September 18, 2016: "The Dishonest Manager In All Of Us"
“The Dishonest Manager In All Of Us”**
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
Amos 8:4-7 & Luke 16:1-13
As the story goes, Henry Ford visited his family’s ancestral village in Ireland in the early 1930’s. When two trustees from the local hospital heard that Ford was in town, they scheduled a meeting with him and secured a $5,000 donation from Ford for the hospital. The next morning, at breakfast, Henry Ford opened the daily newspaper to the headline of the day: “American Millionaire Gives Fifty Thousand to Local Hospital.” Ford wasted no time in summoning the hospital trustees. He waved the newspaper in their faces—“What does this mean?” he demanded. The trustees apologized profusely, saying it was a dreadful mistake on the part of the newspaper editor. They promised that the editor would publish a retraction the very next day, declaring that the great Henry Ford had given $5,000 to the local hospital, not $50,000. Hearing this, Ford offered them another forty-five thousand dollars, on the condition that the trustees erect a marble arch on the front of the hospital, with a plaque that read, “I walked among you and you took me in.”
The shrewdness of the hospital trustees reminds me of the manager in today’s gospel lesson, for better and for worst. They took an opportunity that was presented to them and used it to their advantage. It is likely that the newspaper headline was not an error, putting Henry Ford in a position where he did not want to look like a cheap-skate. Their quick thinking—shrewdness as Jesus might say—brought in a considerable amount of extra income for the hospital. That’s good, right?
But, wait. Isn’t that extortion? It is at least some form of blackmail. It is certainly unethical by basic standards. The hospital trustees put Henry Ford in a position where he had to give 10-times the original amount of the donation or endure a blow to his reputation. Again, the behavior of the hospital trustees and the manager in Jesus’s parable is remarkable similar—is this really the type of behavior Jesus wants from his followers?
People have beat their heads against this text for generations, trying to figure out what in the world Jesus was talking about. Clergy, lay people, seminary professors and scholars of religion—everyone agrees that, at least as far as Luke 16 goes, the Lord works in very mysterious ways.
We start with two characters: a rich landowner and his manager. The rich landowner learned somehow that his manager is stealing from him, embezzling from the company accounts. The rich landowner summons the manager to his office and gives him the boot with a little dressing-down on the side. The manager immediately understands that his situation is very serious: he has just lost his job and he is not strong enough to do manual labor and he is too proud to beg. This brings him to the realization that he is going to need some friends in the community if he has an chance of survival. So, the manager summons two merchants who are in debt to the rich landowner. One is an oil merchant, and when the manager learns that he owes a hundred jugs of oil to the rich landowner, the manger tells him to cut his bill in half. The other is a wheat merchant, and the manager tells him to take 20% off of his bill, making his debt to the rich landowner 80 containers of wheat instead of 100.
The parable is easy to follow to this point. The manager is trying to make the best of a bad situation, and since he is already in hot water for unsavory business practices, he might as well go all the way and make himself look good by unethically reducing the amount the merchants owe the landowner. At least now he has some friends in town who might take him in when he can’t pay the bills and loses it all. Uncomfortable, but easy to follow.
You might think that when the rich landowner found out that his manger had cheated him again, literally stole right out from under his nose, he would call for the manager to be drawn and quartered. But the rich landowner does nothing of the sort. Instead, Jesus says that, ‘his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.’
Say what? Jesus’s words are completely baffling.
There are two things we need to keep in mind when we run up against strange parables and teaching from Jesus. First, parables are meant to turn conventional wisdom on its head, which means they will not always be easy to understand. Chances are that if we can read a parable, pull a soundbite lesson from it, and not scratch our heads just a little along the way, it is likely we’ve missed the point. A parable should cause us to wonder and seek divine guidance as we try to understand it. Second, Jesus didn’t leave us totally without resources for understanding head-scratching parables. He hands us these stories and says, “Trust what you know about me and figure it out.” As confusing as the parables may be, we have the greatest teacher us all to help us understand.
So let’s give this another try. What exactly is it that the manager does that is unethical or wrong? He forgives the clients’ debts. Well, that sort of sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. This parable is partially about forgiveness. Jesus is illustrating one of the most basic and holy components of Christian faith. It would have been easier if Jesus had just said, “There was a man who was owed a lot of money and one day he went out and forgave all the debts and everyone lived happily every after.” That not how Jesus operates. This highlights the other intent of the parable. It is partially about forgiveness and it is partially about how God does not operate as we do or might expect. God does not let us get away with easy answers because our lives don’t have any easy answers.
Jesus doesn’t tell simple stories because none of us live simple stories. Our lives are not simple. Think of the connections we have with one another—in the church, in the world, at home, in business—and how often they get hopelessly tangled and snarled until you can’t remember what the problem was in the first place. Think of how much time we spend trying to dissect and untangle the complications of our lives; the only thing we are sure about is that we can’t figure out how to fix it. Think of the times you have been between a rock and a hard place, knowing that any decision you make will likely hurt someone. Think of the times you’ve been driven by circumstance to a place where compromising your integrity seems like a small price to pay if it will just get you of the mess.
