A disclaimer as we begin: I’m not sure I quite know how to preach what this parable seems to say. Still, I’d rather be responsible for the Sermon than the Children’s Time (well done, Christina!), as what this parable seems to say goes against much of what we’ve learned, much of what we teach our children, much of what orders our lives. In this parable, Jesus seems to say that in the kingdom of God, the rules don’t apply. Or even that if the kingdom is going to come to earth as it is in heaven, sometimes the rules have to be broken.
My good friend, Rev. Courtney Allen, is the Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Richmond. She was raised to love the church by her parents, both of whom are active, committed members of their local church: Northminster Baptist in Jackson, MS.
But it wasn’t always that way. Not for her father. Courtney’s father, David, attended church as a boy. He was there every week, in fact — Sunday School, Worship, Wednesday Night prayer meeting until he was 8 years old. That’s when David’s father passed away. His dad had a heart attack on a Friday night. But the next weekend, 9 days later, young David went back to church. It happened to be “Sunday School recognition Sunday.” Children were being recognized for learning Bible verses, reciting the books of the Bible, committing hymns to memory, and then it was time for the children to receive their coveted perfect attendance pins. 8 yr old David stood up with his class and walked to the stage, and the Sunday School director began to call all the names one by one. But she didn’t call the name David Allen. “Ma’am, you forgot to call my name,” he whispered. To which she replied: “Well, David, you missed a Sunday.”
She was right. He had missed a Sunday – the weekend before, when his father died. So he was short of perfect attendance; it was right there in the rules. So David left church that day, without his perfect attendance pin, and he didn’t go back. He didn’t go back to church until years later, well into adulthood, when he could reinterpret that formative moment and forgive the institution for the mistake of an individual. But he never forgot it.
Sometimes the rules need to be broken.
At least that’s what this parable seems to say. It’s universally considered Jesus’ most baffling parable — especially so for those of us who are used to following the rules and seeing things work out as we do.
It’s sometimes called the parable of the “Dishonest Steward” and sometimes the parable of the “Shrewd Manager.” Even Jesus seems conflicted, using both adjectives in the story. Which is it, is he dishonest or shrewd? Is he just plain deceitful or is he admirably crafty? Whatever we label him, it’s jarring to see him appear as an example — in fact, it’s just the sort of jarring, disruptive surprise that Jesus uses to tell us something about the kingdom of God.
“There was a certain rich man,” the story begins, telling of a wealthy landowner who one day calls in his business manager. He’s heard rumors that the manager has been squandering — squandering is the word — he’s been careless, maybe wasteful, perhaps even cheating his employer. Whatever the case, it’s just not working, and the employer has called him in to cut ties.
Jesus tells this parable in chapter 16 right after three parables of lost things in chapter 15: a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. Some have said this parable continues the theme, calling it “the parable of the lost job.”
Staring down the prospect of a lost job, the manager quickly tries to gain favor with those who owe his boss money, calling in the biggest debtors and cutting what they owe. A hundred jugs of oil down to fifty. A hundred bails of wheat slashed to eighty. The manager is reducing and forgiving debt left and right, hoping such mercy will bounce back to him, creating a soft place for him to land once his severance arrangement is up.
The mercy is so dramatic that the landowner hears word of it, which you’d expect to infuriate him, move him from simply firing the manager, to seeking active retribution. In certain lines of work in the ancient world, it could even be the manager’s life on the line for such an act. But instead the owner calls him “shrewd.” He labels him crafty. He says he is exactly the kind of manager he wants running things. And Jesus says to us, “such is the kingdom of God.”
It makes us wonder if the kingdom of God is a realm that celebrates tricksters and holds up thieves as exemplary. It probably shakes our sensibilities to see someone lauded and promoted for breaking the rules.
That might be because the rules have usually worked for many of us. To quote the Emmy-winning actor Peter Dinklage, “It’s easy to confuse the way things are with the way things ought to be… especially if the way things are has worked out in your favor.” (1) That’s the gospel according to television, but it sounds something like the gospel proclaimed by Jesus
It can be a jarring message for those for whom the rules have worked. But what about those for whom they haven’t? Those who have found the current state of things to be exhausting, frustrating, even unjust?
