The parable of the dishonest manager.
At first glance it’s difficult to know what this parable is about. Instead of being furious that the manager has written off a lot of his receivables, the owner commends him. And astonishingly Jesus seems to approve of him too.
Jesus had a knack for telling memorable stories, and sometimes we forget that they are not allegories, where everything in the story represents something or someone else, but parables. Parables are teaching stories intended to make us see things differently. So we don’t need to try to understand the owner as God or the manager as us or the Pharisees or whoever. Instead let’s listen to the story with as open minds as we can muster.
A manager has been caught cooking the books and is given notice. He doesn’t want to become a manual laborer and begging is beneath him, so he decides to make himself very popular with those who owe money to the business. He calls the customers and gives them hefty discounts so that they will be obliged to him and will support him when he’s unemployed. And when he finds out, his boss approves.
It may help if we look at the context for this story in Luke’s gospel. Just before this Jesus has told three stories about forgiveness. First the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to look for one, then the woman who scours her house looking for one lost coin, and finally the prodigal son. It seems as though Luke is focusing on the question of forgiveness – who gets forgiven? And how much?
The prodigal son gets forgiven even though he has acted outrageously – having squandered his inheritance on wine, women and song he comes crawling back home. And his father welcomes him and isn’t even angry.
That’s a story about God’s grace – God’s incredible willingness to take us back and to give us the gifts of the kindom regardless of what we’ve done or how we’ve behaved. Perhaps this parable is too. The manager gives huge discounts. That’s certainly a picture of God’s grace. We can never earn enough to pay for God’s approval, but we don’t have to – it’s given to us at a huge discount, in fact for free! The manager could expect to get into even worse trouble than he is already, but his boss seems to treat his behavior as an example of savvy business practice, so the manager gets off scot free – that’s surely a picture of grace.
It’s all quite startling. No-one gets what we would expect. Which is the whole point of the gospel. We can let go of the fear and the shame that we carry, because God’s way of doing things is startlingly different. We don’t need to be afraid because, as the New Testament reading mentioned, God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”. Everyone.
What difference does it make to us to know that we are forgiven, that we are free? Jesus commends the actions of the dishonest manager – if he can think outside the box and come up with a way to save his skin, how much more can we be creative knowing that we are safe? What risks might we take in following Christ, knowing that ultimately all is well?
After the parable, Luke’s gospel segues into a conversation about money and stewardship. If we do not have to keep grasping and grabbing for ourselves; if we do not have to think about number 1 all the time because God’s already doing that; what difference does it make in how we live?
It means that we can risk being faithful to God even when that means going against the way everyone else thinks. It means that we can risk following gospel values of gentleness, cooperation, forgivingness instead of feeling that we have to compete and push others out of the way. We no longer have to keep tally of who owes us what and who we owe… we can risk living in grace, giving freely and recklessly because we are the children of God and that’s what God’s like.
We tend to confuse God and Santa. Santa is the one who keeps a list and checks it twice. Santa is the one who checks whether you’ve been naughty or nice. God doesn’t keep a list, God knows that we’re human and we sin. It’s part of the package. And through the work of Jesus Christ, God allows us to write off our debts and step back into full fellowship with the divine.
Living in communion with God, aligning our will with hers, is going to make a difference in our lives. Jesus says you can’t serve God and wealth; the prophet Amos who we heard from in the first reading underscores that – if you’re walking with God then you’re not cheating on other people in order to get ahead. But walking with God goes much further than that. If you are walking with God then you don’t need to be afraid of other people attacking you, which means you don’t have to attack them first.
Most of us have inner critics. We are always criticizing ourselves and we’re always criticizing other people. We’re always mentally attacking them. We don’t have to do that any more. In fact as children of the all-compassionate God we get to learn how to stop criticizing. That’s what forgiveness means. That’s what the radical grace that takes our bills and writes them off, calls us to do. To stop criticizing. To stop holding grudges. To stop tallying up what someone else has done or said. To stop tallying up what we have done or said.
This inner bookkeeping has to go. It isn’t Christ-like.
It’s not easy to let go of our negative thoughts about other people. For some of us it’s even harder to let go of our negative thoughts about ourselves. But the two tend to go together.
So here’s a way to start. Think of someone you find particularly annoying. Whoever comes to mind. Most of us won’t have to think very hard!
Make it a daily practice to pray for that person asking that God may make them the grace-filled Christ like being they were made to be. Whenever you find yourself criticizing them or remembering things they have done, ask God to forgive you and help you forgive them. Instead of thinking the angry, critical, negative thoughts remind yourself that they are as precious to God as you are. Whenever you come in touch with them, ask God to help you to see Christ in them.
This isn’t easy, this is mature discipleship. Letting others go free of our criticism and hidden anger challenges the way we have been conditioned to live. Allowing ourselves to fully experience God’s love for us, and allowing ourselves to realize the forgiveness that is ours in Jesus is mature discipleship.
Trusting in God’s radical and abundant grace so that we can become, like God, recklessly giving in every area of our lives, trusting that we will be held in grace, this is mature discipleship. We are the managers of all that God has given us. It is not ours, it is held on trust. Our job is to manage it without fear as beloved Children of a reckless and all-compassionate God.