We Presbyterian pastors do what we can to blend in. Most of us don’t wear clergy collars. I actually don’t even own one. People passing me in Meijer don’t think, “There goes a pastor!” just based upon my appearance. Because Presbyterians believe that the only distinction between the pastor and everyone else is a function of a calling to serve in a particular way, we do what we can to honor the calling without setting the pastor apart from everyday life.
But our society behaves as though clergy are cut from a different cloth. Some of this is how clergy are portrayed on screen — nice but a little out of it, naïve, or even on a crusade against behaviors that our culture accepts as just a normal, fun part of life.
So, I don’t love when people discover that I’m a pastor. Not because I’m ashamed of it, mind you. No, it’s because they shift into this mode of behaving that acts like my purpose in life is to police your morality. It drives me nuts when people say things like, “You’re a pastor? Oh. I better watch my language around you.” Or, “The pastor’s here…everyone behave!” Now, I don’t like swearing, but that’s because I find it linguistically lazy. Most often there are better words we could use, but we default into the same four-letter words. And behaving? Shouldn’t we want to act well because it is life-giving and because God calls us to it, not because the pastor walked into the room?
And I know that this is also done to release some of the tension in the room created by our culture that tries so hard to separate the sacred and the secular, but I also think the greater issue at stake is that our world has come to assume that Christians really only want to be around those who have already put their lives together. My friends, nothing should be further from the truth. Christians — and this is especially true about Presbyterians — should be in the business of partnering with Christ in redeeming all things, which means we should want to be around people and situations that don’t have it right!
Today’s parable is an uncomfortable and hard one. Why? Because it sure seems like Jesus, the sinless Son of God and Savior of the world, is praising deceitful behavior and commending it to his followers. In other words, there is a clash between the children of this age and the children of light, as Jesus calls them in verse 8. The hero of this parable is an anti-hero. So, let’s dig into this passage not just because it’s in the Bible but also because it challenges us to move into a situation that is difficult and even nuanced.
The setup of the parable is pretty simple. There was a rich man who had manager. The rich man gets word that the manager is not managing his property well. So, the rich man fires the manager on the spot. In this situation, the manager would have resided on the property, so he has lost his job and his home. Clearly the manager has been caught red-handed because he offers no argument back. Jesus’ audience would have expected there to be a defense. In the Middle East, the dismissal of a manager would have led to days of negotiation. In this story, the manager has no defense and offers none.
It’s also easy to assume that the manager’s actions that follow are a part of his wrapping up his work. They are not. He was fired, effective immediately, so everything he does in the rest of the parable is his own free-lance work. So, why would he do something so significant? He realizes that the rich man is supremely merciful. Yes, he fired the manager, but we should expect that he would have gone further. What he did should have landed him in prison, but the rich man doesn’t even yell at him. He just lets him go. So, in these few verses we see that the rich man “is a master who expects obedience and acts in judgment on the disobedient servant. He is also a master who shows unusual mercy and generosity even to a dishonest steward.”
In realizing the extreme mercy the rich man has shown him, the manager decides to use the situation to his advantage. In his own head, he runs through the options. “Well,” he thinks. “I’m out of a job and will soon have no home. I am not strong enough to dig, and begging is too shameful.” Digging for agriculture and quarrying for stone were among the worst jobs available in his world, and they require significant strength. The manager has had a decent lifestyle, so going on the streets to ask for money would raise all sorts of questions, not just shame.
So, he acts decisively to his own advantage. His former master has many debtors. These debtors won’t know that the manager no longer represents the rich man, so he can use this to his advantage. He calls them in and renegotiates what they owe. They are thrilled with the new deal and will assume that it is the rich man who is incredibly merciful and gracious, even though he, in fact, had nothing to do with it.
These rearranged debts are significant. The first owes the equivalent of 1000 gallons of olive oil. His debt is cut in half, the equivalent of the wages for a year-and-a-half of work for a day laborer. The second owes over 1100 bushes of wheat. His bill is cut by 20%, an amount forgiven is roughly similar to the first debtor. The debtors are going to be ecstatic at how gracious and kind this rich man is towards them. They had their debt forgiven! The mercy that the manager experienced and then took advantage of is now on full display. This unjust manager risked everything on this mercy, and it appears that his risk has paid off. Yes, he’s still unemployed, but the rich man cannot go around and speak ill of the manager because it will change the perception of how merciful and kind he is.
It’s important to read Scripture in context. This parable is part of a longer teaching that begins one chapter earlier. It begins, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Jesus then shares three parables. We know them as the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son. These parables share a common theme — that God rejoices greatly over even one lost soul that finds its way to God and experiences this grace.
Our parable continues this same teaching, although Luke makes the point to direct this even more challenging parable to the disciples. It’s important to see this parable in the light of those other parables. We do this with good reason. Jesus uses the same verb for “squander” in our parable and in the prodigal son. The prodigal son squanders all of his inheritance through all the terrible things he does off in a foreign land, yet his gracious father is so thrilled with his return that he won’t even let the son finish his apology. He’s throwing a party. In our parable, the manager squanders the rich man’s property, and, depending on the merciful nature of his master, gets himself set in a situation where he can be welcomed. The master even commends him for his shrewd, if unorthodox behavior.
So, I think this parable is really about the merciful, welcoming character of God for even the worst of sinners. Jesus sees “sinners” differently than the religious. He sees them as potential sources of heavenly delight. They are valuable even when they’re lost and worthy of rejoicing when they are found. No sinner is too sinful for God’s grace. No one is too lost that they cannot be found. Jesus tells this hard parable to his disciples, and I think he does this because we insiders are prone to turn our noses up towards outsiders. What does that say about us? Are there people in your life that you have viewed as too far from grace? Are there situations that you think could be outside of God’s redeeming work? This parable challenges the notion that even the worst among us cannot be a recipient of the radically merciful nature of God.
Chelsey Harmon observes, “God wishes us to welcome those whom he finds and re-gathers. Among tax collectors, Gentiles, disciples, and Pharisees, Jesus told stories that invited them to celebrate the lost being saved from themselves by someone who does not count the potential cost of the search and rescue mission and then decides they aren’t worth it. In other words, for each person, God always has the hopeful future in view.”
No one, and I mean no one, is too far from the grace of God. Yes, lots of people are still off in a metaphorical “distant land,” living life as though God didn’t exist or care about their existence. But no matter how far away a person is, God is ready to welcome that person into his eternal home. We see that even in the conniving actions of this manager. He works the system to his advantage, but what he missed the whole time is that his master was merciful and kind. The manager is a scoundrel, but even the scoundrel can find his way home.
Christians have a reputation for being morality police, and as I said at the beginning, this happens even more to pastors. “I shouldn’t do in front of you this thing that I would normally do,” people think. Not that I want to encourage immoral or bad behavior, but what would it look like if people saw pastors and Christians and thought, “Now, there is someone who embodies love and who will be with me no matter what. There is someone whose life I’d like to imitate. There is someone I know I could turn to when I’m in trouble.”
This parable is a display of God’s great mercy that is available to all — including the scoundrels. So, if you identify with this dishonest manager, know that this mercy is for you. But if you are not quite like him, the mercy of God is also for you. All God has is yours, if only you’d stop striving for it and just come home, come accept that God’s love embraces you too. God’s grace is sufficient for all — even the dirty, rotten scoundrels!