Honest Good from Dishonest Acts
September 18, 2022
Annie and I love watching a show with a good mystery. It makes it really fun to try to piece out a whodunit or put the clues together before the show tells you the answer. But sometimes, we end up watching a show where, rather than a mystery being the thing that needs figuring out, it’s the sheer complexity of the plot. There’s always a character (or characters) who are so clever and forward-thinking that we’ll have to pause it from time to time to review and make sure we’re tracking what’s going on. Shows like House of Cards, or Game of Thrones, or Peaky Blinders often give the impression of their main characters being so smart and so clever that no one watching can really predict where things are going.
Now, most of the time people aren’t that clever in real life. Very few people have the ability to pull strings and arrange events so well that no one catches on until the trap is sprung. But there are some really clever, really smart people out there. People like Jonas Salk who discovered the polio vaccine was a really smart guy. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were able to calculate—by hand—the trajectories of the rockets that took us to the moon. Very smart people come up with amazingly smart solutions to things all the time, and most of the rest of us just have to sit back in awe at how clever they are.
But sometimes, clever people aren’t so helpful. Sometimes they use their cleverness to take advantage, to build themselves up, to get ahead while leaving everyone else behind. Sometimes that cleverness turns into a con artist. Sometimes that cleverness hurts a community baseball and softball league. Sometimes that cleverness causes harm when people are taken advantage of and tricked.
So it’s really weird, and more than a little uncomfortable, when our gospel reading proclaims that Jesus commended the dishonest manager in the parable. Jesus seems to be praising this guy who swindled his boss and forced his clients into a position of giving him favors. Sure, he was clever, but his cleverness, from our perspective, looks like it was only for his own benefit. Why would Jesus want us to look to this guy?
I’m sure it’s the reason you all got up this morning to come here, so let’s talk about first century Palestinian economics for a second. It all starts with Rome. Rome levied heavy taxes on the people of Palestine, and that burden fell pretty hard on the poor farmers. When they found they couldn’t pay their taxes, bigwig rich guys from Jerusalem and Caesarea would swoop in and offer to pay their taxes—if the poor farmers agreed to sell them their farm. Now, they could still stay on the farm, as tenants. They would just pay their new landlord a portion of their produce of oil, wine, wheat—whatever. And if there was a bad year and they fell short of what they owed their landlord, the big guy would graciously loan the tenants something to get by on. But now they owed more. And it would happen, year after year. The debt kept growing. It was an incredibly unjust and unfair system of constant exploitation. But the bigwig landowners wouldn’t be the ones coming down to the little farms to squeeze their rent out of them—no, that was left to the middle managers. Stewards, like the guy in our parable. Clever people.
Knowing that, theologian Brian MacLaren suggests that we look again at what this manager does in the parable. Here’s this middle manager whose job is to squeeze as much rent as possible out of these poor farmers, shielding his boss from the direct hatred these people feel, and one day he’s called into the office. He’s been accused of cooking the books, squandering those payments, embezzling funds—however you want to characterize it. On this accusation—not proof, just an accusation—the manager is immediately fired. In the blink of an eye, the manager discovers that he is completely, fully, entirely disposable. The master doesn’t value him. He sees the manager as nothing more than a number pusher. And the manager has to think for a minute—why was he working so hard for a master and a system that was making him hated by his neighbors? Why was he giving his all for a boss that tossed him aside with nothing but a rumor? Why was he so committed to a system of exploitation that he thought he could get ahead if he was ruthless and clever enough? So he had a change of heart. If he had to choose, he was going to switch sides.
He disrupted the exploitation on which his boss depended. By forgiving so much of the debts of the poor who owed his boss, he was putting his boss in a bind. Suddenly these people who were indebted to his master would see him as being gracious and kind, a good Jew who honored the forgiveness of debts mandated in the Bible, the sort of person who relieves the needy and is a person the community should look up to. If his master went back on what the manager did and re-imposed the debts, the backlash would be immediate and his reputation would be tarnished. The manager also got some benefit, because he’s the face these people associated with that kindness. Now, when he was fired, he’d have friends.
Jesus wants us to live into the kingdom, but he also recognizes that the kingdom won’t come in its fullness just yet. The truth is, there will be injustice here and now. People will be exploited. The poor will still be here. But there are people who are very good at manipulating this present system, like the manager manipulated his boss’s injustice by leveraging his position to help the poor and needy. Jesus, by commending the manager, is encouraging us to use our positions within this corrupt world of power and money to help the poor and needy. Be as clever as the children of this age, but do it with the motivations of children of the light, he says. Lead with the humanity of others.
Like the insurance representative who conveniently reworks the paperwork so a person’s necessary medical procedure is covered when it would normally be denied.
Like the policeman who lets the person off with a warning because they can tell a ticket would do far more damage than simply remind them not to speed.
Like the grocery store manager who feeds the homeless with the surplus produce that needs to be tossed anyway.
When we start looking at our positions and imagining the small ways that God calls us to value the humanity of others, we can start taking those small steps of solidarity with the poor and needy. Jesus encourages us to value human dignity when the system we are in expects nothing but exploitation. So in that way, Jesus wants us to look to the dishonest manager, because the dishonest manager saw through the inhumanity of what he was doing, and sided with the poor. He used his position of power and influence to make the lives of others better. He used the system to cleverly work against the system. And in that way, he offered a small glimpse of the kingdom of God.
May we all do the same where we are, and may God’s kingdom come through those actions.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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