17 September 2010
Reflections on Luke 16:1-13 for Pentecost 17C
If you ask an adolescent boy for his favorite Bible passage, be prepared for something outlandish. Like the one a young man offered to a pastor I know (Proverbs 26:11 “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool that returns to his folly.”)—and this as his confirmation verse! While this verse and others like it may not be the most helpful for proclamation during worship, one who reads the Bible ought to be prepared for (sometimes unpleasant) surprises.
After all, for Christians, the Bible is ultimately a book which interprets us. Remember that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). For us who hear the Holy Spirit speaking to us in the scriptures, reading the Bible is risky!
However, even the most experienced risk-takers among the ranks of the baptized were likely not expecting what Jesus dishes out in the gospel lesson this week (Lk. 16:1-13). It shocks us to hear Jesus extolling the virtues of a swindling manager to his disciples. To my knowledge, there are no stained-glass windows depicting this story of a man who cheats on his balance ledger in order to get ahead. Maybe that’s a good thing—after all, the familiarity that most of us have with the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son have taken some of the shock out of these parables. Not so with this story!
The first clue to understanding this parable is its context—Jesus has been dining with sinners and exhorting his fellow Jewish teachers to welcome the lame, the poor and the outcast. To drive home his point, the Lord tells a story about a lost sheep and a lost coin, and then tells the story of the Prodigal Son. The parable of the dishonest manager follows immediately afterwards. All of these stories have to do with the unexpected operations of God’s grace in the world. The losers are invited to the banquet. Family protocols are loosened by the urgency of the Kingdom. Our economic proprieties are upended by the Good News.
The shrewd manager in Jesus’ parable is commended for slashing the debts owed to his master. Is there something that we can learn about grace from this story? In some sense, Jesus is like this manager, slashing the burdensome debts that we ourselves owe to God. After all, even in scripture’s most minimal accounts of what God requires of us (say, Micah 6:8 “…love justice, do kindness and walk humbly with your God.”) we fall far short. But Jesus the discount salseperson has come and cut our debt in a radical way.
We are commended to do the same thing. Unfortunately, says Jesus, the marketers of the world are much wiser in these matters than we are. I’m the last one in the world that would advocate slick promotions for Christianity, and I firmly believe that the consumer-oriented faith that afflicts North America is a curse and not a blessing. However, why aren’t we as urgent about proclaiming God forgiveness of debt—His jubilee—to our neighbors as the used-car salsepeople are about their mega-deals?
Our faith in Jesus, and our thanksgiving for freedom from the debts we owe to God are good news! Are we doing everything in our power to pass the God’s cut-rate offer on to our neighbors? I really wonder about that.