Jeremiah 8:18-9:1Luke 16:1-13
Chuck Campbell, professor of preaching at Columbia Seminary here in Atlanta, says that there are four tones in Scripture. I imagine him standing in front of one of those old blackboards faded white over the years by chalk usage as he shares these words of wisdom with his class.
One tone in Scripture is “yes”; these are the words of encouragement, passages of comfort and strength, that direct the saints to persevere in faithfulness. Another tone is “no”; these are the voices of prophets that speak truth to power, the hands that turn over tables in the presence of idolatry. Yet another, Campbell says, is “go”; these are the moral passages spurring us to action, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, to become like the disciples and the people of God in their moments of faithfulness.
And that fourth tone? Campbell reaches his hand up to the chalkboard and drags his fingernails along it: “SCREEEEEEEECH!” It seems to run counter to the other three; it seems to be there by intention to confuse and distress us, to dis-comfort us, surprise us.
Brian shared this wisdom of Professor Campbell with me earlier this week as we discussed our gospel lesson from this morning. This is the challenge of sticking with the assigned lectionary texts on a given Sunday: they don’t necessarily fall into our nice and tidy theological categories. And looking at Jesus’ parable of the master and the dishonest manager, you can almost hear the fingernails across the blackboard. It is a story that baffles at first, second, third, fourth read. As in all parables, the one who is referred to as “master” – kyrios (or “Lord” in Greek) – is meant to represent Jesus himself. The dishonest manager could represent any number of folks in Jesus’ time, depending on your reading – the Pharisees, the tax collectors, or ordinary folks who cheated their way through the system at the expense of others. And the master threatens the manager with dismissal for his ineffective management. We expect some kind of justice for this man’s behavior. So far, so good.
But then we follow the manager as he begins to react in fear to his coming dismissal. He decides to go to the debtors, one by one, and find a way to gain their favor and thus their protection once his employment is gone. He cuts their debts down; one by twenty percent, another in half. And then the master, the Lord of the story, the figure playing our precious moral Jesus, shatters our expectations and commends the dishonest manager for acting shrewdly in settling the accounts.
Maybe we’re reading it wrong. Perhaps it’s tone one, the “yes” tone, and we are to see ourselves in the place of those who owe the master and should trust that our debts will be reduced. Or perhaps it’s tone two, the “no” tone, and Jesus is employing irony here to reprimand those who act like the manager. Or maybe we’re looking at tone three, the “go” tone, and we are all commended to go and be dishonest that we might receive the blessings of God in this messy, messy world.
There are a variety of theories from a variety of scholars about what is really happening in this lesson. Each of them is searching for something that isn’t there at first glance, just like us, because none of those other tones seem to fit well. The “yes” of encouragement is usually more obvious than this; the beatitudes of blessing, prayers of praise that magnifies God and how God will lift up the lowly and fill the hungry. And Jesus often does use irony and humor, but not in the “no” tone by putting himself in the place of condoning behavior which is questionable at best. And a “go” tone which would recommend that we all “do likewise” by settling debts with dishonesty and storing up treasures for ourselves on earth? That just doesn’t sound right, either.
We know this Jesus, don’t we? Some of you know him well; all of us seek to know him better. He’s the one who demonstrates mercy and forgiveness, who always widens that circle of those who are enfolded into God’s love, who feeds and clothes and heals. He is also the one who rails against injustice and poverty, who decries religious abuse and power, who stirs things up and puts his very self on the line for it all.
But this lesson, if there is a lesson here at all, doesn’t jibe with that Jesus. Or does it? What I offer here is one possibility to understanding this parable as one which fits within the character of this one we call Jesus. And doing so, we approach this fourth tone with caution, because our faith should always contain a healthy dose of mystery, recognizing how much it is that we fail to grasp and how God as both a concept and as a reality is beyond our fullest human comprehension.
