Lectionary 25 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Do I look like I’ve been through a wrestling match? Is my hip out of place like Jacob’s? Our reading from Luke this morning challenges even scholars. It’s been said that this passage “poses significant theological challenges,” and “is difficult to read and difficult to preach.” One commentary read, “It is no exaggeration to say that the parable’s meaning has stumped even the best and most creative interpreters of Scripture.” *Someone* even questioned God’s sense of humor. Had I been wiser, Pastor Wertz would have been here and preached this week instead of last.
Look at this parable! The beginning makes sense. An informant told the rich man that his manager was mismanaging his business, and squandering his property. The rich man must have believed whomever it was because he said to his employee, “I heard about you! Give me an accounting of the things you have done. You’re fired!” The disgraced manager thought quickly. He would have no means of income once he turned in his records. Would he be able to get a job once references were checked? He couldn’t make a living doing physical labor. He was too embarrassed to beg. If he lost his paycheck, where would he live? How would he afford to care for his cat?
Apparently, he had no one to take him in, but he had a plan. The manager went to each client and struck a deal. “You owe $100, make it $50,” he said to one. He continued visiting his master’s debtors, crossing out their balances and writing in a lower amount. Their purchases of wheat and oil became more affordable, while the rich man’s profits were erased. $400 became $300, and $200 became $100. He falsified the accounts prior to turning in his report to the boss. This is where our wrestling match with this parable begins. The manager’s hope was that people would welcome him into their homes when he became unemployed. If I do this for you, then you are expected to do this for me.
And the 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. What??!!
Jesus had just told them that when they host a luncheon, their guest list should be the poor, the blind, the lame. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, he says [Luke 14:14]. The dishonest manager was praised for his shrewdness. What are we to make of him? Is he the shrewd saint, or the shrewd sinner?
The parable of the father keeping watch for his lost youngest son is the story right before this parable. Connecting the two parables is the word “squander.” The younger brother squandered the prematurely given inheritance. The manager was accused of squandering his boss’s property. Neither one took good care of, or put another way, were good stewards of, those things they were given. Both were forgiven by the one who gave them those gifts and responsibilities.
We can start to make sense of this all when we recognize Jesus’ parable of the unjust steward is full of forgiveness, of death and of life. (I give great thanks to Robert Farrar Capon for his insights into this text.) This manager was at rock bottom in our story, not just in his life, but in the social order. He had lost his job. If that has ever happened to you, you know that it is a death. This steward’s death led him to see things differently, to think of things he never would have otherwise. Through his death, he came alive. He also became the spark of new life for the others.
The rich man came to life through the manager’s action. Whatever it was that he was holding on to, he let it go. He forgave the manager, and he forgave the debts that were written off. He found the good that had come from the bad; he recognized blessing in the situation.
As far as the ones whose debt had been lowered, they found new life, too. Capon writes, “…the steward is also able to be the resurrection of his lord’s debtors because they wouldn’t consent to deal with anyone but a crook like themselves; they would never have gone near him if they hadn’t been convinced he was dead to all the laws of respectable bookkeeping.”
Eating with tax collectors, and hanging around with prostitutes, Jesus also demonstrates a disregard for respectability, respectability as our world defines it. In forgiving sins, he disrupts the principles of bookkeeping. He refuses to tally up our transgressions, to keep track of our sins. Capon concludes that Jesus is the unjust steward, writing:
The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing—which is the only kind of grace there is….He became sin for us sinners,–for us crooks, that is—and all the losers who would never in a million years go near a God who knew what was expected of himself and insisted on what he expected of others….Lucky for us we don’t have to deal with a just steward. 
~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin
Capon, Robert Farrar. The Parables of Grace. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1988. 145-151.