A sermon preached at McCormick Theological Seminary on 9/18/13. Based on Luke 16: 1-13…
Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. 2 He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’
3 “The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.
5 “One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’[a] The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ 7 Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’[b] He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.
10 “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. 11 If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13 No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
So yeah … I picked this text.
There is the entire bible … filled with stories and faith journeys and encouragement and enlightenment … and I went with the parable of the dishonest manager.
Even the title it’s given is dreary.
This parable, as one commentator put it — is the problem child of parable exegesis.
After reading the passage with me —- I’m betting you are seeing why this might be. Let’s break down and update the story a bit here. There’s a big CEO type who has hired an account manager to oversee the daily grind of the office. This manager has allegations brought against him from an unknown source and the CEO tells him to pack up his desk and leave. You’re fired! — as Donald Trump might say. The manager, in desperate panic, needs to come up with a plan. He names his limits — too weak to dig and too proud to beg —- and so he has to work with what he’s got in time that is running out.
Having been in the finance business, he knows how money and people work. So his plan is to call all the people on his account list … and lower their debts … hoping that this will put him in good rankings with them and if/when he is thrown out of the company — he might have somewhere to go. Now, this is what I might call a smooth operator.
Now, this is the point in the parable where we might expect Jesus to interrupt the story with a twist and tell us that even all the cleverness in the world can’t make up for the manager’s dishonesty. Jesus might tell us that smooth operators have a price to pay in the end … they’ll get theirs. But that doesn’t happen. In our story — the manager is actually commended by the person who fired him in the first place …. and Jesus goes on to say from there that “children of the light” have something to learn from the “children of this age” …. the cleverness of dealing with peers is something for us to learn.
Now, there are sooo many different interpretations of this text. From Jesus being a snarky sarcastic to Jesus explaining to us that dishonesty is a new form of Christian ethics …and everything in between.
How are we to discern which of the interpretations we are really meant to learn from this parable?
I’m not sure that I have all of the answers to the questions that this passages raises.
One thing I am sure of … is that we do have something to learn here.
Perhaps we have picked apart this parable so much and tried to unpack its meaning … that we have lost the original magic of the parable in the process?
This parable is sandwiched in between the prodigal son and the story of the rich man and Lazarus … stories of unconditional forgiveness and consequences of certain ways of living. So maybe this parable is the gap between the forgiveness and the consequence.
What’s in that gap between forgiveness and consequence?
What does our smooth operator have to say about that?
There is one thing from this parable that caught my attention …. and its a bit subtle so I want to go back and see if we can look at it for a second.
Our smooth operator has these allegations brought about and his boss informs him that he is to be let go from his position, right? I think his responses to his boss hold a clue for us. His first response is to say, “holy *bleep* … what am I going to do?!” I’ll chalk that up to a shock factor.
The second response is to say, “Well, I’m too weak to dig and I’m too proud to beg.” He names his limits. Names his shortcomings. Evaluates himself and his talents and his situation.
How many of us would have had this response? In today’s world, we might expect the manager to update his facebook status about how unfairly he’s being treated at work or blog about how his boss is the worst person ever … blaming others for what was happening to him.
Instead, he offers confession.
His third response is to offer debt forgiveness. He understands that money speaks … he’s a business guy and this is his world. Monetary forgiveness to others might shed some light on himself … in order to make sure he isn’t left totally alone in the end.
This is interesting.
Regardless of what his intentions are … he offers grace in the form of this forgiven debt. His creativity and cleverness within the business world and relationship building lead him to offer grace. And even hope for grace in return. In the gap between forgiveness and consequences — there is grace.
Money was his means … but it was not his end. In the end, the smooth operator knew that he needed people. He needed relationships. He needed grace.
Perhaps this is what Jesus is commending. Being clever in relationship with our peers. Acknowledging our shortcomings and recognizing grace in our lives.
Perhaps part of Jesus’ point in this story was to show that even this manager … who was obviously facing some serious and complicated problems in his life …. even this guy, was in good enough standing to be offered grace.
Now here’s the interruption to our traditional thinking that we might have been expecting earlier. This regular, messed-up, imperfect guy just going around offering grace to people…. that doesn’t seem right. Or does it? What would that look like for us?
There’s a pretty cool story I ran across that I think illustrates some of this …. there’s a guy named Juan Mann in Australia. He was going through some difficult times time in his life. One day, he showed up at a party feeling very depressed and lonely. While at the party, a random person came up to him and just gave him a hug. A simple hug. While there was no other contact with that person again that night, he recalls how that random hug from a stranger made him feel like a king. Running with that feeling, he started the Free Hug Campaign. Yes, there’s a YouTube video of it … go ahead and search for it this afternoon … and make sure you have some tissues handy. He has started a movement of going to public places with a simple sign that says, “Free Hugs” and then offering a hug to anyone who would like one.
This regular, messed-up, imperfect guy … just going around offering free hugs to people.
What if we were to go around offering grace as easily as Juan offered hugs? Forgiving the debts of others as easily as the Smooth Operator?
We church people, we seminary people, we clergy people … we might think this is good in theory — but ah! it will never work in practice.
We have theologies and rules and ordination processes to go through … I mean, what would happen if we just baptized everyone who walked in the door, or shared with everyone from the communion table, …. or ordained everyone who felt called?
Yes … what would happen?
People would be welcomed into a family of God…. people would be fed and nourished …. people would share the love of God with others….
Perhaps we are called to be the bearers of crazy and radical and clever grace. Grace that extends to all .. without conditions to consider or hoops to jump through or judgment to fear.
Maybe that’s what Jesus was offering to the smooth operator in this complicated parable… crazy and radical and clever grace.
I have a perfect example from my own life for this — I found out a few weeks ago, via social media no less, that my sister was becoming ordained online in order to officiate her friend’s wedding. She was ecstatic. I was furious.
Here I am … in my third year of seminary …. trying to learn ancient languages, reading books and articles until I can’t see straight, and struggling to pay a grad-school sized tuition, all to get my denomination’s recognition that my call is valid and worth ordination …..while my sister spends about 20 minutes and $19.99 online to be able to call herself ordained.
How dare she cross into “my world” and cheapen my own path towards ordination. How dare she do this to me.
Then I had to step back … here was my sister being a smooth operator. Crazy and radical as she is — she was opening herself to be available to her friends in a new way. Who am I to say that’s not ok? Perhaps I needed to give her a bit of grace.
Grace isn’t logical or linear …. give it anyway.
Grace isn’t earned or deserved … receive it anyway.
Grace is crazy and counter-cultural and doesn’t make sense …. live it abundantly. Amen.