Roberta Felker’s Homily, September 18, 2016

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Holy Wisdom Monastery

Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16: 1-13

September 18, 2016

 

The Crafty Manager

 

 

          All parables have an element of strangeness; that’s sort of the point.  Jesus used parables to teach about the reign of God – but he often had a strange way of making sense.  It doesn’t make sense to turn the other cheek, to throw a party for folks who can’t invite you to theirs, to leave behind an entire flock because one wandered off.  The parables are intended to be counter-cultural… but strange is the least of it today. Hermeneutical gymnastics seem required to make any sense of this narrative, a story that at first glance appears to be commending the kind of accounting shenanigans we might expect from shady Wall Street types.  The vast diversity among scholars’ interpretations testifies to the many frustrated attempts to justify how our manager might be praiseworthy. The fourth-century Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, allegedly used this parable to discredit Jesus, asking, “What kind of Messiah would tell this story?”  Today, over two thousand years later, we may be asking ourselves the same question.

The parable of the crafty manager bridges two sections of Luke: Chapter 15, devoted to Jesus’ companionship with the socially marginal; and Chapter 16, where it inaugurates a series of passages concerned with our relationship with money. As the edgy Episcopal priest, Robert Farrar Capon pointed out, we have basically two choices with this parable: The manager as a scoundrel (a “surgeon general’s warning that ‘shady dealing is hazardous to your soul’s health’”) or as more of an entrepreneur.  I’m going with the latter – with Franciscan Richard Rohr’s definition of salvation as, “simply the readiness, the capacity, and the willingness to stay in relationship.”

Our manager’s job is threatened because the manager has been accused of dishonoring the rich person by squandering the rich person’s property.  The manager attempts to restore the rich person’s honor (and to preserve the prospect of future employment) by forgiving the rich person’s debtors and making the rich person appear generous and charitable.  The rich person sees that the manager has enhanced the rich person’s status (while, admittedly, advancing the manager’s own self-interest) and commends the manager, once perceived as dishonest, for the manager’s ingenious plan.  Albeit through a rather unorthodox route, unlikely relationships are strengthened and sustained.

Pastor/theologian Peter Storey, who spent years in ministry under apartheid’s oppression in South Africa puts the relationship challenge like this:

“Some tell us that following Jesus is a simple matter of inviting him into our hearts. But when we do that, Jesus always asks, “May I bring my friends?” And when we look at them, we see that they are not the kind of company we like to keep. The friends of Jesus are the outcasts, the marginalized, the poor, the homeless, the rejected — the lepers of life.

We hesitate and ask, “Jesus, must we really have them too?”

Jesus replies, “Love me, love my friends!”

This parable stands as one of several socially subversive stories in which Luke features characters of relatively high status in the midst of a fraught situation – and in every instance, their “salvation” is in relationship with someone below them on the social ladder: The anonymous Jew on the road to Jericho accepting help from a member of a despised ethnic group, the scoundrel prodigal desperate enough to join his father’s hired hands, today’s manager who once controlled the accounts of his employer’s debtors now hoping for their hospitality.  The manager may be “ashamed to beg,” but the manager also is prudent enough to recognize when status has evaporated and is savvy enough – ready enough – to reach down the hierarchy for help.  Not the kind of relationships the manager might have chosen before, but now we might expect that new doors will be open and beverages offered.

Luke is not just concerned with the use of wealth – but also with our relationship with wealth and how it affects our relationships with others. Granted, our manager today is desperate. But what if, by reducing other people’s debts, the manager practiced a new kind of economics and by so doing created  – even if unwittingly – a new set of relationships, something more like the reciprocal and egalitarian relationships of friends?  And what if the rich person, now crowned Patron Bountiful, is honored by a reputation newly enhanced not only by newly apparent generosity but also by the employment of such a gracious manager?  How, in a strange, perhaps startling way, do the manager’s actions mirror divine grace: the generosity of a God who forgives us, who desires to be in relationship with us?

This parable serves also as a reminder of what happens when the reign of God emerges among us: Old rules of power and position are overturned, and Jesus’ marginalized friends – those “beneath us” on the hierarchy – become the very ones on whom we depend to welcome us – not only into their homes in this life but as neighbors in our eternal homes.  Jesus’ parables and teaching – in fact, his very presence — announced a reversal of the status quo. Jesus worked on the Sabbath, he sat at table with prostitutes and tax collectors, he befriended all the wrong people.  He said that compassion mattered more than keeping proper ledgers and ensuring that everyone gets exactly what they are due.  Forgiving our debtors doesn’t make good economic sense, but then, we’ve acknowledged that Jesus had a strange way of making sense.  It is not about keeping the rules. Jesus broke all the rules.  Jesus himself was an affront to the morality of the time, to respectability – that’s why they had him killed.

Capon concludes:

The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing – which is the only kind of grace there is.”

Strange notion: grace working through loss and death. We use grace to describe the richness of God’s goodness, the balm of God’s blessing, the calm after the storm. But maybe this is where the story of the crafty manager intersects our own stories most deeply: When we’re stopped in our tracks, when we’re desperate – maybe that’s when we take notice of the possibility of God’s presence – right in the middle of our debts, duplicity, and disarray.  Maybe when there’s no more “business as usual,” grace – and our own naked vulnerability – conspire to unclench our hands from our rung on the social ladder. Maybe that’s when we “get” that we are made to need each other – and in that moment, our capacity, readiness, and willingness to embrace relationship blossom.

Still, I wonder about the crafty manager. What happened after the rich person commended the manager for being so shrewd? Perhaps the two of them become fast friends and feasted together at a great table with the wheelers and dealers scorned by Amos along with other sinners and scoundrels. A table to which we are all invited, of course, crafty and faithful alike.  I wonder what the church could be like with dedicated scoundrels bringing their holy shrewdness alongside the gifts of the children of light?

Let us turn to our God in prayer.

  • That the members of Sunday Assembly and our sisters and brothers of all faith traditions may make room for the surprise of God’s grace and for the new eyes and new wits to embrace new relationships. Let us pray: Loving God, hear our prayer.
  • For the holy shrewdness to know what rules our heart, to know whom we serve and to manage our money and possessions in ways that more closely mirror the economics of the reign. Let us pray: Loving God, hear our prayer.
  • For the courage to live an inclusive gospel message, one that sidesteps judgment, embraces contradictions, and that extends a “welcome home” to all of us scalawags. Let us pray: Loving God, hear our prayer.

 

For what else shall we pray?

 

We now lift up all the prayers listed in our book of intentions, the prayers we hold silently in our hearts, and mention quietly the names of those we wish to remember especially in our prayer today.

 

Good and Gracious God, we offer you these prayers and the prayers and needs that are known to you alone.  We ask you to disrupt the business-as-usual definition of what acting in our own self-interest means in light of the reversal of fortunes that the reign of God portends. We ask this in gratitude for the God who has already forgiven and forgotten all our debts. Amen.

Let us share God’s peace with one another.

 

 

 

 

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