September 18, 2016

Proper 20 Year C - 18th Week after Pentecost

Today’s Gospel reading is the most difficult parable of them all. All parables have an element that sets us off balance.  That is the point.  Jesus uses parables to teach about the Kingdom of God, which is very different than what the people of his day expected.  Forgiveness, compassion, self-sacrifice, these are counter-cultural concepts that take shocking stories to get our attention. Today’s parable is no exception.

It is a story of an owner and a manager.  The owner discovers that his manager has been dishonest. Fearing that he is going to be fired, the manager decides to do some dealing.  Facing impending unemployment, he makes some deals so that “people will welcome him in their houses.”  He goes to a few of the owner’s clients and settles their debt at much lower rates.  Collecting about half as much as they owe, the manager figures that the clients will be grateful to him, and treat him well in the future.  The owner finds out about the tactics, and this is where it gets strange.

The owner commends the man for acting “shrewdly”. The manager, who was already identified as dishonest, goes about being more dishonest, and the owner praises him?  This is a tough one to figure out.  Why would the owner praise him?  In most parables, the owner or master is supposed to be God.  Here we seem to have God praising a man that has duped him.  

Is it underhanded—what the manager allows the debtors to do? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Commentators on this passage offer various explanations.

• Perhaps the manager has overcharged these debtors and is now reducing their bills to what they should have been in the first place.

• Perhaps the manager is cutting out his fee, an amount customary perhaps, but certainly substantial.

• Perhaps he is deducting interest payments which, according to Jewish law, are strictly forbidden in the first place.

We simply do not know how to interpret the manager’s action, except that what he does makes his master’s debtors into his friends. He is doing them a big favor, and they know it.

So what are we left with?  What is the good news?  I think it comes down to the same place that most of Jesus’ stories come to: relationships.  At the beginning of the story, we have many strained relationships.  There is a strained employer-employee relationship.  There are debts and debtors.  What we are left with at the end of the story is reconciled relationships and cancelled debt.

Perhaps a quick scan around the rest of the Gospel of Luke will help lift the fog from this confusing story.  Remember when Jesus taught the disciples to pray? Back in chapter 11, he tells them “Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”  What if Jesus actually meant that?  “But wait!” you might be saying, “He wasn’t talking about money.  He was talking about sin, but in Luke Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “as we forgive everyone indebted to us.”  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says “Blessed are you that are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry now…” It is in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Later he tells a man to “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me;” (Luke 18:22).  Then he says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God'” (Luke 18:24).

All of this is to say, maybe Jesus is trying to teach us something about the nature of relationships and money, and our relationships with money.  Perhaps the manager was praised because he put relationships ahead of money.  You could argue that his motivation was less than pure, but in the end, he valued his ability to “be invited into people’s homes” over his ability to collect extra money.  The Pharisees didn’t get it.  They valued money, and thought that having money was the same as having God’s favor.  Jesus is reminding them that there are things in this world more important than wealth.  Perhaps the level of confusion that this parable stirs is evidence of how remarkably important it really is.  This one blows our minds, because it seems to go against all of our common understanding of fairness.

And that’s just it.  The Kingdom of God has little to do with fairness.  It has little to do with keeping proper ledgers and making sure that everyone gets what is their due.  The Kingdom of God is about relationships.  It is about reconciliation.  It is about forgiving our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  It is not an easy story to hear.  It is sometimes an even harder story to live.  It doesn’t make good economic sense.  Jesus had a funny way of not making sense.

It doesn’t make sense to plant a weed in a garden.  It doesn’t make sense to ruin a whole vat of flour with some leaven.  It doesn’t make sense to turn your other cheek, throw a party for people that can’t invite you to theirs, leave behind a flock because one sheep strayed, or throw a party for your good-for-nothing son who finally came back home with his tail between his legs.

It doesn’t make sense that God would come to earth and take on flesh.  It doesn’t make sense that God would claim me as his own, or invite me to the Table of Grace.  It doesn’t make sense that Jesus would do all he could for a people that responded by nailing him to a cross.  It doesn’t make sense that the tomb was empty, or that disciples have been able to experience Christ in the breaking of bread for centuries since he was said to be dead.

This parable is a doozie. It is a challenge to look at what cancelling debt really looks like.  It is a challenge to take a close look at whether I trust my wealth or God.  It is a challenge to look at how I spend money, how I save money, and how I treat others.  Jesus and his parables will throw you for a loop.  Maybe that’s how God intended it.

The good news is that Jesus behaves like the manager in the story from Luke. The whole business of the cross looks like a scandal, yet it is a bestowal of life and freedom. Jesus sets the example for us in how we should live, and by the power of the Spirit, we go forth and forgive others.