One thing that I love about the Gospels is that, even though they are relatively short texts that manage to say an awful lot, they don’t sound like fairy tales. The world that Jesus describes is thoroughly messy and complicated, and there are, at times, not clear black-and-white moral distinctions to be drawn. So when, as he does today, Jesus tells a story that is full of the complexity and ambivalence of life and then connects it to the Kingdom of God, it’s like we are being taught to see the meaning in the messiness, to wrestle goodness out of chaos. And we need to hear the challenge in that. Today’s passage is messy and very challenging to us.
The story here is of the relationship between a rich man and his manager, who was very likely also his slave. So already, the power dynamic is more leveraged than one between employer and employee. A slave’s word was not taken against a non-slave’s, and in fact a slave’s testimony in court was only admissible if they had been tortured. So when someone reports to the rich man that his manager had been squandering his property, the manager is in a cruel and unwinnable position. Nothing he says can help him, for his word will not be taken seriously. His voice counts for nothing, and the rich man holds absolute power.
So when the manager goes to those who owe the rich man, and starts cutting them deals on their debt, he is doing what he can to provide a livelihood for himself after his inevitable firing. Perhaps he can ingratiate himself to another landowner and subsist that way. But the morals aren’t so clear. We assume that he’s going to get in trouble, because it is, after all, not his money, not his debt, that he is bargaining with. But of course, what money the rich man brings in is brought in on the backs of slaves, if not literally then certainly figuratively, and I’m not interested in using context to apologize for slavery. Say what you want about culture and context. I just can’t find much sympathy for this rich man who is now ever so slightly less rich but still exploiting his ability to treat people as less-than-human.
The manager’s dealings are not honest, but the whole situation is not honest. Slavery is entirely dishonest, to the extent that parables like this one have been used historically to encourage loyalty and honestly among slaves. I’m sure that sermon has been preached in a pulpits that stood not very far at all from this one. And I’d love to drop that sermon in the shredder except that the moment we forget that the Gospels have been used to subdue and oppress people is the moment we start to think liberation has really been accomplished and that we don’t have to fight for it.
So remember it, and remember that the statues that are starting to fall in this part of the country were put up not all that long ago to remind everyone around that people in this place once fought a war for the right to subdue and oppress people, and that some of them aren’t willing to concede just yet.
Jesus is talking between the lines here. He says the master commended the manager for his actions because “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” I take this as a nod to the moral compromises that are built in to the story. In a dishonest situation, honest actions aren’t always plausible. We call this structural sin. It’s the sin that we are all tangled up in. Many of the goods that we buy were made by people in situations not very different at all from the manager in this story. We participate in systems like this because that’s how things are structured. It’s tempting to give in and stop being critical of it. Economic exploitation seems inescapable, so why spin your wheels taking issue with it?
Why, I’ll tell you. Because Jesus says to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” This is not the morality they teach in Boy Scouts or Sunday school. This is an ethic of love for a world so tangled up that good and bad often cannot be pulled apart. The system is huge and we are small within it, but we are always able to build relationships by cultivating networks of grace, and that, in his tricksterish way, is what the manager did. By forgiving some of the debt his master was owed, he induced people to think fondly of him, but also let them off the hook for some very real expenses they owed. It was dishonest on the face of it, but the thing he was doing was actually rooted in a desire for relationship. Jesus still calls it “dishonest wealth,” he still served himself with money that was not his. This is not ideal. But something of God shines through in this blurry situation.
And then the paragraph that seems to fold in on itself again and again before delivering the crystal clear closing line we all try to dodge. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.”
Faith and honesty do not seem, actually, to be the same thing here. The manager was dishonest, but his actions have earned approval for their faithfulness. So the big question to ask is: in what did the manager have faith? He was not faithful to the accumulation of money. He gives it away.
His faith, I think, was placed in possibility. That is, in God. God, for this manager, this slave, was the possibility that this situation might not be the end of him. As a slave, he had no voice, negligible rights, was essentially treated as sub-human by those who held power over him. His faith was in the possibility that someone would value him, that some door would open.
The choice between God and wealth is laid clear. If the manager served wealth, he would have only made his life worse, for he would still be out of a job, and people would not be favorably disposed to him. And that’s kind of the thing, isn’t it? The accumulation of wealth serves only one person; the one accumulating it. People might be nice to you because you have a lot of money, but it’s not love. God is moving counter to the aggregation of wealth in this story, admittedly against the grain. It is messy, and there’s nuance, but the point is pretty clear.
The contrast between serving God and serving wealth is the contrast between working to share those things so that the broader network may thrive and working to gather money and power to oneself. In this cynical and cruel situation, the manager figured out how to make some deals that helped a number of people out. Within the rules of finance, it was dishonest, but as I was telling you last week, the economy we design is not the economy of God. Our economy of scarcity is not God’s economy of abundance. God, who called for years of Jubilee in which debts are forgiven, God who sent the disciples out to live simply and in community, God who forgives sins out of grace and not out of a need to extract a penalty from us… we may stammer and look for excuses, but it seems pretty clear that God is not concerned with—or governed by—the rules of finance.
Let’s land this plane. The Greek word for the manager in Luke is oikonomos. It comes from the Greek oikonomia, which means household. That’s also precisely where the word “economy” comes from. So after sifting through the layers of injustice and dishonesty in this story, after examining the ways in which the interests of God and the pursuit of wealth really can and do conflict with one another, it comes to this simple truth, which should rattle the cage of all of us in this room: The dishonest manager, this slave with no power, no money, and plenty of guile, holds a remarkable distinction. He’s the economist that Jesus endorsed.