This past week a colleague and fellow preacher posed the following the question. He said, “It is ever okay, after hearing the proclamation of the gospel, for a preacher to stand up and boldly tell his or her congregation – I really have no idea what that means!” If there was ever a Sunday when that response would be entirely appropriate, today would be that day. Because, the parable we heard this morning, commonly called the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, is perhaps the most perplexing parable that Jesus ever told. In fact, it seems that the gospel writer – Luke himself is not even entirely clear about what it means, because he seems to offer at least four different interpretations.
- The children of the light need to act more shrewdly.
- Christians should make friends by means of “dishonest wealth.”
- If you can’t be faithful with “dishonest wealth,” why would anyone entrust you with “true riches,”
- You cannot serve both God and wealth.
Perhaps Luke intended this to be sort of like “multiple choice”and we are supposed to just pick the interpretation we like the best! At the end of the day, this is a parable that has frustrated and aggravated even the most gifted of preachers.
But this week, as I read and re-read this parable, I saw something that I had not seen before. I saw this parable as being primarily about relationships, and specifically, the reordering of relationships. If you think about it, there are basically three relationships that shape and define our lives: our relationship with God, our relationship with people, and our relationship with things. Now these three basic relationships are, of course, all interconnected, but I think we would all agree that there is a certain ordering of these relationships, with our relationship with God at the top, followed by our relationship with people, and finally, our relationship with things. It sounds simple, but the reality is that we often get that ordering wrong, especially when it comes to our relationships with people and things. As one theologian has put it, “we are called to love people and use things, but all too often we end up loving things and using people.”One of the traditional definitions of sin is disordered love. In other words, the brokenness and injustice that we experience in our lives and in our world are the result of this disordering of our relationships with God, with people, and with things. And our parable today is about the potential for these relationships to be reordered.
The central character in the parable is essentially a first century mid-level manager. He has a boss, who is simply referred to as “a rich man.” And then he has a network of workers and servants, many of whom apparently owe large debts to “the rich man.” Now we know that today in the twenty-first century, credit card debt can be subject to outrageous interest rates, sometimes exceeding 25 or even 30 percent. Well, the same was true in the ancient world, only it was likely even worse. Because, this mid-level manager would have very likely charged, not only the interest rate determined by his boss, but a bit extra on the side, which he would slip into his own pocket. In other words, it is quite feasible that this manager is exploiting his workers for his own personal financial gain. But whatever shenanigans this guy is attempting to get away, what we do know is that he gets caught and his behavior is reported to his master, “the rich man.”
The mid-level manager is accused of “squandering” his master’s property. This word, “squander,” is the same word that is used to describe the actions of the prodigal son, who runs off spends his father’s money on lavish parties and extravagant living. So, the implication is clear. This manager exemplifies the ways in which we can easily fall into the trap of loving things and using people.
But when he finds himself in a bind, he recognizes that he is going to need some friends. He needs some people whose hospitality he can depend on if he ends up losing his job. And so, the manager reaches out to some of his workers, the ones that own his master money, and he dramatically reduces their debt, in one case by 50 percent and another by 20 percent. And there may have been other debts that he reduced as well.
But I want you to notice the dynamics of what is going on here –
- The manager is no longer exploiting his workers.
- In fact, he is providing them with significant debt reduction.
- He is now dependent upon their hospitality for his own security.
- And thereby, he is giving power to those who were once powerless.
In other words, there is shift happening from the love of things and the use of people to the love of people and the use of things. There is a reordering of these relationships.
Now I know exactly what you’re thinking! You’re thinking, “but wait a minute, this scoundrel is still motivated by his own self-interests. He is still simply trying to cover his own tail. His actions are not exactly the best moral example of justice and mercy.” And you are absolutely right!
But maybe…maybe, that is precisely the point! Maybe this parable is a snapshot of one particular moment in this man’s life in which he has the opportunity to reorder his relationships. Maybe we supposed to see the ways in which we are also driven by mixed motivations all the time. Maybe we couldn’t relate to a parable in which the main character is completely transformed in the course of a few verses.
And if all that is true, then maybe this parable is like a mirror and when we look into that mirror, we see ourselves. We see our own need to examine the ordering of the relationships in our own lives. We see the times when we have loved things and used people. When it comes to our stuff, our money, our possessions, our businesses, our investments – Jesus never says that these things are bad, but he does say that loving them is out of order.
Why is Jesus so concerned about the ordering of our relationships? Because he knows that the ordering of our relationships affects how we see the world.
When we love things and use people – We don’t see the poor, the marginalized, the powerless. Because we see people as commodities, whose value is based on their productivity and usefulness.
But when we love God with all our hearts and love people as God loves us and then we use things as God intended, then we see those around us with eyes of compassion and mercy and grace. The ordering of our relationships affects how we see the world.
And so, this morning, this most confounding of parables with all its complexities, may actually help us sort out the complexities in ourselves. It might help us to love people more,to invest in our relationships with one another, to use our resources to care for one another, and to see the world through the eyes of God.