Most commentaries or sermons about today’s gospel, the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-13; Proper 20, Year C), either begin with or quickly make the point that is it just a strange and difficult text; and it is. It doesn’t make sense. A dishonest employee is commended by his boss? That’s not how we want the world to be. That’s not what we teach our kids. That’s not what we expect Jesus to say or encourage. So I want to begin somewhere else. I want to begin with something that, while not necessarily easier, is a bit more understandable and familiar.
“Give me an accounting of your management,” the master said to his manager. We’ve all heard those words. It may not have been those exact words but at some time in our life, probably many times, an accounting has been demanded.
- The IRS invites us to bring our papers and account for the numbers on our tax return.
- Did you ever get called to the principal’s office?
- You sit down with a therapist or spiritual director and he or she says, “So tell me about your life. What’s going on?”
- The boss says she wants to see you in her office.
- You come home and your spouse speaks those four dreaded words, “We need to talk.”
- Each Sunday we come to the place in the liturgy when the priest says, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.”
In all of those situations, an accounting of our management is being demanded. It’s not easy. Giving an accounting can be an uncomfortable and even a fearful time. We review our words and actions wondering, “What have I done? What have I left undone? What will happen to me? What will I do?”
No one likes to have to give an accounting. We’re pretty private about our books. Not only do we not want others to see the balance, sometimes we do not want to see the balance. We do not want to face and deal with that reality. But that’s what this accounting asks of us.
You see the accounting demanded of this manager, just like the ones demanded of us, is really an accounting of his life. It asks us to open the books of our life and examine, audit, what we are doing with our life and who we are serving. It raises important questions. What are we doing with the resources, assets, and gifts entrusted to us? Think about all we have. Time. Money. Ideas, dreams, and hopes. Passions and concerns. People and relationships. Love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy. Talents and abilities. Questions and curiosities. What if we were to give an accounting of our management of these? What would our books look like? What do they reveal about us? Where, how, in what ways, on whom are we spending and investing these assets?
These aren’t just questions to be answered individually. There is also a communal or corporate accounting of our management to be given. What would it look like for America to account for its management? Would do the books and balances say about our national life? What about globally and internationally? What do the world’s books say about humanity? At every level people are trying to serve two masters. And it just doesn’t work. Look at the last couple of weeks: Egypt, Syria, murders in the U.S. Navy Yard, bombing an Anglican church in Pakistan, hostages and executions in Nairobi. We can’t go on like this. Something has to change.
Today’s gospel calls us to account for our management of all that we are and all that we have. The demand for an accounting often sounds like someone is in trouble. That’s how today’s parable begins. The manager has been charged with squandering his master’s property. He going to be fired. He will lose his job, income, reputation, and status. A part of him is dying. At some level he will lose his life as he now knows it.
Whether we’ve lived it, heard it from a friend or colleague, or read it in the news, it’s a familiar story. Somebody has been bad. They’ve been caught. Now they’re going to get what they deserve. That’s how the world works. That’s what we expect. But that’s not how the kingdom of God works and parables rarely give us what we expect. So we ought not be too quick to come to a final or definitive interpretation of this parable. We cannot with ease or confidence declare who, if any one in particular, each character represents: God, Jesus, or us. The parable offers ambiguity and tension not a neat resolution and that feels a lot like real life.
Maybe this story in general and the manager in particular is simply a picture of that ambiguity and tension. It is a picture that probably looks very familiar to most of us, a picture of the tension and ambiguity in our own lives, struggles, and decisions. There is even some ambiguity in labeling this man as the “dishonest manager.” What does that mean, the “dishonest manager?”
Maybe the label of dishonest isn’t what we think it is. Maybe it is less a declaration about the manager and more a description of his relationship to his master. First, we have no details of what this man did or did not do to be charged with squandering and to be fired or whether the charges are even valid. Second, while the word that is translated as “dishonest” can refer to a particular action or wrongdoing it can also mean the quality of unrighteousness. In that sense the manager’s relationship with his master is not right. It’s broken, impaired, out of sync. Perhaps the manager has chosen self-interest, self-loyalty, and self-serving over interest in, loyalty to, and service of his master. That can happen quickly and easily to any of us. This manager then is the face and image for Jesus’s words, “You cannot serve two masters”
Since we don’t know a lot about this guy or what he did maybe we can shift our focus a bit. Instead of trying to audit his books maybe we ought to examine our own books. Instead of being shocked that this “dishonest manager” is commended maybe we can see precedent, hope, and possibilities for our own commendation. The accounting that should have been the manager’s ruin became the starting point for a new life, new relationships, and a new home. Grace was hiding in the demand for an accounting, waiting to be discovered and claimed. The accounting demanded of this manager was both an ending and a new beginning, a death and a resurrection.
While the master may have wanted an audit of past numbers and transactions the manager saw that his old life was empty, bankrupt. New life would be seen only by looking forward. New life would be found only by being and doing differently. The manager claimed for himself the grace hidden in his master’s demand for an accounting, and he was commended. If the “dishonest manager” can be commended, why not me? Why not you?
Here’s a crazy idea. What if the accounting asked of us is never complete, the books are never closed and the bottom line is never tallied, until there is new life, until there is a commendation? What if the accounting is not about finding wrongdoing but new life? What if its about grace rather than punishment? That certainly changes our usual understanding of an accounting but isn’t that what parables are supposed to do? They change the way we see and understand. If a parable makes sense we’ve probably missed the point.
The accounting of our management isn’t about numbers, wrongdoing, or punishment but about helping us see and orient our lives in a new direction. It opens us to new possibilities. It points us to our eternal home.
“Give me an accounting of your management.” What are you doing with your life? Who are you serving?
To use a mixed metaphor: You’ve hit the nail right on the thumb! In short: Ouch! Mike, this is a sermon that begs to be plagiarized. So, don’t be surprised when your central thought shows up on my blog!!!
Thank you, Lawrence. I love the mixed metaphor. Take any and all you want if it is helpful. I hope you are well.
Peace be with you,
Reblogged this on livinginthemonasterywithoutwallsdotcom and commented:
Food for thought with this one for us all.
‘If a parable makes sense we’ve probably missed the point.’
I’m not sure I understand. It could also be that the parable is so obvious, so engrained in our personal beliefs that it no longer needs further analysis. Aren’t we Christians supposed to be the living proof of Jesus’ teachings (ie parables)? They live inside us, they grow, flourish and bear fruit. To me, it’s that simple.
I’ve written more on my blog about it and the challenge this parable presented to me as a Sunday School teacher.
Estera, thanks for your comment. I should have been a bit more clear about what I was thinking. I agree that we are to integrate and live Jesus’ teachings including the parables. However, parables, I think, are intended to trip us, slow us down, get us to think and see in a different way. They usually are not what they present. If I am too quick to make sense of a parable or to think I understand it then I have probably fit it in to my existing categories and ways of thinking rather than allowing it to challenge, grow, or even change my existing categories and ways of thinking. I must, therefore, be careful and maybe a bit skeptical, especially regarding God and theology, when I think I understand or have the answer.
Thanks for pointing me to your blog. I look forward to following your posts.
Peace be with you,
Wonderful post, Mike. So many useful reversals including this one, “Instead of trying to audit his books maybe we ought to examine our own books. Instead of being shocked that this ‘dishonest manager’ is commended maybe we can see precedent, hope, and possibilities for our own commendation.”
Yours in possibility, Narelle x
Thanks, Narelle. I think reversals often hold new truths, challenges, and possibilities.