By Jennifer Strawbridge
The parable we have just heard in our gospel reading is about as difficult as they come. Many commentaries, in fact, suggest that even Luke doesn’t know what to make of this story that Jesus tells of the rich man, the dishonest manager, the praise for shrewd behavior, and the command to make friends by means of dishonest wealth.
And despite all the characters in it, this isn’t a parable we can approach following the lead of Fr. Darren’s sermon last week — carefully looking at each character and discerning the role that we are called to play in the story Jesus tells. None of the characters in today’s parable is that appealing. There’s the rich man who praises dishonesty, the manager who is dishonest, the people who have amassed huge debts and jump on board with the manager for their own gain, and the children of light, thrown in at the end, who are praised not for their good deeds but their shrewd dealings.
What in the world is going on here? Is Jesus really praising dishonesty? Is he really commending shrewdness? Is he really on board with the manipulation of wealth? Because it certainly sounds like it. I was not quite sure what to do with this parable when it seems a far cry from the way we like to see Jesus and the usual commands to us — however difficult they are — to love our neighbor and welcome all.
And thus, as we dive deeper into this gospel, we might have to brace ourselves for an uncomfortable ride. Now part of the initial discomfort comes from the reality that this parable is about money and wealth. And more than that, Jesus speaks to the struggle we all have of making good use of our resources as he emphasizes a few key things about money.
Money, he tells us, is a blessing and a responsibility. In fact, from this perspective we can see that the dishonest manager does something good in that, unlike so many of us when it comes to our finances, he is self-aware. He recognizes that he has privileged making lots of money to developing relationships. And finding himself in crisis, the shrewdness Jesus seems to praise is linked to his forgiving the debts of others without any reason and establishing mutual relationships with those who depend on him.
Underneath the manager’s dishonesty and shrewdness and even desperation, Jesus uses this parable to point us to the reality that we are placed on this earth not to exploit one another or the earth, but to love and care for one another. Jesus clearly speaks against separation from each other based on wealth or any other identity marker.
At the same time Jesus praises, however awkwardly, the use of wealth to build rather than exploit our relationships with others. Wealth isn’t bad if our money is used to love people. The problem arises when money is loved to use people. Plenty of people are financially savvy, but not all put their finances to good use.
Nevertheless, our initial concerns remain: does Jesus really want us to follow the example of the dishonest manager? Does he want us to be financially savvy to protect our backs and build relationships with others who depend on us? Maybe. But all this needs to be set alongside the reality that the security money offers is fleeting, even for those with the greatest resources and financial smarts.
Think about it. One day this manager is rolling in money and the next he is faced with total disaster. It’s here that we can see why the distinction made at the end of the parable between money and God is so essential. Money is not totally secure as the only factor by which to live our lives, and money is ultimately not a trustworthy master. Money can be used for many things, but it cannot give us lasting security. Thus, it is to be used for good, but it cannot be worshiped.
And here we are challenged to think of the bigger picture offered throughout the gospel of who exactly God is in comparison with money. God, who is steadfast and constant; God, who engenders relationship with us; God, who doesn’t use us; God, who cannot be used. Yes, Jesus is concerned about our use of money, but he is more concerned, so it seems, with our relationship to wealth and how it affects our relationship with others and especially with God.
In worshiping the living God, how we use our money, our smarts, our privilege, our power, must be driven by questions of how we help not only ourselves, but this world that God loves. We are not to squander or misuse what God has given us, because by doing so we separate ourselves from God and one another. Rather, we are called to be stewards of all we have been given. What we do with that — how we use creation, money, power, our relationships, our lives — matters.
But the thing is, all of this sounds demanding as Jesus makes us think about the orientation of our lives. And yet we still haven’t quite made sense of why, of all the characters in this gospel, it still sounds like we are to model ourselves after the dishonest, even devious, steward. Except that, now that we feel like we know him a bit better, we might have to admit that we can identify with him a bit.
Perhaps we’re drawn to his honesty in his thinking that he’s not strong enough to dig and too ashamed to beg. Perhaps we are drawn to his desperation. Perhaps we are drawn to his cleverness. Perhaps we are drawn to his ability to reach out for help and to change his ways. Perhaps we are drawn to his desire to survive.
What if we are drawn to him not only because he is the one Jesus commends to us, but because he is a model of Jesus himself? What if our call to follow Christ is connected to the call to follow the actions of the dishonest manager?
Think about it. He is the only one in the parable who offers forgiveness. And it is scandalous forgiveness. It is forgiveness using rules entirely different from those accepted by society. And such forgiveness of debt, for all those he hopes to build a relationship with, is outrageous.
But Luke has been telling us from the beginning that Jesus’ behavior is outrageous — he welcomes sinners and forgives their sins, he touches lepers and creates scenes at dinner parties, he even compares himself to other rather uncool characters, like an unjust judge and a ruthless king.
While this comparison doesn’t work for all this parable — I don’t want to suggest that Jesus tries to buy our relationship with him — the point is clear about the outrageous nature of grace, of forgiveness. And the point is clear that, like that manager, we are also called to account for how we use our resources in this world, as Jesus himself subverts the values that tell us what and who is valuable and what and who is not in our world. (It’s worth noting that the dishonest steward descends the social ladder to seek help, building relationships with the least and those who are struggling.)
This parable thus focuses on wealth and exploitation not simply because they are something we need to address, but because they are central to the gospel. No one can be written off or used or discarded because Jesus, like the dishonest manager, has already forgiven their debts, canceled out all prejudice, erased any judgment that might be placed on them that they are less than human and undeserving of full love, inclusion, and relationship with God and God’s people.
In this light, Jesus praising dishonest wealth doesn’t feel so out of character, for following Jesus is outrageous. Believing that our sins are forgiven by God, all of them in all our lives, is outrageous. Insisting that every life has dignity and value is outrageous. Promising to follow someone who was tortured on a cross is outrageous. Claiming that we encounter Christ when we encounter those in need is outrageous.
But this is the God we follow. This is the call on our lives. We are called to be outrageous in how we use our resources, in how we care for that which we have been given, in how we forgive, in how we welcome, in how we love. We are called to make friends for ourselves in the same way as that steward — breaking down barriers, challenging social norms, extending forgiveness, offering and receiving hospitality — so that we may embrace the promise of Christ to welcome us into his eternal home.
The Rev. Dr. Canon Jennifer Strawbridge is associate professor in New Testament at Oxford University and G.B. Caird Fellow in Theology at Mansfield College.