Texts: Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
This story is confusing! Is Jesus holding up the manager as a model of shrewdness and foresight to be imitated, or as a cautionary tale about what happens to those who are dishonest and untrustworthy? He squandered his master’s wealth and gets fired, but he seems to end up okay in the end having made some friends for himself by means of his master’s “dishonest wealth” who will take care of him. Jesus seems to indicate these friends may even welcome him into “the eternal homes,” but my question is: what’s the temperature in those homes?
I’m not the only one who doesn’t know. Commentary writers are across the board in how they interpret this parable. This one says the steward is commended for his shrewdness, if not for his motives, and we Christians should follow his example in working as hard for God’s kingdom as he does to secure his life of leisure after he is fired. That one says the steward is actually doing justice because his master was probably cheating his debtors to begin with, and so by knocking the price down the steward is actually taking the unethical interest charged by the lender off their loans. Who knows?
It’s really tempting to try to read the Bible like our friend Lisa does—like an operating manual; and that’s not necessarily bad. Much of what Jesus teaches his disciples, the crowds, and even the Pharisees is how we might live lives that fit with God’s reign. We ought to love one another, serve one another, be forgiving and patient and kind. The trouble with this “operating manual” approach to reading the Bible is that it is incomplete. The life of faith cannot be boiled down to a 5-step “sinners prayer” that you need to pray to assure your entrance into heaven or a list of dos and don’ts to stay on God’s good side.
This is what Amos saw. He is writing to a people who are following all the rules, but missing the spirit. They obey the Law and observe the Sabbath, but that’s where their religious obligations end; they have no compunctions about swindling the poor with false scales or selling the sweepings of the wheat (which were to be reserved and donated to the needy). The fact is that no one—not even God—can legislate morality. Give us a list of rules and 2000 years, and we’ll find all the loopholes. It’s impossible to write an “operating manual” for how to be a good person.
So, instead, Jesus tells parables. Parables are great because they are open to reinterpretation as contexts and cultures change. For example, in Western culture, we tend to sympathize with the boss: he has an employee who is mishandling his money, who of course he would have to fire. So when that manager finds a way to angrily sandbag his boss one last time, we are surprised that the boss would commend him. In Eastern culture, on the other hand, the manager is frequently seen as the plucky hero who’s sticking it to The Man. The boss, like the villain who knows when he’s been beat, honorably concedes and congratulates his opponent for a well-earned victory.
The parable, coupled with the sayings about money that have been appended to it—sayings about making friends with dishonest wealth, about faithfulness in little indicating faithfulness in much, being entrusted with what is one’s own, and not being able to serve two masters—together give us a sense of Jesus’ attitude towards money. Material wealth is a means to an end, capable of being used for both good or harm; and since it all comes from God to begin with, it should be used for God’s purposes rather than hoarded or idolized.
Jesus also makes a strident point that how we use our wealth in this life—the wealth that does not belong to us, but to God—has lasting consequences for us in eternity. The friends we make by means of the wealth given us now will likely be the ones welcoming us into the “eternal homes,” whatever those “homes” look like. This can be understood two ways: if we are generous only to those who can be generous back to us, we might find ourselves together with them packed into the same slum someday; on the other hand, if we are generous to those who cannot repay, we may find them in God’s kingdom ahead of us, welcoming us in. (cf Lk 14.12-14)
So there’re your “operating instructions;” but if we stop there, we miss something. If we are generous to the poor for the sake of securing our place at heaven’s table, are we any better than the ones who long for the end of the Sabbath so that the cheating may resume? There is a deeper message in this parable; in fact, there are probably several, but there is one in particular that I see: God is always, always, always, ALWAYS on the side of the poor.
This is a message that runs throughout the whole of scripture. We see it today in our reading from Amos, but it’s hard to miss if you read the Bible more than just a verse here or there. Every voice in scripture reiterates this truth: that the LORD watches over the needy and oppressed, cares for the orphan and the widow, lifts up the poor from the ash heap. Using God’s wealth for God’s purposes necessarily means using it to even save the poor from poverty.
Regardless of how this parable might be encouraging us to behave, whether we try to be like or unlike the shrewd manager or his rich boss, we see this truth in the good news of the story. This parable is good news for the debtors: their debts are forgiven! Even through the machinations of a dishonest manager and a ruthless creditor, the poor of this story receive help; God does not forget them. On different days, under different circumstances, we might at different times identify more with the manager or the rich lender, or neither; but some days, we’re going to see ourselves most in the debtors whose bills have been reduced.
Shrewdness is good: if the whole Church worked half as hard for God’s kingdom as the manager worked to save himself from having to beg, the world would be a much better place. Honesty is good: if the manager had been more trustworthy, perhaps he wouldn’t have been fired, and there’s a lesson we can learn from that, too; but regardless of how shrewdly or honestly we live our lives, the truth of grace remains: in God’s kingdom, no one pays what we owe.
Jesus reminds us with this parable that what goes around, comes around—both tomorrow and in eternity. How we live our lives matters dearly because eventually we will have to deal with the consequences of how we treat the people around us. In light of God’s promise that “the last are first and the first are last” in God’s kingdom, Jesus suggests that perhaps we ought to pay special attention to how we care for the poorest and least powerful in our world. Jesus gives us this advice not as a threat, but as a warning; for as Paul writes, he “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of faith.”
The reign of God is open to all, because there is one God who is God of all: God of the suburban middle class, God of the filthy rich, and God of the suffering poor, God of the soldiers and terrorists and policemen and marginalized minorities; and Jesus—the one mediator between God and humankind—is trying to save us from the consequences of our greed and callousness when all of us are gathered together under God’s roof around God’s table.
That is on reason why we gather around this table now: to remember that God’s grace is boundless, both for us and for all people. Around this table, all are fed, regardless of who we are or where we come from, or how well we follow instructions. At this table, we receive God’s abundant care and grace, and we learn by example from to share what we have been given in terms of wealth, natural resources, care and attention as freely as God shares them first with us.
So yes, the Bible can be like an operating manual, but one with an unconditional warranty printed in the front. That warranty guarantees that God’s grace abounds, not just for us, but for all people. Like the heavenly food and grace we receive in the Sacrament, we need never be afraid that it will run out or go bad; we are free to share it with all. If we believe and confess that this is true, then God invites us to live like it, or as Jesus might say if he were telling us this parable today, to put our money where our mouth is.