Jesus knows that our lives are not black and white; we might wish that they were and we might even put on the illusion that we are living in these absolutes. But life is not black and white—we live in shades of grey. In these shades of grey, Jesus gives us the greatest gift of all: forgiveness. Christ offers his forgiveness to us open and freely and without restraint because he knows that not one of us will do what is right or ethical or holy in each and every situation. Christ’s forgiveness sanctifies the grey areas of our lives and has the power to turn them to good. There is nothing we did to earn Christ’s forgiveness and there is certainly nothing we can do to have it taken away. There is no way we will ever be anything less than God’s most cherished children, no matter how many mistakes we make. Christ forgives us even before we know what we are going to do wrong, because his love for us is just that great.
There is a very deep message of faith at work here. Time and time again we are the merchants in God’s kingdom and we have debts brought on by our sins and our failure to live as God desires. Conventional wisdom says that we should be compelled to pay these debts. Christ came into the world as the shrewd manager who went out and forgave the debts of God’s people, knowing that we could never pay. This is the message of the cross and the resurrection. We were indebted to God and totally unable to pay what we owed. Instead of forcing us to pay for something we could never afford, Christ took our debts onto himself all the way to the cross. Our bill, if you will, was erased on the cross and the empty tomb took God out of the business of making lists of what is owed. This is the very essence of Christ’s forgiveness. It is by our faith that we are forgiven freely and without restraint and called to forgive just as freely and without restraint. It is by our faith that this forgiveness pleads with us, every step of the way, to try it out for ourselves.
We pray it every Sunday morning, and all throughout the week: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And as much as we pray it, there are time when it simply doesn’t happen. We are not God, and we cannot offer one another perfect love or even perfect forgiveness. We are human, and we are always going to have mixed motives and screw things up even when we are trying to do the right thing. Our search for integrity, and our desire to be seen as people of integrity, will always be incomplete. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves, and in this parable, he tells us that it’s OK.
It is OK to have mixed motive and make mistakes. What’s important is that we keep striving, we keep running, towards the holy life God has ordained for us—a life built on and guided by forgiveness. It is likely that Jesus will return before we got it just right, though. But Jesus is telling us to just haul off and do it…give it a try…practice it, imperfect as it might be. Forgive everyone. Forgive people even if you know they’re wrong. Forgive people when you know you’re wrong. Forgive people when you don’t feel like it, when they aren't talking to you, when you aren’t talking to them, when you don’t have the time. Forgive people you’ve never met; forgive atrocities so big you are afraid to forgive them; forgive faults so small you are ashamed that they bother you. Forgive even if you’ve done it a thousand times; forgive even if you’ve never forgiven before.
Each one of us here today brings into this sanctuary something, someone, some experience in desperate need of forgiveness. It could be one of your children who has thrown away every advantage you sacrificed to give them. It could be your spouse or partner who has just stopped trying to reciprocate your love. It could be a co-worker or friend who takes more than they give, who is a drain on your resources in every way possible. It could be a spiritual advisor who has betrayed your trust and caused you to question your faith and beliefs. It could be the world, its institutions and structures, that seem to always be stacked against you. It could be evil, injustice, poverty, and oppression that seem to be running rough-shod over God’s people. It could be something dark lodged within your heart from long ago, so long ago in fact that you can’t even remember who did it or why it hurts. I could be you that you need to forgive. Speak these words over it all: “I forgive you.” Do it without restraint. Do it even if it doesn’t make sense. Do it, forgive, because in doing so you will experience life in an entirely new way.
There is a bit of the dishonest manager in all of us, wheeling and dealing in front of God, trying ‘manage’ our lives so they look better before the eyes of heaven. The truth is, we cannot hide from God and there is nothing we can do to spruce up our lives; the energy we put into trying is really a waste. Christ call us instead to put our energies into cultivating within ourselves and each other the manager that goes out into the world and forgives: when it makes sense and when it doesn’t, when it is deserved and when it is not, when there is some visible benefit and when there is not. In cultivating this part of us, this radical and unique part given to us by God, we might feel an overwhelming rush of love and grace, or we might still feel cranky and self-righteous and just plain mad. The good news of the gospel today is that it doesn’t matter. Whatever else might be in our hearts—anger, fear, disappointment—there is also a little seed, planted there by forgiveness that has started to sprout. Christ planted it there. We water and tend to it. One day, with time and with practice, and with God's good grace, it will grow and blossom. With the kingdom full of people whose hearts are blossoming with the forgiveness of Christ, there will be life, abundant and for all.
And when we can’t live this way, forgiving with generosity and grace—and those times will come—there’s even more good news: we are forgiven. Amen.
**With a difficult passage like Luke 16:1-13, I am glad to have conversation partners who help guide my thoughts and ideas. In the week leading up to preaching this sermon The Rev. Whitney Rice became one of my conversation partners, whose sermon by the same name is posted on the Episcopal Digital Network. Without Whitney's profound insight into the passage, I would have been lost. Many of her thoughts are reproduced here with my profound gratitude; I hope to meet Rev. Rice one day!