Boy! O Boy! The cleverness of this fellow in today's Gospel!
"OK", so he wouldn't have scored well in the honesty department, but you must admit he was quite clever.
It seems that he was dishonest many times over. He worked for a rich man, managing his property. Probably he was well enough paid for this service, but not being quite satisfied with his salary, he had been squandering the property, property that was not his, but belonged to his employer. Finding out about it, the employer quite naturally decided to get rid of him. He gave his employee something like the classic "two week notice."
The employee had evidently been living it up on his ill-gotten gains. Now he was really in a pickle--he didn't know what to do. How was he to continue to live in the manner to which he had become accustomed? He had lost his job, and now he had to give his employer a final accounting. It was not bad enough that he had been cheating his rich employer for some time, but now he proceeded to cheat him some more, destroying the old bills and writing ones for lesser amounts for his employer's debtors. This, of course was dishonest, but it was clever, as even the rich man who had been cheated admitted. Probably this dishonest manager thought that when he left the rich man's employ he might find work with one or more of those whose bills he had altered. "I'll scratch your back and you scratch mine." One does wonder however, if they might not have thought twice before putting him in charge of their property
Nevertheless, those debtors must have been delighted. Who wouldn't like to be told that they owed less than they thought they did. It would be like getting a letter from the IRS saying that they were going to get a break and they would only have to pay a portion of the taxes they thought they owed. But those things don't usually happen in real life, do they? Little did they know that the manager was adding on to their bills in the first place. I imagine that they thought like the old song, "I Owe My Sole To The Country Store."
But let's change this story a little. Let's suppose that, instead, it was the rich man himself who called his debtors in and handed them their bill. Let's suppose that instead of writing a new bill for a lesser amount, he wrote, instead, "Paid In Full." Let's suppose, further, that he even forgave his dishonest manager, and gave him another chance.
Does that remind you of anyone you know? It should! Because that is exactly how our God deals with us. If the bill for everything we owe God were taken away and we were given a new one for a lesser amount, it might be like having a bill for a hundred trillion dollars reduced to a mere hundred billion. No matter what kind of break God gave us it would still be impossible for us to repay our debt. What would be the bill, after all, for our life and the whole world and everything in it-not to mention the entire universe? So God did the only thing a loving God could do that would make any difference. As an old hymn put it: "Jesus paid it all". And if that sounds too easy to be true, well, no, it wasn't easy at all. Take a look at the cross if you need to be reminded how "easy it wasn't."
So where does that leave us? Home free, you say? Well, yes and no. Our "legal" debt is canceled, thanks be to God. No bills, no shut off notices, no insistent phone calls. The debt of love, however, isn't one that goes away. What can we give back to this God who loves us so much and has given us so much--"who made heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever; who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger; who sets prisoners free; who opens the eyes of the blind ... " The list goes on forever.
What can we give back? Nothing, for anything we could give is nothing in the face of so much generosity. On the other hand, everything-for that is all we have to give, and it is also just what God wants.
Yes, God wants us to come to church and worship. Yes, God also wants us to give to the church and for the relief of those in need, out of what we have been given. God wants us to spend time in prayer and in reading the scriptures. And, yes, God wants us to reach out to each other and be kind and honest in our dealing with each other; to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and so forth. God wants us to live as one family, to work together for justice and peace on earth. But more than that, God wants it all. God wants our hearts.
Think about it. This God, so almighty, so all powerful, all knowing, compared to whom we are less than a speck of dust, passionately desires a loving, intimate relationship with each of us. There will, however, be no bill. It has to be a gift.
In one of our Bible studies, we had a great discussion on why did Jesus tell his Disciples this special parable. It was very confusing. "Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth?" Imagine the Disciples hearing this coming from Jesus, they probably ask Jesus to repeat himself, clean the wax out of their ears, and look at each other for verification: did he really just say that?
It seems he did. Someone remembered this story, and Jesus has demonstrated a knack throughout Luke's gospel for telling memorable stories. Most of them are parables, which invite us to remember the story and mull on it. Well, that just what we did at Bible study. It is always a mistake to treat parables in the same way we treat allegories, and this story in particular could represent real trouble for the interpreter who treats it as allegory. Who is God in the story? Who is the dishonest manager supposed to represent?
This story or parable highlights our need to take great care in interpreting pieces of scripture in light of their context. If we were to read this passage under the rubric that we are to take everything in the Bible literally, we'd find ourselves in real trouble.
The story in Luke that comes before today's story is the much-beloved story of the prodigal son, the cranky older brother, and the forgiving father. Today's story may well highlight the same situation: someone in trouble stumbles into grace practically by accident. In the story of the prodigal son, he did everything wrong with his inheritance. Acted on his own self-interest and when he comes home, he is welcomed by his father with a great feast. Today's story of the dishonest manager is an equally bad situation, and for the same reason. He acted entirely selfishly without concern for others. So changing the bills that were owed his master, worked out great for him. What's disturbing to those of us listening to his story is that it work's! It works even better than he had planned; not only do the people who owe money to his boss get a better deal, the manager himself has regained some status in the eyes of his employer because of his shrewdness. Even the master comes out smelling like a rose to all the workers that he employed. They really like the way he treated them, even if he didn't realize just what happened.
Forgiveness and consequences are central in this gospel. Forgiveness, Jesus seems to be saying, is the starting point for building the kingdom of God. Psalm 24:1 puts it all together for us.
And therefore forgiving debts is simply telling someone else that scorekeeping is up to the only one to whom anything of value belongs--have a better reason to forgive. We've got more important things than scorekeeping to think about and act on: the work God has given us to do, to love and serve Him, with gladness and singleness of heart, through Christ our Lord.
Amen, and thanks be to God!