Do you know anybody who's been laid off? Ever been laid off yourself? Most of us know what happens in a reduction in force, or an involuntary termination. Most businesses, once they get beyond a couple of employees, develop policies and procedures for dismissing employees. Those procedures have to comply with employment law. There is usually a different procedure if an employee is being downsized than if someone is being dismissed for cause. If it's misconduct, the employee may get notice of immediate termination, an escort to retrieve any personal possessions, and then be removed from the premises in the company of a security guard. For any employee, a layoff is usually filled with anxiety, embarrassment, fear, and uncertainty for the future, and probably a reasonable dose of anger. We've all heard about recent terminations or even the threat of investigating an employee's behavior that have resulted in shootings and suicides.
The owner in Jesus' parable is firing an employee for embezzlement, or the equivalent. The owner goes to the manager's office and demands the books, and in Jesus' day, that would have been the end of it â like Donald Trump saying, "You're fired!" No investigation, no probationary period, just, "You're outta here."
But in first century Palestine, it took a while for the news to get around. This former administrator has a few hours or maybe even a few days before his former boss' customers find out that he's no longer employed in financial management. So he goes around and calls on his various accounts, and like any good salesman, cuts a deal â a better deal for the customers and some hedge of security for his own future. He makes an investment in his own future using the proprietor's funds â which is apparently not new behavior. The striking thing is that he apparently realizes that the owner is an honorable man, and is unlikely to renege on the deals his former manager is making. He constructs his own severance agreement, knowing that it's going to hold, even if it is unilateral. He doesn't get angry, he doesn't really get even, he gets on with his life â as fast as he can.
And here comes the shocker â when the CEO finds out, not only does he not repudiate the reworked contracts, he tells his former employee that he's done an effective job. That crook has been phenomenally clever in assuring his own future, by using the same tools he presumably used to help his former boss make a pile of money.
This clever crook gets praised for his savvy. And then the parable goes on to say that this kind of behavior may help you get ahead in this world, but it doesn't guarantee you a place in heaven. Dishonesty or faithlessness in little things â like account books or business dealings â often gets carried over into bigger things, like caring for your neighbors, the way you treat your own family, loving yourself, and building a relationship with God. All of those infidelities can be, and are, forgiven, but they have consequences for the longer term and the bigger picture.
When I was talking to somebody about this being a difficult parable to preach from, he said to me, "Well, just choose some other reading you like, and tell them that's the reading you expected." The gospel can probably still be served, but there's a corrosive effect to misrepresenting reality. Using a lectionary keeps us wrestling with things we might prefer to ignore.
We can't love or dedicate ourselves completely to more than one way of being in the world. The values and skills required for excellence in the ways of the world are somewhat different than those needed for excellence in the ways of heaven. One requires an ability to speak the piece of truth required in the moment, and maybe put away the rest â "yes, I made you a profit on this contract, but I'm not going to tell you that I made an even bigger one for myself." The other set of values and skills requires a continuing willingness to reexamine our own motivations, our limited views, our prejudices and appetites. We can't strive for excellence at hiding the truth and at revealing the truth.
Our political conversations in this country tend toward truth-shading rather than full midday sunlight. Propaganda, like most of the advertising we see and hear every day, does a lot of partial truth-telling. I saw a YouTube video that sets out to teach people about the fertility rates in different countries and that a fertility rate of 2.3 children per couple is needed to "preserve a culture." It tells of declining fertility rates among citizens of western Europe, the United States, and Canada, and eventually goes on to say that immigrants' fertility rates are much higher everywhere. The kicker is that Muslim families in Europe have an average of eight children and that the Muslim population of the U.S. has increased 90 fold in the last 40 years. Beyond the reality of declining fertility rates in many western nations, most of the so-called facts in this video are just plain wrong, and the video doesn't bother to speak the larger truth â that higher fertility rates apply only to the most recent immigrants, and that once they become established, their fertility rates decline rapidly. In the second generation, children who have been educated here grow up with aspirations and expectations â and fertility rates â that are quite similar to those of people already here.
Now that video is pretty effective at evoking enough anxiety that many viewers will deepen their opposition to all kinds of immigration and even deny the full humanity of immigrants from other cultures and religious traditions â "they are going to overwhelm my culture." It is shrewd political advertising. It does not tell much truth at all, let alone the whole truth, and it certainly doesn't encourage the viewer to love the stranger in our midst, or to love newly arrived neighbors as ourselves. It's designed to evoke fear, which is about self-preservation. Life as a Christian is a continual invitation to examine our own self-centered motivations, and to think bigger â to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is what it means to turn in a new direction, to pick up our cross, to follow Jesus down the road.
There's another way to look at that parable. The manager gets fired, but there isn't any retribution, and the owner doesn't go after him after he's fired him. He recognizes the gifts the former manager has, but he doesn't simply forgive him and keep him on in the finance department. The guy is not equipped to be an honest money manager, even though he does seem to be an effective campaign manager. The problem is that his campaign serves only himself.
How would things change if his focus moved toward the big picture? What if his organizing gifts and entrepreneurial skill were put to work as a campaign manager for the kingdom of God? What if he went to all those accounts and said, let's put our heads together to see how we can put more people to work and live in much greater security?
He'd have a job again, a lot less worry, and nothing to be ashamed of. And he'd discover that serving the wider community, the whole body of Christ, all our neighbors, usually takes care of loving ourselves as well. He just might turn into an advocate for full employment and just immigration reform.