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September 18, 2016 — 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time          

Luke 16:1-13
Ordinary 24C; Proper 20

Money, money, money.

Jill Duffield's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.
Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

Why is Luke always going on about money and possessions? Can’t we move on to more spiritual matters? And Luke, if you are going to talk about money and possessions, could you not confuse matters with this odd parable that seems to commend cheating? What the what is going on here?

There are two parts to this lectionary reading from Luke and perhaps reading these verses with this division in mind would be helpful. Part one is the parable itself. The owner hears that one of his managers has been dishonest. “What is this I hear about you?” the boss asks. The manager gets called to the boss’s office. It is not looking good for the dishonest manager and he knows it. In one of the most honest self-assessments in Scripture he says, “I am not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg.” So now what? He has to earn a living somehow. Then another aha! moment comes. He will do favors for all the people who owe his boss money, get in their good graces and voila: They are indebted to him. Problem solved. And it is!

That’s the shocker of this parable, right? Most parables have that forehead-slapping twist at the end: the Samaritan is good, the prodigal is welcomed home, the ones who worked the least number of hours get paid the same amount as those who worked the most, the outcasts get prime seats at the banquet table… you get the idea. In this story the shocker is that the dishonest manager is called to the boss a second time and the boss says, “Well done! How shrewd of you. How enterprising.”

Huh???

Then Jesus does some interpreting. This is part two. Jesus tells his hearers that earthly matters of money have spiritual, even heavenly, consequences. He says we need to be prudent with the daily things of this life in order to be entrusted with the big stuff with eternal ramifications. Those who are faithful in little are faithful in much. You can’t have a Sunday persona and a Monday demeanor. Compartmentalizing is not the way of Christian discipleship. Jesus is Lord of our lives, every day of the week, every moment. You can’t serve more than one master and our Master is Jesus Christ. All of this is well and good – and likely, at least in theory, we can agree with Jesus’ sermon, despite its meddling nature.

But what about the double dishonesty of the manager? In the first instance – when he is called to give account, to literally “give the word” – he gets fired. In the second, after he has cheated further, he is given an “atta boy.” What do we make of this?

Let’s go back to the twist, the surprise ending aspect of the parable to see if we can get to the bottom of this strange story. Let’s make note of the connections this parable has to the one right before it: the familiar, warmer, fuzzier parable of the prodigal son. Both of these stories have someone “squandering” resources with which they have been entrusted. The prodigal squanders, scatters his inheritance. The dishonest and/or shrewd manager squanders his boss’s money and the trust his boss has given him. Both prodigal and shrewd manager have an aha! moment of honest self-assessment. The prodigal “comes to himself” and decides to go back home, even if it means an embarrassing admission of his failure and a resignation to be a servant instead of a son. The dishonest manager recognizes the predicament he has put himself in and realizes he doesn’t have much of a plan B. He isn’t strong, but he is proud. Options are limited. That’s when he starts slashing debts and winning friends and influencing people. And here is the biggest parallel: Neither son nor manager get what they deserve. Bam.

That’s a point to lift up from this weird tale. When we are called by our Master or our Father to give an account of ourselves, our life, our work, our dealings with others or our stewardship of resources entrusted to us, we mercifully do not get what we deserve. When we come afraid, deeply aware of our shortcomings and limitations and stand before the One who has the power to decide our fate, we do not get what we deserve. We give the word – our word, our pitiful, sinful, cheating, squandering, word – and the Word intercedes for us. The voice booms from heaven, “This is my child, dishonest, dissolute and beloved.”

Could that be the point of this parable? Could the knowledge of that grace-filled truth compel us to see ourselves and our relationships to things and people and God differently? Could the shock of acceptance in the face of betrayal and failure wake us up to the reality that we don’t have to dig or beg, feed pigs or cheat? In order to survive, we can go to the One in power and be welcomed, celebrated and given a second chance to live as we really are.

Jesus calls us to be faithful in little, to practice a cruciform life daily, so that more and more we are clothed in Christ and our outward actions match our inward convictions. That parity comes when we, too, surprise people with grace, when we don’t give others what they may very well deserve. That’s part of the point of this parable, too. Don’t you imagine those folks whose debts were slashed by the shrewd manager were shocked? Ever had your bank call you up and say, “Hey, just because, we are going to cut your credit card debt in half!” Unexpected relief of burdens, financial and otherwise, come too infrequently.

But couldn’t we be prudent like this guy in Luke? Couldn’t we say to those who “owe” us, “You know what? Forget about it. Let’s call it even.” Couldn’t we make a charitable gift to an organization that needs it before that appeal letter comes in the mailbox? Could we not call up the friend or family member with whom tensions run high and share our desire for reconciliation, even if it takes some swallowing of pride on our part?

The thing about this parable to remember is, like most parables, the ending is a shocker. Like most Jesus-tales, the ending is about the expansion of community, the vastness of God’s inclusion, the unbelievable scope of God’s forgiveness, God’s relentless desire for redemption and connection and the utter inexplicability of God’s desire for mercy, not sacrifice.

Could we practice those traits, just a little, too? Can we, in our relief and joy of not getting what we deserve when we are called to account, extend that grace to others?

This week:

  1. The epistle lesson for this Sunday is 1 Timothy 2:1-7. Read it in light of the parable from Luke. Not the expansive scope of God’s desire to save. How does that inform your understanding of the parable in Luke?
  2. Luke talks about money and possessions a lot. Why? What is at stake for Luke in how we handle money and stuff? Are we willing to talk as often and as openly about money as Luke is?
  3. Have you ever had an aha! moment of self-realization? What was it? What did that realization lead you to do or change?
  4. This parable in Luke is about accountability. How do we balance accountability with grace? Is there a balance? How do we know when we are holding ourselves or others accountable and how do we know if we are being punitive or petty?
  5. Have you ever had a “debt” cancelled unexpectedly or done so for someone else? What happened?
  6. Take some time to read other parables in Luke’s Gospel. What do you notice about the endings?

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