Often when we talk about Jesus, we marvel at his parables, and we encourage each other to follow his teachings. We ask questions like, “What would Jesus do?” as if the answers are obvious. We describe Jesus as illuminating God, helping us to understand God in an incarnate way. We even say that all things necessary for salvation are found in Holy Scripture. And for the most part, all of those things are true – until we get to today’s parable. Most of us listen to the lesson for today and can only say, “Wait….what?”
Here’s the problem. Unlike many of Jesus’ parables and sayings, most of us come away from this one completely confused. Jesus starts off simply enough. A rich man has a manger, or steward, and the manager is accused of squandering the master’s property. The master threatens to fire the manager, and so the manager goes off and talks to all the debtors of his master. Knowing he is about to be fired, the steward strikes deals with the debtors, decreasing their debts, in the hopes of making some friends who will feel indebted to him and may take him in once he is fired. But what happens next is where the parable gets confusing. When the master finds out what the steward has done, instead of being angry, he commends the manager for being shrewd. And to top off this odd response, Jesus completes this whole parable with an instruction that all of us should be like the shrewd manager, making friends by means of dishonest wealth. Jesus concludes the story by telling us that no one can serve God and wealth.
Confused yet? You are in good company! Even most scholars disagree about what the parable is trying to do. Though we all might understand the part about our loyalties being torn between God and money, the parable hardly helps us get there. The manager is a schemer – he is about to be fired because he has mismanaged things. But instead of righting the situation with his master, he confesses that he is both lazy and proud. He sneakily makes deals with the master’s debtors in the hopes that the debtors will see him as an ally and will help take care of him when he is fired. But what is most confusing about the whole story is that Jesus says we should go and do likewise.
What might be helpful in getting our heads around Jesus’ strange parable is to understand the economics of “Roman-occupied Galilee in the first century. Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. The rich man … along with his steward or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants.” Wealthy landlords of the day would hide interest charges in the money owed by the peasants. According to scholars, someone like the wealthy steward could be charging the average peasant anywhere from 25-50% for the landlord, an additional cut for the himself, and then a Roman tax on top of all that.[i]
Now before we get too self-righteous about the injustice of the Roman economic system, we have to remember the economic system we operate under today. Think about modern college students, who not only attend colleges with soaring tuitions, but also are being offered student loans with higher interest rates that ever before. Add on top of that a weak economy and you see our young people being buried under unfair debt. Or think about predatory payday loans. Those scraping by to make ends meet start slipping behind. Bills are due and they do not have enough to make ends meet, so they get lured in by the immediacy of a pay-day loan. But by the time all is said and done, they lose more of their paychecks to the interest charged by loan sharks than if they had just kept their money. And just in case we think we can get away with blaming student loan and payday lenders, we cannot forget our own country’s lending policies with impoverished countries. Leaders of third world countries agree to harshly austere loans we make, but the poor of the country end up bearing the brunt of the burden. In fact, “the Lutheran World Federation calls oppressive debt terms imposed on Honduras and other Latin American countries ‘illegitimate debt’ and likens such debt itself to ‘violence,’ because of its crushing effects on people’s futures.”[ii] Though we may not have everyday contact with stewards or managers, their economic system is more familiar than we may realize.
What is unclear about the steward’s actions is how he is able to forgive some of the debtors’ debts. In forgiving the debts of the debtors, the manager may have been forgiving his own cut of the interest being charged. In that way, his actions seem a bit more noble. Obviously, he is cutting out his own salary, but he is doing so in a way that seems to, at least outwardly, condemn the system. Or, the steward could have been eliminating all the hidden and prohibited interest in the contracts.[iii] This would have been a bolder move, as he would have been denying the master his typical amount due. But because he is enforcing Jewish laws around interest, he would have ingratiated himself to the local Jewish peasants. This is why the steward may receive commendations from the landlord and Jesus – not because he is noble per se, but because he manipulates the unjust system to curry favor with his neighbors – the very ones who might lend him a hand when he is fired for doing something supposedly just.[iv] Whatever the self-interest of the steward is, what he is able to do, and perhaps why his master calls him shrewd, is use an unjust system against itself. Just or not, the steward is able to see that the power of mutuality, of relationship, is the better bedfellow than the unjust economic system of the day.
One of my favorite classes in college was a class called “Social Dance.” We spent the semester learning the Fox Trot, Waltz, Tango, Cha-Cha, and Swing. My class happened to have more men than women, so I never had to sit out a dance. I just switched from partner to partner, trying to adjust as each lead learned the steps. There were many hard lessons in that class, not least of which was learning how to let the man lead. But the hardest lesson was learning that no matter what dance we were doing, and no matter how intertwined our bodies were, my frame was a vital component to the dance. Even in a dance like the Tango, where bodies seem to be intertwined, each partner is holding on to their frame, protecting their space. I was fascinated to see how two bodies could function in such unison, looking like one unit, and yet, be two differentiated, separate units.
As I studied our gospel lesson this week, I wondered if Jesus’ lesson about wealth is not unlike a couple dancing the Tango. Living in the world that we do, there is no way for us to escape the dancing partner of wealth. Given that wealth has the power to corrupt, we will always need to keep our frame in place – keeping the dance going in unison, but never letting ourselves forget to be differentiated from dishonest wealth. Though the steward seems unseemly and self-interested, he shows us an intricate tango with wealth – how to manipulate wealth so that wealth only hurts itself, not those most in need.
The way that we keep that firm frame is by being in relationship – by making friends as Jesus tells us.[v] When we invest in friendships (not just friendships with people we like, but kingdom friendships[vi] – the kind of relationships that are unexpected, but feed us more than any wealth can), then wealth begins to lose its power to weaken our frame. Kingdom friendships are those friendships with people at church or in the world with whom you thought you would never have anything in common. Kingdom friendships are those relationships you develop with those who are different – either socioeconomically, racially, or ethnically. Kingdom friendships are those relationships that develop when you realize that despite the fact that you are trying to help someone else, they are actually helping you. The steward may have made kingdom friendships out self-interest, but the results are the same. He realizes once he sees the humanity in those he is oppressing – once he makes kingdom friendships, the wealth he is pursuing no longer matters. That is what Jesus invites us into today – that is how Jesus knows that we can hold onto our frame when dealing with the master of wealth. Jesus invites us to nurture our kingdom friendships because when we nurture those friendships, we strengthen our sense of self, ensuring our frame never slips in our tango with wealth. Amen.
[i] Barbara Rossing, “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13,” September 18, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2982 on September 14, 2016.
[iv] G. Penny Nixon, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 95.
[v] David Lose, “Pentecost 18C: Wealth and Relationships,” September 14, 2016, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/09/pentecost-18-c-wealth-and-relationships/ on September 15, 2016.
[vi] Thomas Long, “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, vol. 30, no. 4, Pentecost 2007, 57.