James Scott – a political scientist at Yale – has said such people throughout history have used any number of strategies to survive and challenge things as they are. Calling them “everyday forms of resistance,” he cites things like foot-dragging, false compliance, feigned ignorance, lies and half-truths as ways that people who feel overpowered by the economic and political structure around them will attempt to survive or bring about change. (2)
Maybe that’s one way to understand this shrewd/dishonest manager – one doing whatever he can with the methods available to him to set things closer to right.
There is a difference between justice and legality, don’t forget. Like in United States history, when people broke the law of the land to resist or flee slavery, and others broke the law by harboring them on the Underground Railroad. Like in European countries under Nazi terror, where righteous people hid or smuggled Jewish refugees, breaking every rule at great threat to themselves.
My friend, Pastor Darryl Aaron of Providence Baptist in Greensboro, has said: “When you have seen reality with sacred eyes…” — that is the eyes that can view the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven — “…then you understand there are times when the rules don’t apply.”
I’m not sure I have those eyes. I’m more like what Will Campbell once identified. He was preaching at the grand and ornate Riverside Church. He began his sermon in the classic iconoclastic manner of a self-described “bootleg preacher,” saying: “Your pastor tells me you want me to talk about following Jesus.” Then he looked at the ornate cathedral with its stained glass, sacred art, high arching nave, and he said, “But you don’t want to hear about that. You want to hear about how to follow Jesus while keeping all of this.” (3)
I think that’s true of me. I’d like to hear about how to follow Jesus while keeping things in tact. I’d like to follow in the way of Jesus and take on the mercy he proclaims, but not have it change anything dramatically about my life. I’d like to follow Jesus, and simultaneously preserve things as they are.
But I think this parable works because Jesus is telling it to people with those “sacred eyes” — the eyes that I don’t seem to have. People who can see that the world of the parable — and the world in which they live — is not the world as it ought to be. We have a clue of this from the very first line: “There was a certain rich man.”
The gospel of Luke is particularly concerned with wealth and its uses. We hear it at the very end of the passage today: “You can not serve God and money.” We hear it earlier, when Jesus makes clear the proper use of wealth in Luke 12: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
In Luke especially, Jesus sets expectations for the use of wealth. The parables themselves include numerous wealthy characters whose resources are vast and are used to bring about signs of the kingdom on earth; positive examples like a father of a lost son who throws a great party, or a Samaritan who takes a wounded man to an inn and has the resources to pays whatever is needed, or a man who hosts a grand banquet and fills the seats with the poor, crippled, lame and blind. Each of these positive characters is introduced with the phrase: “There was a certain man.” It’s Luke’s version of “once upon a time” and it’s used throughout the parables to set up a story. But three times the adjective “rich” is added to the phrase: “Once upon a time there was a rich man.” And in the gospel of Luke, when that’s the first thing you hear about someone, it’s a clue you might already know other things about them. It tells you not that they are rich, but that they are a certain kind of rich. The intro phrase shows up to describe a rich farmer in Luke 12, who builds bigger barns to store up his grain and is later called a “fool.” It introduces a rich man directly following today’s passage in Luke 16, who feasts and enjoys the finer things while a poor man, Lazarus, is ignored at his gate all along. And it introduces the owner in our parable today.
With this ancient introduction, the audience of this parable would see the owner in this parable as the kind of person interested only in self-preservation. The kind of person who would build bigger barns to store abundance, or walk by Lazarus at the gate on the way to their personal feast. A person marked by self-centeredness that can’t see the world around them beyond their walls. A person who had excluded and exploited others on their way to the top.
The message seems to be that you should use your resources to throw a welcome party rather than build a barn. You should use your gifts to help the wounded of this world, rather than only store up for yourself. You should let the gifts of your life be shared openhandedly in service to grace and abundant mercy, rather than sitting and keeping a careful accounting of debts. You should at all times consider those around you, whose lives have been affected as you seek self-sufficiency.
