It All Depends

Posted: September 19, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 16: 1-8a

It All Depends.

Jesus is talking to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that his manager was squandering his property. So, he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? At least is it seems, that Jesus is giving the guy the benefit of any doubt, or is he? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Oops it seems as though the jury has returned already. Guilty as charged without trial. Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. Loosing the job means back to labouring or worse. I have decided what to do so that, There is no way I can defend myself here so I had better see if I can make it as good as can be for my future. One plus is that when I am not a manager I will be welcome in peoples homes so I will ensure as many of them are available by sorting out their debts.  So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And it seems that the householder or  master knew what was going on and commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;

That story we have just heard from storyteller Luke this morning about the actions of an absentee householder and a manager, is one of the strangest and most difficult of Jesus’ parables  On top of that, its strangeness has not made it any easier to understand as it has created confusion,  controversy, and embarrassment, not just for modern interpreters but apparently from very early times.

There are a number of things in this story that contribute to its difficulty and I want to have a look at some of those as an introduction. First is the title. Although not in the story itself
nor in the New RSV, many Bible translations give this story the title ‘The unjust steward’ The New RSV goes a little way and makes its title ‘The Dishonest Manager; and both these titles straight away prejudges one of the characters. Perhaps a more accurate title would be the first line from the story itself: ‘A rich man who had a manager’ or maybe even to describe the man a little it would be ‘A householder or master who had a manager.

Remembering that a Rich man is most likely to be what was known as a ‘Householder’ Not just the owner but a person of familial standing. Rich in status, familial power and responsibility and thus rich in terms of the society. He was in many cases the owner of slaves who could be his steward, or manager. The next difficulty is when we begin to contextualize and see the story as a metaphor or an analogy. Many of us assume the householder is God. And when we do that, we create more difficulty. We then must find some way to make the householder’s praise or commendation of seemingly wrongdoing as acceptable. After all, there’s something in the human psyche which revolts at seeing so-called ‘badness’ in any form rewarded.

The next issue to consider is the gossip that has been going around to the point that the householder has heard it and feels the need to check it out. After all it seems to be that the householder’s manager is acting inappropriately. ‘What is this that I hear about you?’

Is he suspicious of the gossip and struggling to believe that his manager could be doing something wrong or is he beyond suspicion and believing the gossip as true and that his manager is bad? Could it be that people with other issues have been spreading lies about the manager and now the householder, his master, believes the lies? If the latter is true then the story has a very different feel to it.

And for another issue we have the economic system. Again, many of us unconsciously assume the economic system implied in the story is capitalism. But this can obscure the social and economic structure of that day even when there is a whiff of ‘rogue trader’ about the manager. It seems that we have a structure where there is a clear hierarchy of control and power. It is ok to have slaves and exploit those with less. It may be a question of whether or not the manager is bad or very clever, so, what’s the point of the gossip?

Where are we with this very different story?

Well, let’s revisit it and see if we can find a way through given the questions we have just raised. We can maybe agree that this story is a riddle.  But we need to be wary because solving the riddle might take us in an unexpected direction. Maybe there should be a health warning label, something like: ‘beware – solving this story could prove fatal to the life we now find rather comfortable… maybe there needs to be a warning statement before we hear this parable.

Both the characters in this story, the householder and the manager do not seem to conform to the standard of behaviour that is generally thought appropriate to the realm or empire of God. That is, when dismissed from his job, the manager or steward goes to those who owe a debt to his master and with some fancy insider trader’ footwork, drastically reduces their debt.

“But the manager’s master or the householder is no saint either,” suggests Brandon Scott. The master has long been profiting from the manager’s shrewdness… with interest rates to boot. So, siding with one against the other is not all that helpful. What then, is Luke’s Jesus doing in this story?

Well, we know, or we are pretty sure that Jesus in his parables is offering a vision of a counter world. ‘The kingdom of God is like’ We have a “glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential” (Heaney 2001) as one scholar has described it, or an alternative expansive vision of what’s possible as I claimed last week.

Another way of saying this could be that: Jesus is creating a safe place for all those who were left out, cheated, robed of their land and livelihood, unable to cope with the human system, declared unclean due to illness or orientation, those who have no hope… This safe place is where the Roman Empire, and the powerful, the ruthless, the religious zealots, the monied, or what or whom-ever “could not intrude and dominate” (Scott 2001:144).

That has to be good news if you are on the margins of church, of society, of the commercial, or political systems whatever the time in history. But to be honest the parable continues to intrigue and mystify. No agreed solution to the riddle has been found totally acceptable. And that can be bad news if you want security, if you want a religion with answers, a clear set of rules, or dare I say it if you want a top down, economical unit that is fits the expectations of being a financially sound, growing in numbers sort of parish where people come every Sunday for their reward. It needs to be a safe place for the alternative, for the misfit, for the left out, disadvantaged and the struggling. How we imagine or re-imagine the world is the fundamental question that separates church from any other form, and maybe that’s why it is in decline. Because it is seen as the answer to everything rather than the Way to live with the reality that seems so confusing and confused.

At the end of the day, chances are we will find ourselves standing in the householder’s shoes more than once in our life time. The better we are at working the system the more likely and that is when we need the alternatives, because we have choice and power. Not in or as a successful adaption to the world but rather in our ability to be where several outcomes or endings are possible To be where the most confused are. There is always a risk.  It all depends. Life is often an unsolved riddle.

Our call is to travel with Jesus and have faith with him that his re-imagined view – his glimpsed alternative – of the world, is the Way of God.

Notes:
Heaney, S. 1995.  The redress of poetry. NY: New York. Schocken Books.
Scott, B. B. 2001.  Re-imagine the world. An introduction to the parables of Jesus. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

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