The Dishonest Manager

Think of Jesus as a comedian. That’s one way that can help us penetrate our tendency to hold him in such divine regard that we are likely to miss what he’s saying. Especially this is true when it comes to the parables. 

Today’s parable is perhaps the best example we have of how we miss the joke, how we start off so heavy that we don’t see what he’s up to because humor is just not worthy of the Godhead. Let me show you what I mean. Take your scripture insert and look on with me at the last part of the Gospel reading.

Now you’ll agree with me, I hope, that this parable is hard to figure out. After all, we’re used to reading such character juxtapositions in parables as if we should understand the “rich man” as God. And if that’s the case, then what is the purpose of the rich man commending someone whom the parable calls dishonest for acting shrewdly by discounting the debt owed to the rich man by his debtors. Even the parable itself, at least as Luke tells it, is uncomfortable with this turn of events. It’s as if the evangelist “gets” everything up to this commendation of the manager “for acting shrewdly,” but he needs to explain that part. This happens in other parables as well, but here everything that follows the commendation of the shrewd manager seems increasingly tortured. It’s like whatever he, or the tradition he is working from, is just not comfortable with the parable story itself and so must append a moral or a teaching to explain it. Whereas, Jesus’s parables are intended to be unexplained: “If you have ears to hear.” The interpretation is left to the hearer; the story is intended to cause in the hearer/reader some crisis, like a Zen Koan, that brings about conversion, enlightenment.

For instance in the one just before this in Luke, the well known “prodigal son” parable, it is the hearers, both the scribes and pharisees listening, and us in the pews, who are left with a call to join the “fatted-calf” party, forgiving the ones we regard as prodigal. We are called to let go of our judgment and join the loving father in his embrace. And there is no interpretive hint or clue or moral at all. So the tradition, or Luke (whoever he is) or some early copyist, is disturbed enough by “God” apparently commending someone for being dishonest and playing fast and loose with the master’s money, and so feels the need to add some note of explanation? And unfortunately, all of such explanatory notes are moralistic, and, truth be told, none actually solves the problem.

Taking these later appended explanatory teachings as a whole, they only seem to make things worse. While there is some truth in them, as of the kind of teachings a wisdom teacher might try to bring to bear on such an embarrassingly disturbing parable, they are beside the point, extraneous: the question of the meaning or purpose of the parable remains. What can be the point in Jesus telling a humorous story where there is a reversal in the expectation of hearers about the stability of their moral universe? Where the steward goes forward with his plan and it is the rich man who is transformed? You’ll remember that that’s what the Prodigal intended in concocting his plan in the pigsty: “I know, I’ll get my father to take me back, but not as a son, as a hired hand.” Now, of course we don’t really know if or what was the change in the father, if any. But the old man’s extravagant gesture of running out to meet his returning ne’er-do-well son may suggest just such a transformation. And why else would the prodigal have left home in the first place if not to change his father’s attitude toward him, to gain his approval. 

It may be that it is the action of the manager here in this parable, the “restructuring of the loans” of the rich man’s debtors, that changes the rich man’s perspective. It’s the steward’s conversion that converts the master. We can, perhaps, posit an economic downturn in the background, a financial crisis not unlike the one of recent painful memory, that left so many mortgaged homeowners under water (so to speak) such that the result was either foreclosure or a discounted, “new deal.” We know, for instance, that historically Palestine under Roman taxation at the time repeatedly suffered just such shocks. And the result was that the rich foreclosed on the land of the peasants, leaving them little alternative but to become highwaymen like the thieves among whom the man fell in the Good Samaritan story. Probably most of the followers of Jesus among the “crowd” were just such economic refugees, displaced migrants, formerly subsistence farmers. 

So the original hearers of this parable might well have recognized their own plight in the economic crisis sketched in the story that led to the manager coming under suspicion. In fact, it’s important for us to remember that the “forgiveness” that we have so spiritualized, originally had the primary meaning of release from a concrete debt, as in “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Hence, the back story, the economic reality behind all the parables and the New Testament as a whole, is that our lives are entrusted to us on loan from God and that we a called to return to God as faithful stewards a representative proportion, or fair share, a kind of dividend of God’s investment in us. Spiritualized we are God’s sharecroppers. So, at least in the sense that the rich man is seen to represent God, the parable presents us with our own plight, if you will, having neglected our duty to God and thus amassed such debt that we could never hope to become current, we welcome the action of Jesus, our “unjust steward,” restructuring our loan, putting us back into right relationship with God. 

