There is one conclusion I have come to over the years about our Gospel reading for this morning: Nobody really understands it. I would include Luke in this group as well. Indeed, Luke gives us several possible interpretations of this passage. But that doesn’t mean we should throw the passage out the window. I think it is extremely likely that Jesus actually did tell this parable, why on earth would his followers remember it otherwise. And I think Jesus was very good at teaching in a way that made everyone uncomfortable. Jesus was really good at telling stories that called into question everything that his hearers thought they knew about being human and about God. So, though this parable will always be confusing, I do think if we can spend some time focusing on the moments of friction in the text, we might find ourselves understanding ourselves, the world around us, and most importantly God in new ways.
This text makes us feel uncomfortable because we can’t figure out why Jesus would praise a dishonest manager and hold him up as a model for us to follow. I think we don’t understand because we are looking at this passage through our middle or upper-middle class white American Protestant work ethic lens. We have been taught that a good person, indeed a good Christian is honest, works hard at their job, is trustworthy and obedient to their superiors. And for a long, long time this has worked for most middle or upper-middle class white Americans. Work hard and behave in honest and trustworthy ways and you will succeed. This hasn’t led to success for all Americans, but for this group it has, and we view the passage through this lens. But Jesus and his followers weren’t middle or upper-middle class white Americans. They were Jewish people living in Roman-occupied Palestine. Their context was different.
In Roman-occupied Palestine, about 2% of the population would fall into the wealthy category. About 4% lived comfortable lives by working for the wealthy 2% as managers and the like. The other 94% were poor and struggled just to meet their basic survival needs. The manager from our passage was in the 4% who had a comfortable life by working for the wealthy 2%. However, this manager would have held this comfort only as long as his wealthy employer was willing to grant it to him. He lived at the whim of his employer. The rich man was likely a landowner who lived in Jerusalem and lived off the profit of land that others managed and farmed. Those who had their debts lowered by the manager were part of the 94% who struggled to survive each and every day. They were likely the ones who planted, tended, and harvested the rich man’s land.
Most of those who farmed the land were tenant farmers. Their parents or grandparents had once owned land but had incurred debt that they couldn’t pay and had lost their land to their debtholder. Most loans of money held at least a 25% interest rate and goods a 50% interest rate, in direct violation of Biblical law that forbids the charging of interest. There was no way they could ever repay these loans, and so they lost their land. The current peasants are now leasing the land at very high rates from the rich man. In addition, they had to purchase most of the goods they need to live from the landlord at exorbitant rates. Naturally, they too fell into debt and had to borrow money at extremely high rates from the landowner. It is a perpetual cycle of poverty. This is the economic context of Jesus’ parable.
So, we have a rich man who hears that his manager is squandering his property. The charge is vague, and we don’t know exactly what he was accused of doing and if he really did it. But nevertheless, the rich man calls his manager to him, asks for an accounting, and dismisses him. The manager has had the rug pulled out from under him. He has lived a comfortable life. He doesn’t want to do manual labor or beg. He comes up with a brilliant solution.
Jesus’ culture was an honor culture. In an honor culture, honor is more important than anything else. There are many things that can bring you dishonor and there are 2 dishonoring acts in particular that are important to note as we read this passage. If you are a wealthy person, having someone who works for you deceive or cheat you brings dishonor to you. Second, taking back a gift you have given is a dishonorable action.
The manager uses both of these things to protect himself. He goes to those who owe the rich man money, and he reduces their debt to what they originally owed. He gets rid of the interest. The debtors must have been unbelievably happy and relieved. They can now breathe. They might actually be able to claw themselves out of the pit they have fallen into. When the rich man hears what the manager has done, he realizes he has only one option. If he tells the debtors that this has all been a mistake, he will have to reveal that his manager defrauded him, and he will have to take back a gift that the debtors believe he gave them. This would cause him enormous dishonor. So, he does what he must. He takes credit for the gift and praises the manager. The manager has saved himself, and the debtors have a new chance at life.
The economic system of Jesus’ day was rigged in favor of the wealthy, and the manager, out of desperation, has figured out how to use it for himself and for those at the bottom. I have to think that those who had their debts forgiven didn’t really care about the motives of the manager. They were just enormously grateful that their chances of surviving just got a little bit better. Indeed, in a system such as the economic system of Jesus’ day, was any of the wealth floating around actually honest? The manager is labeled as dishonest, but how honest was the rich man? He was living the good life on the backs of those who made his wealth for him. Kudos to the manager who was able to disrupt the system for a moment and provide life and hope to some of those at the bottom. The ethics of the kingdom of God are surprising and different from what we expect them to be. The world is turned on its head. God really does give preferential treatment to the poor and the outcast, and God expects us to do the same.
And though the economic system of Jesus’ day was in many ways very different from our day, in some important ways it is very much the same. Though we are not quite as stratified as the society of Roman Palestine, we aren’t doing great, and we seem to be getting worse. The wealthiest 10% of our country owns 76% of wealth. The middle 40% owns 22% of wealth and the bottom 50% owns 2% of wealth. And just like in Jesus’ day, it is expensive to be poor in America.
The rich are rich because they are in a position to make better financial decisions. When you don’t have money, you’re often forced to make decisions that seem necessary in the short term. Those decisions often add to your long-term burden, but if you are in a crisis, you don’t have any other choice.
I’ll give you just one example. Let’s say you have no beds in your apartment because your minimum-wage job doesn’t even provide you with enough money to pay the rent, buy food, clothe you and your kids, and get yourself to work every day. Your child has frequently gone to school sick because you have no alternative childcare and can’t miss work because you are not paid if you don’t work. The school has reported you to child services. You know a social worker is coming to your house for a visit, and you are afraid that having no beds for your child will reflect poorly on you. You can’t afford to buy a mattress outright. The cheapest one you can find is a blowup mattress at Walmart for $70, so you go to a Rent-to-own store. There you can rent a real mattress for $15 week for 45 weeks. So, you’ll skip lunch for a while. Problem solved. Or is it? In the end you will pay $674.55 for that mattress. But what other choice do you have? Transportation, insurance, banking, food—you name it, the poor almost always end up paying more for all of these things, because they just don’t have as many options. And there are plenty of people waiting to take advantage of those caught in the cycle of poverty and who will loan money at exorbitant rates to those who have no other choices.
We too are part of an economic system that shows preferential treatment for the wealthy. Is the money we have any more honest than the wealth of the rich man and the manager? Aren’t we also caught up in a dishonest system that benefits some at the expense of many? We often assume that the systems that exist are the way that the world has to be, or some even believe that the systems that exist were ordained by God. For me, parables such as the one we heard this morning remind us that this is just not so. God tells us over and over again, through the words of the prophets in the Old Testament and the Gospel writers in the New Testament, that God does not bless a world in which some have much more than they need while others struggle to live. This is not what God wants. No matter what the manager’s motives were, what he did was better than the status quo. At least his actions helped save the people whose debts he forgave. His intentions might have been selfish, but they were more in line with God’s plan than his previous ways or the ways of the rich man. In the end, the lives of the suffering are more important in the eyes of God than some sort of ethical system that demands honesty at the cost of people’s lives. Shouldn’t those of us who follow Jesus be at least as wise as that manager was, if not more so?
“For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Amen.