September 22, 2019

Proper 20, Year C

Luke 16:1-13

Make it Fifty

A certain theologian once asked, has God in Christ paid our debts, or cancelled our debts? For this theologian [Kathryn Tanner], the difference was important. If Christ had simply paid whatever debt we owed to God, then the whole system of obligation, impoverishment, and punishment still continued to govern the universe. But if God in Christ had proclaimed the full cancellation of our debts, then Christ’s ministry had unleashed something truly disruptive, scandalous, and liberating.

Luke’s gospel in particular seems to celebrate shocking acts of forgiveness, even where no debt has been paid. So, I think it’s no coincidence that the gospel of Luke is the only one to preserve this story of the shrewd manager. When confronted with his own wastefulness, the manager quickly gets in the business of messing with account records and lowering debts, for his own advantage.

That’s also the business Jesus seemed to be in, at least as a sideline! Early in the gospel accounts of his ministry, Jesus says to a paralytic man, “your sins are forgiven you” (Lk 5:20). This scandalizes people around him, because they think Jesus has no authority to forgive sins.

Mark and Matthew record the story of the paralytic man as well, but we see Luke’s special interest in scandalous forgiveness in Luke’s version of another story. All four gospels tell us about a woman who comes to Jesus with a jar of expensive perfume, which she uses to anoint Jesus’s feet. In Luke’s gospel, a Pharisee thinks Jesus doesn’t realize what type of woman is touching him, and so can’t be much of a prophet.

But Jesus uses this moment to teach everyone around him that deep forgiveness results in deep love. And the image for forgiveness that he uses is the cancelation of debt. Jesus tells the people a story about a man who cancels two debts, one large and one small. The people listening to the story agree that the one who owed the most money would be the most grateful for debt forgiveness, and would respond with the most love. Then Jesus tells the scandalous woman, in front of everyone present, the scandalous words, “Your sins are forgiven” (Lk 7:48).

It’s also only in Luke’s gospel that Jesus offers forgiveness to his persecutors from the cross. We sometimes think of Jesus’s death as paying our debts, but even before Jesus has died, he prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).

As these examples show, Luke’s gospel showcases a Jesus who forgives freely. The analogy he uses for forgiveness is the cancellation of debt. And the forgiveness that he offers wins him love from some people, but appalls others.

I wonder if Jesus saw himself in the shrewd manager. There he was on earth, trying to cut people a better deal before they had to settle their accounts. Sometimes, Jesus’s earthly ministry can look like he’s improvising, rushing, disrupting the balance of credits and debits that appeared to govern life in this world and the next. He taught both that forgiving others would prompt God to forgive us, but also that God’s forgiveness of us should prompt us to forgive others (Mt 6:12, 14-15).

So, forgiveness in the teaching of Jesus is like a chicken-and-egg problem: Which comes first, God’s forgiveness of us, or our forgiveness of others? The good news is, once the cycle of forgiveness gets going, it doesn’t matter much who started it. Jesus seems most urgently concerned to set the wheel of forgiveness in motion.

Today’s parable of the shrewd manager also seems a little hasty. There’s a lot of scandal to it. A manager cooks the books. Friendships are forged by cheating a third party. And Jesus appears to commend dishonesty.

I’ve heard people try to explain the manager’s behavior by arguing that the manager isn’t really tampering with what the debtors owe the master; instead, he’s just cutting out his own commission. So a debtor who owed the master fifty jugs of olive oil would also be paying fifty jugs of olive oil to the manager, but the manager decides to forego his own share so that the debtor will be grateful later. But to me, this explanation just sounds like an attempt to rescue this parable, and Jesus himself, from scandal.

Instead, this parable lets us see forgiveness for the scandal that it really is. It cheats the system. It benefits others, and it helps us as well. And it replaces transactions with bonds of love, at others’ expense.

The good news in Luke isn’t that our debts have been paid and so we’re square with God, but that our debts have been canceled. Canceled debts are more scandalous than fully reconciled accounts. But unlike in the parable, our debt isn’t just lowered by twenty percent, or cut in half, but fully cancelled. And that unleashes a flow of grace that most of us have barely begun to reckon with.