Keep in mind that most of the people who followed Jesus were not simply poor, some were even expendable. But Jesus made his life with such people. It was with them he imagined a kingdom of God, and he did so often speaking of things like the unfair relationships that could exist between employer and employee, inequitable wages, the excesses of some alongside the consequences of poverty for others. To such a crowd of people, with no evidence to the contrary, the owner would be viewed as self-serving, exploitative, charging impossibly high interest on debts. And in contrast, this manager is described as one who spread things around. The verb translated “squander” means to sow seed – to pass around, like a farmer scatters seed. That’s bad farming. It’s bad business. It’s the kind of thing that frustrates the owner. But isn’t that the kind of abundance that Jesus urges?
Here’s the point: the parable tells of a manager who does dishonestly what the owner should have done honestly. Instead of a parable of a dishonest steward, Jesus wants to tell stories of generous owners. Jesus wants this world full of stories of the merciful and abundant. Jesus wants to see and hear of those who do things almost nonsensical in the service of the kingdom. He is seeking those who follow his call in Luke 4 to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, all the while proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.
The year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to the biblical tradition of the year of Jubilee: a once every 50 year practice when debts are relieved, people are set free, and the mercy of God is apparent. Some of you know that this work of relief and mercy is a particular passion of our friend and former pastoral Resident, Rev. John Thornton, who is a co-pastor of a new church start in Durham. It’s actually a church restart. For the last several years, John’s good friend, Rev. Kevin Georgas served as pastor of Ephesus Baptist Church, which had grown consistently smaller over a period of decades, prompting the twenty or so remaining members to consider their future. Kevin invited the church to consider three possibilities: close and donate their resources, merge with another church plant, or restart. The church unanimously chose to restart, celebrating what had been in the life of their congregation, and then reorganizing with renewed vision. This past Easter Sunday, they held their final service as Ephesus Baptist. Along with Kevin, they added two additional pastors: John and Rev. Heather Folliard. Through the summer months they met as small groups, ate together, dreamed dreams and saw visions, and they recognized a sharp and specific vision for their congregation, which includes a call to relieve people’s debts. They expect to collectively reduce debts of members of their congregation by $40,000 a year. Three weeks ago, they gathered for their first service. 100 people worshipping as a new church with a new name: Jubilee Baptist Church. And today, right about now actually, Jubilee is sharing in their first celebration of debt relief, helping a church member by paying off a credit card that they’ve used to try to keep up with medical bills. (4)
There’s nothing that member did to deserve it, per say. It actually goes against much of the order of this world and the rules we’ve learned to live by. But it sounds a lot like that “year of the Lord’s favor” that Jesus proclaims, which seems to involve changing some of the rules.
It’s what happens in the Kingdom of God – a shrewd manager changing the accounts, lost sons welcomed home before they can even form the words of their apology, lost coins searched for urgently and recovered in the corner, lost sheep pursued by a reckless shepherd who leaves the rest behind in single-minded hysteria. And if that confuses us, if we find it confounding or disrupting, well, then it might tell us something about us. It might tell us that the rules have often worked for us. But Jesus came also and especially for those for whom the rules don’t always work. Because, remember, the rules didn’t always work for him. So he calls us in our own times and places to be just as shrewd — to imagine this world if it was redeemed by the love of God and to use whatever means available to us to make it known. Just as God did in Christ.
What if God was only just? That is to say, what if God only followed the rules? But instead, God in Christ came to this earth, moved about, crossing boundaries and defying conventions. And every time Jesus came up against a standard of what was ordered and just, he seemed to choose mercy, challenging convention and canon, acting graciously and lavishly, spreading love around in this world, provoking the grumbling of his peers by freely forgiving and healing those who came to him. He changed the accounts. He gave the farm away. He mismanaged the things that others had preserved. He squandered generosity. And he forgave debts until such mercy was accessible to all, even you and me.
What if God had followed the rules? What if God had asked for all that is owed? Well, “the wages of sin is death.” It’s right there in the rules. Thanks be to God for a kingdom where sometimes the rules are broken.
- From Game of Thrones, “The Dance of Dragons.”
- James C. Scott, “Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.”
- From Lawrence Wright’s profile of Will Campbell, “The First Church of Rednecks,” Rolling Stone (December 1990).
- For more on Jubilee and their work, visit www.jubileebaptist.church