The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
Chipping Away at Stubborn Hearts
My first thought on reading today’s parable was, I should have given this to Susie. (She has a hard one next week, though.)
This is incontrovertibly the strangest and least comprehensible of all the parables Jesus told. It’s called the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. A manager is accused by his boss of something unethical (we don’t know what). He’s fired. He gets desperate, so he goes out and writes down the debt of some of his boss’s debtors, making a couple friends for himself. We would expect this manager to be the bad guy in the parable, but he isn’t. In the next part, he’s praised both by his former boss *and* by Jesus. Go likewise, mismanage other people’s money and especially if it brings you some friends, it’s all OK.
And that’s the parable. Which prompts one question: What is a parable? We sometimes think of them as life lessons, kind of like fables with a neat moral at the end. Sometimes we preachers preach them that way. But they’re not fables. They’re stories that are meant to provoke, to upend or shake us out of our complacency. I think it was Kafka who said stories are the ax (the hatchet) that breaks up the frozen sea within us. That would be a good definition of a parable.
They also refuse to be pinned down to just one meaning. If you think you know the meaning of any parable, you should go back and look at it again. I find it incredible and under appreciated that, At the heart of the Christian faith are these shape-shifting and also deeply subversive stories. Here we are, in a pretty authority-minded institution, essentially built upon a core of stories that nobody can claim to fully grasp – not even a priest, a bishop, or a pope. Parables make us humble, they keep us asking questions, they chip away at certitude. If this unusually strange parable we have today does nothing more than remind us of all that, then it’s done us a service.
So, all parables are ambiguous and resistant to interpretation. But this one goes well beyond most. There might be a problem with its transmission. It’s always possible Luke didn’t remember it correctly, though that’s an easy way out. Some people note that it isn’t clear where the parable exactly ends and where Jesus’ teachings begin. Could you maybe argue that he didn’t go so far as to praise the dishonest manager?
Adding further to the confusion of this one. are all these other teachings that follow it. They almost seem like they were tacked on to the parable–and in fact probably were.
He who is faithful in little is faithful also in much.
No slave can serve two masters.
You cannot serve God and wealth.
It could be that Luke was trying to take this confusing parable and set it in the context of other things that Jesus said, hoping that might shed some light on it.
And in a way, it does. There are three groups of Jesus’ teachings that this parable might fit into. One is his deep suspicion of and even carelessness about money. It’s the root of all evil. Those who have it can sooner squeeze through the eye of a needle than get to heaven. “Filthy lucre” is what one of his early followers would call it in the New Testament book of Titus. It’s either God, or mammon. There’s no reconciling the two.
When the manager in the parable gets reckless with his master’s money, he’s praised, because if all money is evil, there’s nothing wrong in this man’s taking it from his boss. It’s just the sort of cavalier attitude Jesus often has when it comes to money.
Another group of Jesus’ teachings into which you could put this story is the importance of being shrewd. Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves, he tells the disciples. Be children of light. Don’t be outsmarted or naive. There was a long tradition before Jesus of praising the wily; God the Father loved Jacob (the clever one) above Esau his brother. It makes us very nervous that the clever sometimes win in the Bible, even when they seem to skirt the line of what’s ethical. But that happens. Perhaps it’s happening in this parable. There is a way in which it reminds us, God is God. There are things that are ultimately and completely out of our grasp.
A third group into which this parable might fit is Jesus’ teachings about acting with urgency. The manager in our parable was fired, his world was turned upside down as a result, and, as often happens when a crisis strikes, he immediately reorders his life. Forget about the money. How can I make friends? A traditional interpretation of this story is that the manager was simply taking his own commission and writing it off of the client’s debt. It was his own money he was writing off of the debt, not his master’s. He was giving up the money he might have earned so that he could make friends.
One of my favorite writers, Rebecca Solnit, wrote a book of essays called “A Paradise Built in Hell” in which she describes recovery efforts after big disasters and the communities that build up around them. 9/11. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Hurricane Katrina. These are moments when people worked together across lines of class and race and every other difference, because responding to the crisis was bigger than all those differences and enmities. Crises, she argues, are as good as they are bad for humanity.
The master in this parable (I imagine) probably went on for years, making money, living comfortably, yet neglecting his friendships and maybe his family. But then he loses his job … and wakes up to what’s important. You could say that the real disaster is everyday life, when there’s nothing to remind us how far off course we are.
Parables are the axe that breaks up the frozen sea inside us. Certainty, complacency, monotony: Every time we hear these stories–and heed them–is one more strike at that ice, one more blow to old habits, old beliefs. Jesus is remarkable not only for the traditional ways we believe in him, but for this reason: he confuses us. Confusion can be a gift. Let us be grateful for it. Amen.