Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost — September 18, 2022

In this week’s lectionary reflection, Rev. Teri McDowell Ott writes about debt forgiveness in light of Luke’s parable of the dishonest manager.

Teri McDowell Ott's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.

Pentecost 15C
Luke 16:1-13

I’m writing this the week after President Biden announced the federal government’s plan to forgive between $10,000 or $20,000 of college loans for low- to middle-income borrowers. This move has been hailed as faithful by some and unfair by others. So Jesus’ parable about debt reduction is timely — if only we can figure out how to interpret it. Even the best Bible scholars agree this passage is bewildering.

Luke 16:1-13 is about money and its use. This text immediately follows the parable of the prodigal son, which also refers to an individual who “squandered” property. (The Greek diaskorpizō in both passages can be translated as “squander,” “waste” or “scatter.”) Here, Jesus warns the disciples that “You cannot serve God and wealth” (v.13) and condemns the Pharisees as “lovers of money” (v.14). As a whole, chapter 16 concludes with the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus whose fates were reversed after death. It’s clear that Luke has money on his mind.

The parable’s main protagonist is the dishonest manager who works for a rich man. When the rich man learns the manager is squandering his property, he tells him, get your affairs in order — you’re fired. The manager, knowing he won’t survive as a day laborer digging in the fields, needs friends and he needs them quick. He comes up with a plan to ingratiate himself to the rich man’s debtors: one by one he summons those who owe money to the rich man and, by grace alone, reduces their debt by 20-50%.

Here comes the confusing part.

One would think the rich man would not approve of this debt reduction and the loss of his loan revenue. But in verse 8, the master commends the manager for his “shrewd” actions.

Why would the master commend the manager for bringing in less money?

The best explanations I’ve found:

  1. Maybe the manager cut the debts by reducing the interest on the loans. Perhaps the master praised him as faithful since Deuteronomy 23:19-20 forbids charging interest.
  2. Maybe the manager cut the debts by forfeiting his commission as the loan administrator. This would have meant the master getting his full return and the debtor getting a break on his payoff.

However you choose to interpret it, the manager’s debt reduction is praised as wise.

The call for debt reduction or forgiveness is also a part of the influential Poor People’s Campaign to end systemic poverty in America. William J. Barber II, one of the campaign’s leaders, frequently points to biblical narratives such as Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25 that describe an economic system built to share resources and keep people from getting trapped in debt and poverty. The theme of “jubilee” runs throughout our scriptures — seasons of celebration every 50 years when the economy is overhauled: enslaved people are set free; indebted lands are restored; prices for land and labor are reordered; laborers are granted sabbath rest. A jubilee season focuses on restoring the community and liberating people from debt bondage. According to these biblical narratives, debt is the responsibility of the creditor as well as the debtor, and the goal is the economic health of the whole community.

Leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign have presented what they called the “Poor People’s Moral Budget” to the budget committee of the House of Representatives. This budget reflects a reordering of our nation’s funding priorities: Less money invested in the war economy and the military, and more money invested in the work to end poverty, hunger and homelessness. They call on legislators to rethink and reorder our nation’s spending to benefit the economic health of the whole community.

Martin Luther King Jr. led the first Poor People’s Campaign. In a deeply divided society, he called for a revolution of values. As he said in a speech delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967: “We must shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered … True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar … It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

President Biden’s debt forgiveness could be rightfully critiqued as merely “flinging a coin to a beggar” — a move that offers little relief and doesn’t address structural problems. But debt forgiveness should not feel unfair to people who claim a Judeo-Christian moral code. Systemic poverty traps people who otherwise could be productive participants in our communities. The freedom of jubilee is freedom for all God’s children; and a flourishing of society as a whole. More is at stake here than money.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What thoughts, feelings, ideas or images came to mind as you read this passage?
  2. Have you ever had a loan forgiven? Or forgiven a loan someone owed you? What was that experience like?
  3. What values guide your personal budget, your household’s budget, your church’s budget?