Sermon by Teri Daily
Most of us have probably played the game Twister. Rows of yellow, red, blue, and green circles are on a sheet laid on the ground. Players are told where to put their hands and feet. For example, the leader may say “right hand blue” or “left hand red.” Once you’ve committed a hand or a foot to a particular location on the sheet, you can’t lift that hand or foot until another location for it has been called. So you may have both your right hand and left foot on red, while your left hand is on yellow and your right foot on blue. If you’ve watched the game being played, then you know that people become contorted and twisted and tangled up trying to make it all work.
As I prepared today’s sermon, I was reminded of the game Twister. The parable of the dishonest manager, the parable we have in today’s gospel reading, is known as one of the most confusing and difficult parables that Jesus told. So many sermons and commentaries go through a series of contortions by the time they reach the end just trying to make this parable consistent with all the other parables that have come before it.
A rich man has a manager who is charged with squandering his master’s property, with not being a good manager. Knowing that he will probably lose his job, the manager is faced with the reality of his situation. He’s not strong enough to dig or do other types of physical labor. And he still has his pride; he’s too ashamed to beg for money. The answer to his dilemma: ingratiate himself to others so that when his money runs out, he will have homes to which he can go, places to eat and people to take him in. So he calls to him each person who owes his master money and forgives a large portion of their debts.
Now this parable has come to be known as the parable of the dishonest manager or steward, but is it called that simply because he has been accused of being dishonest and squandering the rich man’s property? Or because he has forgiven debts that were not really his to forgive? Or because he has gained his own property up to this time by dishonest means? It’s not clear.
We do know, though, that it was common practice in first century Palestine for “middle men” such as the manager to make money by increasing the debts owed by those from whom they collected money. (Remember, this is why tax collectors had such a bad reputation in Jesus’ day.) We also know that, although it was unlawful to charge interest on a debt, lenders routinely rolled interest into the principle of a loan. So maybe the manager isn’t being dishonest towards his employer when he reduces the debts of those who come to him. He may very well have been merely foregoing his cut of the payments, or taking out the interest that had been added to the debt.
When the rich man finds out what the manager has done, he actually commends the manager for acting shrewdly – a word that could also have been translated “wisely” or “prudently.” Then to top it all off, Jesus says these words: “Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” When we look back at all that Jesus has said the past few weeks, about searching for lost sheep and giving up all your possessions to follow him, this parable seems incredibly out of place. It’s almost as if Jesus is referring to an entirely different set of rules.
I think, though, that this parable is so very honest about our lives. Let’s face it, we all find ourselves in the place of the “dishonest manager” – we all find ourselves in possession of dishonest wealth. It’s the impossible situation into which we are born. We are surrounded by dishonest, exploitative systems, and we profit from so many of them. I own an iPhone; there’s a good chance that my phone is made by people who are paid $1.85/hour and live in crowded dormitories infested by bed bugs. Perhaps some of us have received our jobs, in part, because of prejudices against others who applied for the same position.
Think of large-scale poultry farms. In an attempt to save consumers money, chickens are housed in crowded conditions and genetically-manipulated so that they have an increased amount of breast tissue. Crippling skeletal deformities result.
We exploit the environment for our own good. Forty-eight football fields worth of forest are cleared in the world every minute – usually to create land for humans to inhabit, or to harvest their resources. This leads to global warming, soil erosion, and the extinction of species.
There’s no way around the fact that, as members of our society, we are in possession of dishonest wealth. That we are born into such systems is one understanding of original sin. So much of what we have comes at an exorbitant cost to other people (including generations to come), as well as all the rest of creation. And when we recognize this truth, we inevitably see ourselves as those under judgment – just like the dishonest steward who decides the only way forward is to do something differently, to upend the whole system.
One of the central themes in the gospel of Luke is the reversal that the kingdom of heaven brings. We see it in the song of Mary: “The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” And when Jesus stands up in the synagogue in Nazareth at the very beginning of his ministry, he reads these words from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Throughout the gospel of Luke, the kingdom of heaven is about the practice of Jubilee – it’s about bringing freedom where there was once bondage, about granting forgiveness to those who were once in debt, about fanning the flame of life for those who sit in the shadow of death. And what the parable of the dishonest manager shows us is that – no matter how mixed our motives are, no matter where we find ourselves in this system – we can find ways to practice the kingdom of heaven. We can use our dishonest wealth in ways that build eternal riches.
My parents owned a small drugstore on Main Street in Nashville, North Carolina – a town in eastern North Carolina with population of two thousand. It was a town surrounded by tobacco fields, and each summer migrant workers arrived to work on the farms. Their quarters were rudimentary and cramped. A federal program provided the workers with any medication they needed free of charge, but we were a small town and stores closed at 6 pm. So the workers were faced with a problem: If they came to town to get their medication, they missed earning wages in the field. If they trusted the crew leaders to come and pick up the medicine for them, there was the very real risk that the crew leaders would charge them for the medicine, thereby making money at the workers’ expense. When my father found out about the money-making schemes of some of the crew leaders, he began keeping the drugstore open two nights a week during the summer so that the workers could get their own medications without missing time in the field. It cut down on the risk that they would be cheated. This was a small gesture in the giant scheme of things, but it was one step toward Jubilee – one step toward a world where everyone is free. After all, it only takes a mustard seed, right?
We can’t step completely out of the system we inhabit – at least very few of us will give up all our material possessions and live completely off the grid. But the good news – the grace in all of this – is that every single day we do have the chance to use our possessions in ways that reverse inequalities, raise people up, forgive debts, release people from bondage, honor the dignity of all God’s creatures, and protect the earth. Every single day we do get the chance to choose Jubilee, to practice the kingdom of heaven. And each time we do, we become ever more free ourselves.
So…in what ways might God be calling each of us to choose Jubilee?