Sometimes Jesus doesn’t make it easy for us. Today’s parable is often described as one of the more difficult of Jesus’ little stories. It is obtuse and confusing, asking us to accept Jesus as endorsing fraudulent and deceitful practice. If we interpret the master as God then we have a major issue, does God endorse such behaviour and how do we make sense of such. If we interpret this story from the worldview of capitalism we will be sympathetic to punishing the crooked manager?
Over the years we have witnessed many situations where people have acted in appropriately with other peoples money. The Global Financial Crisis is one alongside the collapse of a number of investment and banking institutions where one or more of the staff have acted to deceive others and to benefit from their actions. If you have had money as when you suffer great losses due to the actions of another.
So we may have sympathy with the Master and little for the manager. He deserves to be fired and get what is coming to him for his laziness, ineptitude and his decision to discount people’s debts just so he could gain favour when he finally loses his job. We have sympathy with a person who has been shamed by the actions of one he trusted for, as John Pettypoints out, “In the first century world, a person’s wealth was connected to ‘honour.’ In fact, wealth was not necessarily an end in itself, but rather a means to get honour. Money could buy respect, or so it was thought. A person could be ‘dishonoured’ for any number of things, but two of them included having an unscrupulous servant, and taking back a gift.”
Yet what was the manager to do? To lose his job meant facing the indignation of two dishonourable options – becoming a slave and digging roads or sitting on the side of the road and begging. His life was at an end. He had no more options, and unless he acted quickly and decisively he would be left homeless, penniless and without friends and family. So he gets creative, he demonstrates his business and strategic acumen by calling in his master’s debtors and giving them a gift – a discount on their debts.
Now as Petty points out, this was a very shrewd move by a very shrewd business man. He had won himself some very powerful friends, had placed his Master in the situation where he either accepted his manager’s decision or took back the gift given in his name. The latter would result in him losing face, customers, suppliers and more. He would become a man who could not be trusted and, possibly, join his manager on the scrap heap. So doing the only thing he can, he accepts his mangers decision.
Yet there is more to this story. Bernard Scott suggests that word “diaballein in 16:2 has the sense “accuse” in the sense of “falsely accuse, slander, lie about.” So the manager has been innocent all along, but sees no way to prove his innocence other than by demonstrating what a shrewd operator he really is (and always has been).” (Jenks)
Gregory Jenks writes, “The master had originally dismissed the manager because he had [allegedly] squandered the master’s property. Now he commends him for acting shrewdly — the way a manager is supposed to act. If the master cannot repudiate the reductions in debt instituted by the manager without loss of face, do we have to imagine that the master let his dismissal stand or could he have taken the manager back?
In the social world of Palestine, where debt burdens reduced people to poverty and consigned many to slavery as a consequence, the master would not have been the object of public sympathy as Jesus’ listeners first heard this tale.
In this parable the manager gets even with the master by appropriating the master’s profit, which itself is morally suspect – for as we have seen no characters in this parable are innocent. Wrong has been done, lots of wrong on all sides.”
False accusations impact on the lives of all involved. How we speak about others, our initial reactions to a situation, our capacity to believe gossip and car park chatter have consequences. Speaking without knowing the full story can result in statements, which stain a persons life forever. In this case they not only threaten the future of the manager, but lead him into acting wrongly and inappropriately just to save his job and his lifestyle. They also have a habit of ensnaring those who believe such accusations. The Master finds himself trapped by the subsequent behaviour of a man who was at least initially, innocent.
State and church politics, run the risk of dredging up accusations which become a millstone around the neck of all involved. Self-interest drives such accusations yet we often find the people who start the process having to defend themselves from the same accusations. Our present debate about political campaign donations is a case in point.
Jesus makes the point, there is no such thing as a little dishonesty. You cannot be just a little pregnant, a white lie is a lie, dishonesty no matter how well intentioned is still dishonest and will have consequences.
It is also true that being trustworthy in small things translate into trustworthiness with bigger things, being trustworthy with others possessions means you may also be able to be trusted with things of your own.
How do we make sense of this parable in a time when the ego self dominates all decision making processes; where if it is right for me then it is right with out question; in a time where transparency in business, relationships and politics is in question. How do we survive spiritually and morally when we are asked to accept, participate in and turn a blind eye to false accusations, false practices and false premises at the foundations of our community life?
Jesus drops the bombshell – you can not serve money and God. If money was, in Jesus time, more than simply what it could buy and was the symbol of honour and respectability, the basis on which one built ones value and worth as a person then there is no room for the value and worth that comes from a covenantal relationship with God. Why? Because God seeks a compassion that includes not excludes, a compassion that is inclusive of all, a generosity using what one has to change the present and the future for others.
We are asked to give up our selves as the centre of the world and place our selves in the midst of others as an equal, living in harmony with God and others. As we found in last weeks Gospel honour in God’s economy is found in the opposite corner to where it is found in the economy of a shamed based society and in a self centred consumerist society such as ours.
We are called to be faithful to our experience of a compassionate God, a God who deals honestly and respectfully with us and whom we do not have to manipulate to retain our freedom. We are to live so others to can be free to become whom they already are with out manipulating God and man We are enough, there is enough and will find honour in enough. Amen