September 18, 2022
You know what’s great about that passage from Amos Meg just read for us? It’s clear. It doesn’t require contextual work to bring the message into our time and place. You that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land… those words ring true easily today. We understand the abuses that can come from our capitalist economic system… we understand that being motivated by profit alone can and often does overlook moral questions… can and often does create systems that benefit some at the expense of others… can and often does put us in a place where we consume to our own catastrophic detriment. We know that capitalism needs a moral and ethical check like Christianity or some other altruistic philosophy to give it some form of balance.
So… when we hear these verses from Amos… it’s black and white… right and wrong… good and evil. Easy to understand and spiritually digest.
And then there’s our next reading from the gospel of Luke. Jesus has just finished telling the crowd around him three parables about the lost being found… has given us powerful ideas about grace… about its tenacity… about grace’s ability to break through our harmful patterns and behaviors that work to destroy ourselves… how grace is able to take us somewhere else if we can live by grace… through grace… into grace. Great parables that we love to hear… the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal Son. And then… and then comes this strange parable told to the disciples. Listen as God continues speaking to this morning.
Part of what makes this parable so strange is this dishonest manager at its center. He is bad from the start… not doing his job well. “Squandering” as a word choice brings all manner of connotations about the ability of and the character of this dishonest manager. I mean, the actions of the rich man here… unlike so many of Jesus’ other parables… unlike the one we’re going to hear next week… the actions of the rich man seem reasonable. This dishonest manager is failing at the task he has been given. We can understand a person doing a job badly… we can understand someone being fired because they are doing their job badly, whether it’s a matter of incompetence or a lack of character.
It’s easy to understand, too, the panic of this dishonest manager when the reality of losing his position hits him. Maybe he got caught taking his position for granted and reality is crashing in. This dishonest manager is going to need some form of unemployment insurance… so he needs to hustle and ingratiate himself to the people he knows… people who may be able to help him in the future. But then… surprisingly… he’s praised in the parable for his shrewdness by the rich man… who… because it’s a natural next question… who maybe changes his mind about getting rid of the guy… or maybe not… we’re never told. And that doesn’t seem to matter as far as the parable is concerned.
How we’re supposed to take this parable… it just isn’t clear. It has no easy, clear pattern for us to follow like the other gospel parables. Who is the villain? Who is the person we’re supposed to emulate? What’s the analogy at work here? Are the disciples supposed to see themselves as the dishonest manager? Is this a teaching about shrewdly ingratiating yourself to others? There’s something distasteful about that… something that smells like a con or something. I mean, who is the rich man supposed be in this parable? Is the rich man God in this parable? Following three nice parables about grace… are we to now understand that grace is this con that is supposed to ingratiate Christians with others by telling them to lower the debt they have with God? That doesn’t sound right. So many questions without easy answers. Is shrewdness a virtue? Maybe… just maybe… there’s a bit of hyperbole and wordplay at work here… maybe a bit of sarcasm… the kind where you say the one awful thing but are really talking about something else. Can we say such things about dull, boring scripture?
“We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” Exactly Amos! Got it. Not a single person in this room hasn’t been cheated through shrinkflation where the price stays the same, but suddenly the contents in the box get smaller. Value of items set by what people will pay instead of a fair price… or what it is worth… what is a legitimate amount of profit and what is gouging? I’m sure there’s a line there somewhere. It’s legitimate when you’re the one making the profit… it’s gouging when you’re the one having to pay. I think that’s how that’s supposed to work. I think that’s the business ethic we tend to work by. Different rule depending on which side you’re on. Amos wasn’t going to be quiet about that way of thinking.
You know… I can feel myself wanting to jump to the end of our reading from Luke and focus there… because that part is also clear like the Amos reading… “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Now that’s a good verse. I like that one… especially the “You cannot serve God and wealth” part… that lines up well with what Amos is clearly about.
Unfortunately, though, as I read around that verse it seems more connected to what is about to come than to the verses which preceded it. The next verse in the passage… which we didn’t read today… goes… “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed Jesus.” So let’s let go of this talk about wealth… but… let’s hold onto this thought about not being able to serve two masters… because I do think that will help us open up this difficult parable about the dishonest manager.
