Luke 16: 1-13 Lynne Smith, OSB
September 22, 2019
This parable is notoriously difficult to understand. It has long puzzled biblical scholars. At first reading, it sounds as if Jesus is commending immoral behavior. Is he saying the ends justifying the means? Is he using sarcasm? My first reaction is to take offense. It’s as if Jesus were to commend the Sakler family for transferring a billion dollars from Purdue Pharma to private accounts in order to care for themselves in the future. Instead of a commendation, my self-righteous self wants to use Amos’s words: God says, “I will never forget any of your deeds.” We know plenty of dishonest managers. Few, if any of them, seem commendable.
If Jesus isn’t commending dishonesty, what else could be going on? Did the manager suddenly have a change of heart and decide to forego his commission to secure his future or is he eliminating the master’s interest which was illegal to charge anyway under Jewish law. That could be commendable. But then why isn’t that more clear in the parable? In the end, the manager is still described as dishonest. It doesn’t seem likely that the master would commend a worker for being a whistle blower.
Perhaps considering the context of the parable in Luke’s Gospel will give us a thread to follow. In Luke 14, Jesus eats at the house of a leader of the Pharisees and tells the parable of the dinner guests – don’t invite your friends or people like yourselves when you give a party. In chapter 15, the tax collectors and sinners are coming near to listen to Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes grumble that he eats with them. Jesus tells the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. The latter ends with the elder son incensed that the father has forgiven and received the younger son back into the family with a party no less.
Then comes today’s parable addressed to the disciples with the Pharisees/tax collectors listening in. This string of parables deals with who’s out and who’s in. Who’s acceptable and who isn’t. To my chagrin, I find this same concern lurking behind my reaction to this parable and the sayings following it. Part of me feels offended when Jesus says the dishonest person is wiser than the children of light. Surely, I’m better than a manager who cheats his employer! I’m assuming I am a child of the light. Now doesn’t that sound like a Pharisee or like the elder son? Maybe there is something I need to hear in this parable after all.
John Shea writes in his commentary on this passage: “I consider the children of this age and the children of light to be the same children seen from different perspectives.” (The Relentless Widow, pp. 266) We are quick to take care of our physical and social needs, but not so adept at attending to our spiritual lives. Perhaps one of the functions of the parable is to reveal the false division we make between “us and them.” They are both us. The clear distinction between good and bad is muddied when the dishonest manager is praised. What’s going on?
At the oblate retreat this weekend, Nancy Sylvester has been speaking about unitive consciousness as the next level of consciousness into which humanity is evolving. Richard Rohr picks up this same theme in his book, The Universal Christ. He writes: “A forgiving God allows us to recognize the good in the supposed bad, and the bad in the supposed perfect or ideal.” (p. 85?) Perhaps God does not care as much as we do about dividing humankind into good and bad, righteous and unrighteous. God wants everyone to be included. Jesus portrays God as offensively lavish with forgiveness of sins and canceling of debts.
At the end of the parable of the prodigal son, the father tells the elder son, “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours.” In the parable before us, we have a manager who seems to regard all that his master has as his. He feels free to use it to make friends for himself and help those in debt. The master doesn’t represent God here, but perhaps the parable in context calls to mind the God who says, “You are always with me and all I have is yours. All my forgiveness is yours, children of this age and children of the light. All my generosity, all my love, all my faithfulness is yours. All my creation is yours. Use it not to divide yourselves from one another but to make friends, to bring people to their deeper selves. Use it to relieve the burden of debt created by the ways of this world. Use it to bring justice in my creation.”
Lest we think this only applies on a spiritual level, we remember that in the Gospel of Luke Jesus is concerned about the poor and about the use of money. Jesus is concerned about giving to those in need so all have enough. Immediately following this parable, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. There it is clear that It matters whether we see and respond to the lot of those in need in this life.
- When we follow a God who is lavish beyond reason with forgiveness and love,
- when we know ourselves to be disciples of Jesus who ate and drank with sinners and never turned anyone away,
- when we are children of a God who says, “All that is mine is yours,” we are freed to use all that we have, all that is God’s, in the service of justice and mercy and welcome. Amen