A Risky Re-Write for a Problem Parable
Then Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.'
Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.'
Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.' And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; 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."
So this parable is a tricky one, right? It’s crazy to think Jesus would commend someone’s dishonesty, someone’s “shrewdness” as the story goes, for the sake of saving face, for the sake of saving his own hide. On the surface it looks like Jesus is inviting us to celebrate a shyster, who was bad at his job, about to get fired for it, and so cooked the books in order to save his reputation and earn some favors – to set himself up for some opportunities and prospects once he was out of a job and in a financial pickle and looking for work.
But that can’t be, can it? I’m not sure Jesus would encourage the dishonesty or the book-cooking or the money-laundering of a 1st Century Tony Soprano or Bernie Madoff, would he? So I had the thought this time around – and I could be wrong about this, but I’m going with it, anyway – that maybe this just isn’t one of Jesus’ best teaching moments. And, that it’s not all his fault.
What I mean is, we need to remember that all of this starts out as just another parable, in a string of parables. And Jesus wasn’t teaching to the likes of you and me who work so hard to take things so literally and make sense of things so rationally – people like you and me who forget that a parable is a parable, after all. So let’s remember, a parable is a story about one thing that often means to teach us about something else. Last week, when Jesus talked about a lost coin being found and about a stray sheep being brought back into the fold, he wasn’t actually talking about coins or sheep, was he? No. He was talking about lost souls, and sinners and outcasts, being welcomed into the family of God.
And in a similar parable, just before what we heard today – the one about the Prodigal Son – Jesus wasn’t talking about someone he knew, or someone who lived and breathed in 1st Century Galilee, necessarily. He was telling a story about what may have been a make-believe father and some make-believe sons. And he was showing how that father – who loved both of his sons, in spite of their selfishness and sins – was a picture of the God we’re called to know in Jesus
Are you with me? A parable is a parable, nothing more and nothing less.
So what if, in the parable of the shrewd, sneaky, dishonest steward that we just heard, Jesus isn’t really talking about a business manager, or about financial debts of money or oil or wheat or other “things,” valuable in the eyes of the world around the disciples to whom he was teaching? What if the “shrewd, dishonest steward” was being creative and crafty with the riches of the Master’s kingdom. And if that “Master,” as in the rest of Jesus’ parables, represents the God of the Universe, then the riches and resources of which he speaks aren’t coins or wheat or oil or property at all, but things like love and mercy, justice and humility, repentance and forgiveness, and so on?
So, this might be a little theologically risky – and again, I could be wrong – but what if we re-wrote the parable to reflect that kingdom sort of perspective? What if Jesus cut the confusion with this one and just told the disciples, straight up, what he wanted them to learn here? What if he just said what he meant and meant what he said, without the mystery and need for translation and interpretation and all the confusion and consternation this parable has caused so many? And what if it sounded something like this:
"There is this God, full of love and mercy and grace and forgiveness who had a disciple he charged with sharing those blessings with the world around him. When God found out the disciple was squandering what he’d asked him to tend to, to care for, to share in such meaningful ways, God summoned that disciple and said to him, 'What is this I hear about you? That you’re being selfish and holding grudges and judging others; that you’re counting sins, and keeping people out, and pretending you have more power than you do? If all of that’s true – if you’ve been withholding grace and blessing and mercy and love – you cannot be my disciple any longer. I can’t have you going around pretending you do all of this in my name, for the sake of my kingdom.”
So the disciple said to himself, 'What am I gonna do now that God, my master, is taking this position and privilege away from me? How could I have been so selfish and blind to the needs of the world around me? How could I have withheld from so many others, what was so generously shared with me in the first place? I’m not strong enough to have earned this grace on my own. I’m as ashamed as anyone to need the forgiveness God offers. And I never earned any of it in the first place.”
“I know what I’ll do. I’ll do what I should have done all along. I’ll be as generous and kind and forgiving with others as I woulda/coulda/shoulda been all along; which was my calling from the get-go; which is all that was ever asked of me in the first place.”
So, summoning God’s children one by one, the disciple asked the first, 'What is it you feel like you owe to God? For what sin are you holding onto such guilt?' And when this lost and broken soul confessed his sin, the disciple said to him, “Don’t’ worry about it another minute. Your God – our Master – is a gracious, loving God of forgiveness. Receive the good news of that, go on your way, sin no more and return the favor of this kind of forgiveness to someone in your life.”
And the disciple did the same with another fellow sinner, and another and another – extending grace, announcing forgiveness, and expressing love for the least of those in the world around him. He got so crafty and so creative, so generous and so extravagant with the love of God for all people, that some called him foolish… and reckless… and un-faithful, even. But God smiled, because the disciple had finally learned where true value and real riches and actual worth and new life are found in this world.
Doesn’t that sound more like something Jesus might mean? Isn’t it more likely that Jesus was inviting his disciples – and the likes of you and me – to be shrewd and sneaky and generous-to-a-fault with the things of the Kingdom – with forgiveness, grace, love, and mercy? And once we see this parable through that kind of lens, the rest of it makes more sense, too, I believe.
Jesus said, "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.” In other words, even a little bit of faithfulness with a little bit of God’s love goes a long way. And even a little bit of misuse or abuse of God’s goodness can do a whole lot of damage.
And he said, “…if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” In other words, if you can’t share, with generosity and grace, what is God’s in the first place, then you haven’t truly received it, yourself.
And finally, Jesus said, “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." And all of this puts into perspective the truth of what is valuable and worthy in God’s kingdom vs. what is valuable and worthy in the eyes of the world.
And I wonder if that might be Jesus’ point with the parable. Maybe the story is about money, but only in-so-far as we see how money doesn’t matter much in God’s economy, unless or until it’s being used to bless and benefit God’s children in life-giving ways. But grace and forgiveness and mercy and the love of our creator, are another story. And Jesus is inviting us to be extravagantly careless with that love, to give it away – recklessly, with abandon, in ways that seem surprising, that seem to go against conventional wisdom, that seem other-worldly, even, which is just the way our God lives and breathes and moves and is revealed among us … and through us … and for the sake of the world.