 You can begin to see what has been lost over time by sliding the meaning of the “sin and forgiveness” dynamic from debt and debt relief more broadly into notions of offense, insult, disrespect and violence. But much has also been gained. Our horizontal relationship with one another has been enhanced beyond a simple matter of exchange. Rather, our belonging to one another has become more complex, regulated by the second commandment, by the “Golden Rule.” So that what we may be seen to owe God by way of profit or duty, is now payment spread across a whole variety of interpersonal and social justice relationships. 

Maybe this is what the so called “unjust steward” or “dishonest manager” is up to. Having been charged with bad management, that is, with “squandering” (or in the literal translation of the Greek word is “scattering”) the boss’s resources, thus damaging his own and the rich man’s reputation especially among his peers. (Remember Philemon whose property, his slave, was sent back to him carrying a letter to be read at the meeting of the church in Philemon’s own house, formally asking that the slave, Onesimus, be freed, and that any cost of his liberation be charged to Paul’s account. How would Philemon’s wealthy, slave owning peers, some of whom must have been in that church gathering, have regarded Paul’s pulling rank in freeing a wealthy patron’s slave.) Likewise, the dishonest manager initiates a bold plan to bail-out the huge debt of his boss’s share-croppers, thus enhancing his boss’s reputation as well as his own, not among his boss’s peers but among his poor struggling tenant debtors. 

Or consider Monsanto, not some character in scripture but a contemporary wealthy “person,” at least by way of a convenient legal fiction, but one that cannot be appealed to like Philemon or the rich man in the parable. The Monsanto Corporation has devised a business plan that interrupts the eco-logic of subsistence agriculture throughout the world by introducing genetically modified crops. For years banks have offered loans to large family farmers to dig wells to help them with reasonable yields in dry years. When farmers couldn’t pay the banks seized their land and then sold them back a smaller plot, not enough to feed their family, which then led them to turn to the “magic bullet” of the promotional bio-tech promise of larger yields on smaller plots. Unlike ancient practice, however, they couldn’t save seed from one year to plant the next; they had to purchase special bio-engineered, biocide resistant seed each year. One bad year could mean losing hope of ever paying back their debt. As you may already know this cycle of progress has led to over 17,000 suicides of the head of family farms in India each year. What’s worse is that after the suicide the same debt falls on the rest of the family effectively creating a slave economy based on toxic chemicals and seed monopolies. 

Now this seems like a situation crying out for just such an unjust steward as we meet in today’s parable, someone who for whatever motivation implements a life saving strategy that would both lift Monsanto’s reputation and save the lives of heads of family on farms in India so shamed by their impossible debt that they can’t see a way out for themselves and their families. And it’s important to note the self-interest served by the Steward’s scheme, “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.” 

It’s not clear whether he’s referring to what might happen should he be put out of his master’s residence and become a homeless couch-surfer, or whether having initiated this bold stroke he will be regarded as a hero, among the likes of Yanis Varifoukis, the former Greek Finance Minister and staunch proponent of debt restructuring, not as a matter of faith but as the best possible medicine for depressed economies. Without money in the hands of the needy, goods and services cannot circulate and depression worsens. Varifoukis stared down the Euro-American Political Economic “powers that be” and, then forced to resign, is now a sought after critic of global capitalism and the pattern of what he calls “economic water-boarding” that characterizes not only Greece but Flint Michigan and Puerto Rico where the function of austerity as pre-requisite for additional loans is only to keep the victim breathing so the banks offering the loans can be “bailed out.” We need comedy to help us puncture our own moralistic notions of debt.

 So let me conclude this foray into what I like to call economic theology or “What does Church Street have to do with Wall Street? with the question of initiative, yours and mine. Because this is an important characteristic of the generosity, the grace, of the God of Jesus Christ and our God. From the resurrection it is clear that we have not only been entrusted by God with our own lives but also with God’s life. We have been delegated or perhaps rather generously apostolicized, having become plenipotentiary ambassadors, that is signatories on the account of the riches salvation. The Risen Christ says to us, “Fear not. Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained.” In another place in John’s Gospel he says to us, “I do not call you disciples, because a disciple does not know what his master is doing. I call you friends.” Ours is the call to carry out the task of liberating those bound by sin and death, those bound by debt, so that they can go and liberate others.” The joke is that by “writing down” (restructuring) the debt of sinners Jesus has converted religion’s God.

AMEN

The Holy Trinity (Father’s Day)

Father’s Day in the United States has an interesting history. While in Catholic Europe since the Middle Ages March 19, St. Joseph’s feast day, was held up as a day to commemorate the exemplary service of Jesus’s so called or putative father, it wasn’t until a mine disaster in West Virginia left a thousand children fatherless that a Methodist Church memorialized “fatherhood” on the fifth of July. The date, of course, was overwhelmed by Independence Day and the celebration wasn’t promoted beyond that grief stricken community. Not until 1912 when the designation Mothers’ Day called for equity for fathers here in June.

