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

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