We like to think ethical lines are clear. Right and wrong can be easily understood; one knows the difference. But probably ever since we left kindergarten, the choices and challenges we face every day can only sometimes be reduced to bright lines of right and wrong.
This thought occurs to me when reflecting on our parable this morning, the parable of the dishonest manager. Please take a moment to open up to our reading from Luke 16:1-13. You can find it on page 79 in the New Testament section of your Pew Bible. In brief, as we heard this morning, Jesus told about a manager who realized he would soon be fired so he forgave the debts owed his boss in order that the former debtors would help him once he was out of work. Hence, he gets the name, “the dishonest manager.”
But in a surprising move, Jesus tells us to be like the dishonest manager. In verse 9, “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.”
Is this what happened at Wells Fargo? 5,000 employees went to work, asked themselves, “What would Jesus do?” and then created 2 million fraudulent accounts? Just doing what Jesus said; making friends by dishonest wealth.
But even as Jesus lifts up the manager as an example, he then goes on with a series of comments about wealth that imply a very different interpretation. No more so then verse 12, “And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”
People often want to know the plain truth of the Bible. But here, in just a few verses, Jesus goes from telling us to steal our way to heaven to warning any thefts will keep us out. No wonder we Christians take every side on every social question. What will guide us?
The parable began, “then Jesus said to the disciples…” This parable comes after another set of stories; in fact, immediately after the story of the Prodigal Son. As you might remember, that story featured a son who demanded his inheritance, spent it quickly, fell into poverty, and then came home penitent. His father forgave him and threw a party.
In some ways the story of the manager parallels that of the Prodigal Son. Both squandered money, both came to dread poverty, both were welcomed back in some form. But they differ in important ways. The parable of the Prodigal Son focused on the repentance and forgiveness of the son. The manager doesn’t repent and the rich man doesn’t forgive. Instead, this parable is all about figuring out what’s right and what’s wrong.
Sometimes people make a distinction between how people lived back then in the Bible and how they live now. But when it comes to money and economics, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’
Some of the oldest parts of the Bible echo with the complaints of the poor against exploitation by the rich. That’s what’s behind the prophecy of Jeremiah. The prophet spoke with the authority of God, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick - for I hear it, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land.”
The people around Jeremiah and then Jesus and now us cried out because too often the whole economic system seems rigged against the poor. Just this week I read in the Journal Sentinel about the inner city landlord Jesse Hyche. He owes the City of Milwaukee over $200,000 in fines going back to 2001. The city fined him for renting substandard housing, including houses without running water and other problems he didn’t disclose to tenants before renting to them. Hyche once defended his properties, saying they were not so bad, “No one died in none of the places I had; there’s no one catastrophical anything (that) happened.” The tenants told a different story - a rich man using their desperation for housing against them.
But again and again Hyche avoided paying the fines. This week, according to the Journal, he got another month’s extension by paying just $50. I wonder, what tenant of Hyche’s, fifteen years in arrears, could get by with such a small payment? None; they would have been evicted fourteen years and eleven months earlier.
This injustice is but one more version of the very old story: the rich delaying payment on their fines when the poor get evicted. Jesus spoke to an audience “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of such injustices. And so I imagine the people hearing Jesus’ parable viewed the manager differently than the landowners.
The dishonest manager, as he was called, tried to figure out what to do in a broken economic system. Facing his own impending job loss, the manager decided to renegotiate debts. We heard in verse 5, “So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’”
The people the manager helped are like the residents in Jesse Hyche’s rundown buildings: people struggling just to get by. Matthew Desmond, in his groundbreaking book on evictions, chronicled the financial binds and debts people get into. I remember one woman whose situation he described. Arleen had moved from place to place, facing numerous evictions, because she couldn’t manage to buy food, pay for housing, and deal with emergencies all at the same time.
During the time Desmond knew her, Arlene moved into a house. The previous tenants had been evicted, leaving lots of things behind, including 5 gallons of paint. Arlene decorated the house, painted the walls, made it home. She could walk her son to school. It seemed like it would work
Then her sister died. Arlene wanted to help with the funeral, so she asked her landlord for permission to delay payment on her rent. They worked out a plan. But then it fell apart; because really, what plan can ever work when housing takes up 80% of your income? Within a few months, Arlene was evicted again.
Jesse Hyche profited off substandard housing and then got away by paying only $50 of the $200,000 he owed in fines. But Arlene lost her house because she helped pay for her sister’s funeral.
The manager lived in a world not that dissimilar from Jesse and Arlene. But he did something remarkable for those that owed money; something Arlene could only dream of. The manager reduced the debts to whatever was manageable to pay. The rich man he worked for depended on an exploitive system of overwhelming debt that transferred wealth from the poor to the rich. But the manager, motivated by his own desperation, showed mercy.
The manager showed mercy because he got himself into a pickle with his boss. Jesus said he squandered money. Did he steal it? Did he make bad investments? One wonders; but Jesus focused on what the man thought. In verse 3 the manager talked to himself, saying, “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.”
Anyone about to lose a job worries about what comes next. The man took an inventory of himself and realized he couldn’t or wouldn’t do many other jobs. And so he decided to work his network.
A key word - and one that we will come back to - is home. The manager wants to be welcome in people’s homes; he wants friends he can rely on. Here Jesus uses the Greek word “oikous” for home. That same Greek word can be heard in our word: economy. Economy literally means “house management.” So a more literal translation of verse 4 might read, “I have decided what do when I am dismissed as house manager, so that people may welcome me into their houses.”
The manager worried about his livelihood. He wanted something sturdy and secure.
The promise of a house comes up again, at the end of the parable, when Jesus first lauds the manager and then says, in verse 9, “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.” But Jesus didn’t use the same word here for house as he did in verse 4. Now he speaks of a “skenas” or a “tent” or a “tabernacle.”
The Israelites fleeing Egypt built tabernacles. People on the move, without a home, built them too. It was the refuge of the landless, the wander, the pilgrim.
I don’t mention this because I want to quibble about translations, but because I think it gets to the heart of the gospel. What does Jesus promise: a secure home, with a mortgage paid, and a picket fence? Or a tent, a refuge, for a pilgrim people?
To think of it another way: at the beginning of the parable, the manager cares about an economy of things. But his desperation, his own need, causes him to tie his future to those of the poor tenant farmers around him. He showed mercy, certainly, but also a keen sense of relationality. He considered their reality and found a solution: you owe 100 jugs of oil, make it fifty; your sister died, I’ll help with the funeral. He didn’t start with a good motivation, but he became relational; he came to journey with the people tenants, to be in solidarity with the vulnerable, to pitch his tent with them.
I wonder if that’s why Jesus praised the manager and why he told the parable: not for the details of what he did but because of his transformation from a man desiring things to a man delighting in relationships?
The Gospel of John begins with words we read every Christmas: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” When John wrote that Jesus dwelt among us he used this same term for house; God pitched a tent with us.
And I think that’s our spirituality journey too: not to be consumed by an economy of things, but rather shaped by solidarity with people.
Alleluia and Amen.