not for his dishonest dealings, but for his clever solution. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says this manager – who is “of this world,” meaning someone whose values are entirely plebian and self-oriented – has managed to scratch and claw his way into a better situation; what can Jesus’ 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 today’s 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.

Today’s collect contrasts being “anxious about earthly things” with “loving things heavenly.” It would be simple to imagine that “loving things heavenly” 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 don’t sound ethereal at all. They are earthy, everyday stories that connect right into regular human lives. It’s once of the central ironies of the Christian life that in order to “love things heavenly,” we must turn toward the dust and dirt of which we are made, and try to envision and build the reign of God.

Today’ 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. It’s 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 God’s creation, seeking justice for everyone,

Perhaps most importantly, today’s gospel is centered on one action: forgiveness. The manager intends to make his own situation better when he forgives his master’s debtors, but the more he thinks about it, the better it gets: the people who have owed his master more than they’ll ever be able to repay are suddenly going to have their burden lightened, and that’s going to make the master look good, and that’s going to make the master happy, and that means the manager won’t lose his job. Everybody wins. Forgiveness – which is an act, not a feeling – 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 we’d 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 it’s 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, it’s 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 God’s 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 today’s gospel. But God’s grace precedes our entire existence, and if we choose to be kingdom-builders, we begin by accepting God’s 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 God’s justice and mercy.

The Good News is today’s gospel isn’t immediately obvious, but it’s there; forgiveness is the engine that drives our journey toward the kingdom, and we who receive it gladly are called to share it freely.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Contact:
Christopher Sikkema