Shysters All

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13 

The Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister

Good morning. I want to begin by thanking you for the warm and gracious welcome you gave me last week. I am well aware that such a welcome is an act of hope and of faith: inviting me into your spiritual home before I have earned the right to the trust you have offered. I look forward to getting to know each of you in the months to come, and I enter this pulpit today keenly aware that it is a privilege and a gift to be among you.

If I had been able to go through the Scriptures and pick out the readings with which to begin our relationship, this particular parable might not have made my top three. It is thorny, difficult, objectionable, and unsettling. In fact, it may well rank among the least loved teachings of Jesus. 

Last week, the Dean reminded us that it is not the job of the preacher to explain the parable, but to open it. I heard that with a sense of relief, because the Parable of the Dishonest Manager has been frustrating interpreters since it was first spoken. We know that, because the passage we heard today includes not only the parable itself (which concludes with the second paragraph in your bulletin, or shortly before), but four or five additional endings which were tacked on in the first few decades of Christian history, each trying to make sense of it. We know they were added because the endings do not agree with one another, and most of them actually have nothing to do with the parable itself. In other words, even the people who knew Jesus found this story so problematic that they tried to fix it.

But Jesus offered lots of challenging teachings. What is it that makes this one so strangely unsettling?

I think it’s that phrase: squandering his property. None of us like to be defrauded. If we were told that our bank manager had withdrawn four thousand dollars from our account and headed for Aruba, we would not be pleased. And even if were not our bank manager, but our  beloved child who had logged into our Amazon account and spent $600 of our money on Lego sets, we might have some words to say about that. There might be Time Out involved. This sense of dishonesty sets the manager apart even within the teachings of Jesus. Jesus urges us to have compassion on whole classes of people whom his contemporaries considered inferior or unclean — women, foreigners, prostitutes, Gentiles — but each of those was, in some way, unfairly excluded: condemned for having the “wrong” body, speaking the “wrong” language, or simply for being down on their luck. Only the manager stands condemned for a deliberate decision to do harm. 

And so this parable invites a different set of ethical questions.  It pushes us to examine the limitations of the welcome we give to the people of God. It is relatively easy to have compassion for the addict, the prostitute, the immigrant, the people who are stigmatized for their race or their nationality or the people God calls them to love.  After all, given the right set of circumstances, any of us could find ourselves in their shoes — and many of us are or have been. It is much harder to welcome the pimp, the drug dealer, the racist, or the powerful person who makes it a point to exclude the people we love — particularly if they have not repented of their behavior. And let’s be clear: the manager in this story never repents. When he is caught out, he does not apologize and make amends; he just looks for a way to save his skin. And yet, Scripture teaches that the love of God precedes our repentance and prepares us to accept God’s love. In the words of St. Paul, “God proves God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8) And my favorite saint urges us, “Where there is no love, put love in.” This congregation is known for the breadth of its welcome; that’s one of the things that drew me to you. Even so, this parable asks us to examine again, both as individuals and as a gathered community, what it really means to love the people of God in all the scandalous ways that Jesus did.

These are difficult questions, but they’re about to get worse.  As I have read and prayed with this parable over the course of years, I have come to believe that one reason so many of us have trouble understanding it is that we tend to get hooked on the idea of the fraud and to identify ourselves with the landowner. But I have an uneasy suspicion that we may not be the landowner in this story. That seems more likely to be God. I have a sinking sense we’re supposed to identify with the manager.

This is awkward, because the one thing I have learned about churchgoers is that we are very well-meaning people. We want to do the right thing, and we are willing to work hard and to give generously in order to do it. The people I have met from this congregation have been lovely: warm, open-hearted, caring, intelligent, funny. So there is no joy in standing in front of you and suggesting that you imagine yourself into the place of a dishonest character. And then there’s the fact that it’s my first Sunday sermon here. I can only imagine you going home and saying, “The building was majestic and the music was beautiful, but then this woman we don’t even know climbed into the pulpit and said, Consider the possibility that you might be a shyster.” Really not good. 

But even though those things are true, I keep getting the sense that if we can bracket all that for a few minutes, there may be something else in this parable that Jesus wishes us to hear. So let’s look at this head-on for a few minutes. God created you: dreamed of you, yearned for you, formed you, willed you into being. God sustains you: every breath of your life, the body in which you move through this world, the people who love you, the work and kindness which give your life meaning and allow you to contribute to the well-being of this world — all is gift. And all of that — all of it — is what we ought to offer back to God: every moment of our lives, a symphony of perfect love. And the truth is, none of us manages it. We all fall short; I certainly do. Most likely you do as well; possibly even Bertrand. And so each of squanders some portion of the perfect love we have been given, and our divine accounts fall short. That’s why we need to hear this parable.

Amid all this murky tale, the manager does one extraordinary thing. When he loses his job with the landowner, he goes through a list of his short-comings. I used to think this was just one more indication of his poor character: a litany of excuses why this man, who has been dishonest in the past, should not be expected to turn in an honest day’s work. But now I see it differently, as an astonishing act of spiritual courage. Up against the wall, the manager speaks his shame aloud, for God and himself to hear: not his shame over what he has done, but his shame over who he is: an old, weak man. He speaks all the whispers we hear at three o’clock in the morning, the voices which suggest, You are not enough. No one will ever love you. You can’t even love yourself. And out of that moment of utter desolation, the manager looks around at all the other people who are not enough — the people whom he might once have preyed upon — and he shows them mercy. Genuine mercy. The same mercy God shows us.

But, you may say, that mercy wasn’t his to give. He did not forgive the other debtors what they owed to him, but what they owed to the landowner.  Yes, but all debts are, ultimately, owed to God, and this parable speaks not so much of how we treat people who have done us wrong, as about the way we behave to those who share our faith. Too often, Christians assume that Jesus was exaggerating when he taught something that might challenge the way we live,  but speaking in earnest when imposed burdens on others. The truth, of course, is that Christ took our burdens on himself, so that others might be freed. We who walk in his steps are called to the same pattern of showing compassion and withholding judgment.

My friends, we live in a divided time. Many of the divisions in our society develop because we stand upon the hard ground of our own righteousness. We take hold of some detail of our life, something that is completely irrelevant to our value in the sight of God — our skin color, our nationality, the salary we earn, the language we speak, the people we love — and we grasp them as tokens of our worth, as signs that we are better than someone else. Even our virtues cast a shadow; we secretly look down on those who do not do as well, and we divide ourselves from one another. But we are all God’s children, each infinitely beloved, and we become able to live in solidarity with one another only when we stand on the broken ground of our humility, which is to say, the ground on which we ourselves are broken.  Because when we can accept that we don’t have to be enough, we are able to learn a deeper form of kindness. Only then do we begin to see the true measure of the grace we have been given.

So yes, God commends the manager. The good news in this parable is that the God who is utterly unmoved by our attempts at perfection melts when we show one another mercy.  And that same abundant stream of mercy, which he pours out upon us, is there for us to offer one another, and even to ourselves. We need to do the midnight work of the manager, because so often the areas in which we are unforgiving toward ourselves are the very areas in which we cannot welcome one another. In learning to accept God’s love for us, we are opened to accept one another as well.  When the Prodigal Son saw his father running to welcome him home, he suddenly found that he was not alone on the road, but that people were running to Father all around him, and that all the people he had thought were strangers were revealed as kin. Where there is no love, God puts love in.

Post a comment