It might be, hearing those nails on the chalkboard, that we are invited to cover our ears and squint back against the discomfort and pain. And perhaps that’s the point of this passage: to keep us on our toes and guessing. As soon as we think we’ve got this Jesus nailed down, he surprises us again and again by overcoming death and rolling away stones. But then again, maybe, just maybe, we should be drawn in for a closer look, to try and spend a little more time wondering what this Jesus might be telling us about what it means to follow him.
The manager would have been a slave in master’s employ, but one with more authority and power. He could indebt others, especially other slaves, to the master through him. It’s not clear from the outset whether the squandering of which the manager is accused is because of dishonesty or because he’s just incompetent. In any case, the master cannot abide any more loss. He calls the manager in to finish all unfinished business so that he can be relieved of his job. Whether his designs have been unintentional or not, the manager is a failure, and that failure has finally caught up with him.
The system of debts that is the context of this parable is important to grasp. It was meant to fall within the realm of Jewish morality, meaning that it was unlawful to charge interest. However, the practice was all too common where a manager would add exorbitant fees on top of the debt, lining his own pockets. One possibility is that the manager, as he goes around in fear and self-preservation, finally does the thing he should have done all along, cutting his own largesse and profit out of the picture. It could be that this trimming what is owed by twenty and fifty percent is removing his own cut from the debts in question. He has already lost his job and reputation; perhaps something is salvaged out of this mess anyway. And such an act of mercy would have reflected well on his master, too. And that word would have reached him as an improved reputation in the community.
There is also this business of being labeled “dishonest.” The word in Greek, adikia, also translates “unrighteous.” It also translates as “worldly,” and the three seem to play off of each other. Looking at writings at the same time as Jesus, it is as though the words were used as synonyms for one another. A person who was worldly was considered to be dishonest. An unrighteous person would be thought to be a worldly individual. There was little distinction between these terms.
The crowds that followed Jesus and listened to him would have heard it all as one and the same word. So in verse eight, as the master commends a dishonest manager, perhaps he is commending a manager who has been too worldly, too caught up with the trappings of the surrounding community, the priorities of friends and neighbors and not the priorities of God. And it is here that Jesus’ message cuts to the quick. Could any in that crowd claim that they themselves are not worldly in their own desires?
It seems to be here that the echoes of the Jeremiah lesson come most loudly. The Hebrew prophet has been railing against the idolatry of the Israelites. They have forgotten their covenant and promise from God and have become, in word, worldly. The reason that Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar are at the gates of Jerusalem is that removal of that which they love and hold dear is the only way wake them up.
And even so, at that moment where our lesson picks up, when Jeremiah could have easily slipped into “I told you so” mode, where Jerusalem is about to be overthrown and he could easily gloat in the face of an unrepentant people finally getting what they deserve, it is there that he prays that his own head would transform to a spring, that his eyes would become fountains, that he would have enough tears for this sorrow. When all is about to be lost, even though it may be just for a worldly people, the angry prophet knows and shows that character of mercy. It is God’s tears that flow, God’s heart that breaks through the heart of the prophet.
My sisters and brothers, there is a particular Christian worldview that sees our own character and behavior in both stories. We are Jeremiah’s idolatrous rebellious people. We are the master’s dishonest, unjust, worldly stewards; each of us. We are caught up in the trappings of our communities. We have worldly wealth. It’s that simple: we have worldly wealth. To us, this parable comes to catch us with our hands in the cookie jar, so to speak. This same Jesus whose “yes” gives us courage, whose “no” gives us pause, and whose “go” gives us direction, maybe it is his fingernails which are meant to startle us, to make us jump out of our collective skin.
How is it that we use our worldly wealth; our resources, our positions, our roles, our power? Do we use it for the sake of God and God’s desires, or for our own? Are there debts we control that we can forgive? Are there grudges we hold which are not ours to hold? Can we trust and let go?
Friends, we know the character of God. We know this one named Jesus and seek to know him better. His tears are like fountains. His mercy and grace overflow. May they wash over us.