Right Relationship & the Accounting of God
First Reading Amos 8:4-7
Psalm Psalm 113
Second Reading 1 Timothy 2:1-7
Gospel Luke 16:1-13
“Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly.”
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The prophet Amos urges God’s people to be honest with each other. He describes a devious practice of offering small amounts of goods and charging high prices. Dishonest merchants would alter balances placed on scales to measure out the fair amount so they could cheat their customers. We can visit the the Carlos Museum at Emory University and see actual weights used in the ancient Near East, and imagine how a dealer might perpetrate the scam. Having no discretion in their dishonesty, merchants would cheat the rich and poor alike. These dishonest business practices must have been common enough that Amos was led to speak out against the financial oppression of the poor, reminding Israel that their covenant obligation is instead to take care of those in need. He adds the warning, ‘the Lord will not forget these (mis)deeds.’
We all know the importance of honesty, with ourselves, in our relationships, and with God. Each week we are reminded that from God ‘no secrets are hid’. We also know how difficult it can be to always act with honesty and integrity. The temptations of personal gain, power, and status are relentless. Getting caught in the act is one deterrent. Our dishonesty will often come to light. A woman was preparing to entertain guests, and went to the local grocery store to buy food. She stopped at the meat counter and asked the attendant for a large chicken. He reached into the cold storage, grabbed the last chicken he had, and placed it on the scale. “This one weighs four pounds, ma’am,” he said. The woman replied, “I’m not sure that will be big enough. Do you have a bigger one?” The attendant put the chicken back in the cooler, pretended to rummage around the melting ice for another one, and pulled out the same last chicken. He placed it on the scale, and discreetly applied some pressure with his finger. “Ah,” he said with a smile, “this one weighs six pounds.” The woman frowned, “I’m just not sure. I’ll tell you what, wrap them both up for me!”
Even when we have the best intentions at heart, dishonesty is not the best policy. Offering loving but tactful candor is often better than a little white lie that can backfire and cause harm to another. Even priests face moral dilemmas of stretching or shaping the truth. The church was burying a rather unsavory character who had never been near a place of worship in his life. The priest had never even heard of him. The casket was brought into the church and the service began. Carried away by the occasion and his pastoral sensitivities, he poured on praise for the deceased. After ten minutes of describing the departed as an exceptional father, husband, boss, and friend, the widow, whose expression had grown more and more puzzled, leaned over to her oldest son and whispered, “Go up there and make sure it’s Papa.”
Amos is clear, and we all would agree, honesty is the best policy. Perhaps the prophet is reaching forward through time, urging us to call out the false balances in the economy of the world, confess how we are participating, and determine what we ought to do to set things right. Then Jesus comes along and expands our perspective and tests our understanding.
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager is confounding. The confusion begins with our main character, alternatively called shrewd, dishonest, or unjust, who seems to be the praised hero of the story. I don't believe Jesus was trying to confuse us. I do believe Jesus expects us to work at our faith. Scholar C.H. Dodd defines parables in terms of their oddness as a literary form and their often unstable meaning. He suggests a parable is "a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought." The Parable of the Unjust Steward is teasing us today, making us wonder and doubt, yet launching us into active thought.
The audience is Jesus’ disciples, which we should read as you and me. There was a rich man, perhaps an absentee land owner, who has a manager appointed over his affairs. He could be a steward, or even a slave, as he refers to the rich man as "master." This man was squandering the master's property. He could be inept, or perhaps just lazy, but later he is called dishonest. The rich man confronts the manager and gives him notice. You can no longer be my manager. In our experience, if a manager is caught stealing, the business owner would probably toss him out with extreme prejudice, and probably call the police. This rich man, however, allows him time to account for his management and get his affairs in order. There is no discussion of punishment. The master simply cannot have a steward who misuses his money. Already the rich man acts counter to what we expect.
Next we are privy to an internal dialogue. The manager asks himself, "What will I do?" I'm not strong enough for hard labor. I would be too ashamed to beg. The manager has a real crisis. He expects that he will soon be on the outside, disconnected from resources, authority, and community. His self-concern leads to scheming. The manager devises a plan to obligate the master's debts to himself, so others will think well of him and welcome him into their homes ... back inside, connected, and in community. We are called to ponder, ‘what would we do?’
The manager then begins what accountants, CPAs, and the IRS might term "cooking the books." He calls in the master's debtors and begins offering deep discounts. Your debt of a hundred measures of oil is now 50. Your debt of a hundred measures of wheat is now 80. The manager is set as steward over the master's business, so offering discounts is within his power, but these actions cause us more difficulty. The Greek text doesn't help us brush aside this generosity with the master's goods. One hundred "jugs" of oil is actually translated from a unit amounting to about 9 gallons, thus we are talking about 900 gallons of oil. The 100 containers of wheat amount to about 100 bushels, a large amount in the ancient Near East. These are not household quantities, but large, significant, valuable, commercial amounts.
Perhaps he reduced these amounts by his personal commission, which means he was not giving away the master's wealth after all. Perhaps the amount he reduced the debts by was an unjust interest, which should not be charged by law, thus making the manager righteous. Perhaps he just gave away what actually belonged to the master. Either way, the manager is clearly going outside the normal business practices the master and society expect.
So far, this supposedly illuminating story of the Kingdom which we hope offers clarity has taken twists and turns, generated several possibilities for interpretation, and basically left us wondering what will happen next. Surely the manger's reaction to all this will clear things up. Or will it?
The master commends the dishonest manager for acting shrewdly. Again, this is surprising, as the rich man acts out of character. Is the manager really being praised for being dishonest? It takes a deeper reading of the Greek to get a possible glimpse of what Jesus is really saying. The text uses the term "kyrios," or Lord, to refer to the master. Luke uses this term throughout the gospel in addressing and describing Jesus. Perhaps Jesus is interjecting His judgement on the character or action of the manager, despite the legality of the activity. Our reading from Amos condemns the corrupt business practices that oppress the poor and needy. Jesus wants us to recognize wealth and power and authority are often tools of oppressive systems. In the realm of God, debts are forgiven, indentured servants are set free, and relationships are of greater value than money.
Jesus' emphasis is less about using dishonest means, but focusing on relationships in the midst of the dishonest culture around us. We are to understand that our possessions are always to some degree external, and our control of them contrived; all things are God's possession! What if our focus was less on our possessions and more on our selves before God and our relationship with others? What if we lived each moment through the mission of the Church on page 855 of the Book of Common Prayer, to "restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." Perhaps Jesus is making the point that the manger, when faced with a crisis, and visited by his Lord, acts to secure his eternal future. The "children of light", the rest of society, do not recognize the visitation of the Lord in front of them, and do not act.
This parable is difficult to digest. One perspective is that Jesus offers us yet another example of the love of money versus right relationship with God and each other. Money can't buy happiness, we're told, though most of us would like the chance to test that theory. There is a connection, however, between resources and relationships. Relationships are not to be sacrificed for resources. Resources are to be used to nurture relationships. St. Ignatius instructed the church to "Labour with one another, struggle together, run together, suffer together, rest together, rise up together as God's stewards and assessors and servants. Be pleasing to him in whose ranks you serve, from whom you receive your pay." In our community of St. Paul's Church, middle Georgia, the world, and as the Body of Christ, we are to act as stewards of the gifts we have been given, the greatest gift being each other. Using our resources and through relationships, we are called to reclaim who we are and renew our vision of the Kingdom of God among us. When we worship God rather than wealth, we will find that we truly have "friends in high places." And in heavenly accounting, serving God means people are always the bottom line. Amen.