Being a child presupposes a father, even if only a matter of DNA. It poses a kind question as in how a story poses a prequel and a sequel to fill out its context fully. I want to use my time with you today to try to make sense of the divine Trinity in terms of narrative, of a story. Most of us, I fear, have come to the Trinity as a mystery not to be penetrated or comprehended but simply accepted. Rather, I want to invite us to try to tell the story of our own life in trinitarian terms, or better perhaps as a theological doctrine elucidated with reference to the semantic terms of our own life story. 

But with a twist: normally we would start at the beginning, as we have with the seven days of creation and Adam and Eve, and continue through the Noahic and Abrahamic Covenants and the Exodus and the giving of the Law focusing on our sinfulness and hence our need for a savior. This is how the Catechism traditionally progresses attention to the introduction of the messiah. But something so radical was revealed about God in the resurrection of Jesus, in fact in the whole incarnation, that we must start our story there. We begin our reflection on the New Creation with Jesus’ resurrection appearance in the upper room on the evening of Easter Day when he shows his disciple his hands and feet and breathes on them. In doing so he repeats the gesture in Genesis that made Adam a living soul and he commissions them to forgive sin: “whose sins you forgive are forgiven . . .” It is the very creative breath of God, the Holy Spirit, that enlivens us with the essence of God. As Paul puts it today in Romans 5:5: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Since God is love as John has it in his first epistle, then we participate in God’s being, in God’s substance. We grow into as it were from our baptism through our birth into eternity we grow into the “full stature of Christ.” 

We are created in the image of God, but until we saw ourselves in Christ we had been mistaken, and we continue to be mistaken, about the nature of that image, because we project onto the image of God our own violent tendencies, our own need to control others out of fear, greed, and resentment. The model of Christ the Second Person of the Trinity is expressed in the hymn in the second chapter of Philippians: “though in the form of God he does not take advantage of his status but empties himself taking the form of a slave being found in human form becomes obedient even to death, the shameful death of a criminal, strung on a cross.” In baptism, the catechism tells us, “We share in his victory over sin, suffering, and death.” And we do so more and more as we receive the love of God, as we participate in the love the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father. 

What is so radical about the Trinitarian revelation of God is precisely its relationality God is a community, a small group into which we are invited. The Greek word perichoresis describes the dynamic relational movement of God and within God. It is the physical expression of ecstatic love and joy, something like the famous 1910 painting by Henri Matisse called simply Dance 1 which shows five naked figures of unclear gender in a circle dance but very animated with hands clasped as they move invitingly in a circle. They seem almost to be falling so it becomes clear that they have somehow been taken over by the music or the dance itself and have lost or let go of their footing, of their staid self control. For me that is what the word perichoresis connotes, God on the edge of letting go, of being transformed. And so the incarnation is God’s way of opening up this relational three person dance so that others might be connected and become a part of the dance. It is quite a remarkable notion, the idea that God is structurally unstable, incomplete without the other, without you and me, without the whole of the created order. Christ contains all things in heaven and earth and in him they are reconciled, brought together, invited into the cosmic dance. 

It is the nature of that relationship, the relationship that the father has with the son, that mutual humbling of themselves, that constitutes the proper relationship between a father and a son, or more inclusively, of a parent and a child, between the old and the new, tradition and innovation. They respect and honor one another without envy or rivalry but with self-effacing mutual sharing. I’m learning as I grow into my own family that my role as father or parent only deepens and matures in its love for my children as I learn and relearn the dance of letting go, as I participate in the divine gesture of humbling myself before another who invites me to connect. 

Classically this participation in God, this being joined to God’s love by the Holy Spirit is the adventure of theosis, or divinization, the adventure of being drawn into God’s plan and purpose of redemption and renewal. I saw this yesterday at the memorial service for a Roman Catholic priest I have known and loved for many years in Kairos prison ministry that took place at a nearly full Serra High School auditorium in San Mateo. John Kelly left the parish ministry forty years ago to teach at that school and then became a community organizer creating Samaritan House which cares for homeless families in that county. Then he left and came to San Quentin. Scores of former inmates and fellow volunteers came to remember his loving service to them. He exemplified the process of being drawn into God’s Love for the sake of the redemption of the world. 

The Trinity is not just a unique doctrine or definition of God. It is a strategy for renewing the face of the earth through loving service. This poem of handed out at the memorial: 

“Whatever the question is, love is the answer. 

Whatever the problem is, love is the answer. 

Whatever the fear is, love is the answer. 

Whatever the illness is, love is the answer. 

Whatever the pain is, love is the answer. 

Love is the answer no matter what 

Because love is all there is.”