I think with this parable the two masters are grace and merit… and this parable about the dishonest manager really can’t be understood without the parable of the prodigal son which is told right there before Jesus tells this parable. As a parable about grace, the prodigal son always fills us with unresolved emotions because grace… real grace… is a disrupter of merit. Grace and merit can’t coexist peacefully. In that parable, the older son is representative of a system based on merit… in that he does what he is supposed to do… he is dutiful and he plays by the rules… and, this is very important, because he expects to be rewarded for his good. Merit promises reward. When he angrily confronts his Father saying, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends…” that right there is a complaint of merit. You did something good for someone else who didn’t deserve it. That’s the complaint of merit. And Saints, we are fish swimming in the water of merit… so often unaware of how deeply it pervades our very being.
An example… whenever I preach on the prodigal son… this bad, younger son who does everything wrong… I always make sure to point out how in the parable… this younger son never earns the grace the Father gives. Yes, at his lowest, he makes a plan for repentance… he rehearses the words he is going to say… he is ready to reenter the system of merit and begin to earn his place starting at the bottom as a slave… but… but… but… before a single word is said… before he even makes it to his Father… grace happens. Grace happens and there is no where for merit to take hold and to work. And for the older merit bound brother, he has been cheated… he has been treated unfairly… he has been wronged by the grace given to a younger son who did not earn his forgiveness. For the older brother, mercy is a slight to him… even though… even though the Father clearly tells him how all that is mine is yours. Still… doesn’t matter… the younger son came to his reward dishonestly.
In these parables, Jesus is clear that in faith grace and merit cannot peacefully coexist… in our faith, you can’t serve both these masters because you will either hate the one and be devoted to the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. If we live by the merit, then grace will be reduced to an earned reward. Grace is due to the repentant. Grace is given to the one who is able to do the right things… however those right things get defined… usually in the form of proper religious practices or correct theological beliefs about certain things. Grace goes to the good, but is withheld from the bad or the lost. Yes, Jesus came to save the sinner, but the sinner who was actually good in their heart and who grace will benefit… not the sinner who is bad and upon who grace will be wasted. The lost sheep is worth finding in some way, but there are sheep that not even God can make unlost.
Like the older son experienced, true grace will be a flagrant violation… it will be unfair and dishonest. Grace is dangerous and makes the Father a fool… grace will be used as a con that will get you the reward of the unearned. Grace will lead to anarchy with people doing whatever they want without fear of consequence knowing that grace will bail them out in the end. Isn’t this how the dishonest manager uses grace to his own ends. So, of course, if you owe a debt of 100 and I tell you to pay only 80… or just half of what is really owed… or if you have a debt that gets totally forgiven… that’s completely unfair and dishonest. That breaks the rules of clear reward and punishment. Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people… except when they don’t… except when the system of merit breaks down and bad things happen to good people… and good things happen to bad people… and the blinders fall away and we see the world as it is and not through the eyes of this system that tells us how things ought to and should work.
Grace can’t be contained. That’s the danger of grace. The younger son demands his half of the inheritance. The Father gives it to him. The younger son squanders his fortune. Squanders… there’s that word again. The younger son, playing by the rules laid out, plans to repent. Grace happens. Then what? The story doesn’t say, does it? Then what? Grace happens and the son’s heart is transformed by his experience of grace and he begins to live into this grace that was freely given… grace that wasn’t earned by him. The younger son chooses to live by grace. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.
Or… grace happens and the son’s heart remains hardened… he once again squanders the riches given to him and he lives away from the grace that was freely given. He starts the downward spiral all over again and lives away from his Father’s love. If you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth , wo will entrust to you the true riches?
Merit is clear. Do good get rewarded. As the basis of a religious system it is repeated again and again. Do good. Get rewarded. Do bad. Get punished. Nice. Neat. Controllable. Exploitable. Prophets like Amos had to keep showing up because the system of merit kept not working… didn’t transform the people into the people of God. Jesus is grace. Unearned. Unexpected. Outside of our control. Yet, transformative… when we follow… when we discipleship towards grace… by grace… in grace. Amen.