September 22, 2019
15th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Read today’s scripture lessons: Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; Luke 16:1-13
Jesus said a lot of things that sound crazy, and he told a lot of parables that are difficult, or confusing, or leave us scratching our heads. But this one, I think, takes the cake. What we refer to today as the “Parable of the Dishonest Manager” has been called the “problem child” of parables. New Testament scholar Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary says this parable has inspired dozens of interpretations, some of which are good, and all of which leave us wishing Jesus had said a little bit more, something—anything—that would help us make sense of this passage. But he didn’t. So we just have to do our best.
I want to share one interpretation of this parable that I find compelling. These aren’t my ideas; this is from Brian McLaren, who is a well-known pastor and writer. He says there are really three things you need to know to make sense of this parable. First, he says you need to remember is that the entire Gospel of Luke—and really, all of the gospels—were written in the context of Roman imperialism. The Jewish homeland on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean was not a free, independent nation in the time of Jesus; it was one small colony within the vast Roman Empire. And Rome treated them the way colonizers always treat those whose lands they occupy: Rome exploited their resources and exploited the people’s labor. That’s the first thing you need to know: The Romans exploited the Jewish people.
The second thing you need to know is that, within the Jewish homeland, the wealthy elites lived in the south around Jerusalem, the big city, and those who lived in the north, in Galilee, were poor, rural farmers. In ancient Israel as in modern America, there was a distinct urban-rural divide. The Romans who occupied the land wanted the wine, the grain, and the olive oil that was so abundant in the northern part of Israel. They levied a tax on these small farmers, who couldn’t afford to pay it. So the wealthy people in the south would say to the farmers in the north, “We’ll make a deal with you. We’ll pay your taxes in exchange for the deed on your property. Don’t worry, you can continue to live on and farm our land; each year, just give us a portion of your harvest.” Then each year those wealthy southerners would sell the harvest they had taken from the north to Rome. When it was all said and done, the poor farmers in the north had lost their land and were only allowed to keep a portion of their harvest, while the wealthy elites in the south had seized those farmers’ property and made a profit on produce they didn’t even have to cultivate themselves. That’s the second thing you need to know: The wealthy southerners were getting richer off the backs of poor farmers in the north, who were getting poorer and poorer.
And here’s the third thing Brian McLaren says you need to know in order to understand this parable: Each year around the harvest, when it was time for the landowners in the south to collect from the farmers in the north, they would send representatives to those farmers telling them it was time to pay up. The Bible calls these representatives “stewards” or “managers.” That’s the third thing you need to know.
So let’s put this all together. The Holy Gospel according to Luke. Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man…” OK, got it; let’s assume he was one of those wealthy, southern landowners. “There was a rich man who had a manager.” Now we know what a manager does. “Charges were brought to [the landowner] that the manager was squandering his property.” Apparently, the manager wasn’t squeezing the farmers enough, wasn’t extracting as much of the harvest as the master thought he should be getting. So the landowner fires the manager.
Maybe this manager’s situation sounds familiar. He’s a middle-class guy, doing work that isn’t particularly gratifying, but it brings him a decent paycheck and allows him to provide for his family. He has tried to do the job well, but he hasn’t met productivity quotas and now he’s been laid off. Maybe he’s getting a little older and he wonders who in the world is going to want to hire him at this stage in his life. As he’s reflecting on his situation, wondering what he’s going to do about his mortgage payment and his family’s health insurance and the kids’ college tuition, he realizes how expendable he was to the guy above him in the hierarchy. The master-landowner never really cared about him as a person, never cared about the manager’s well-being or his family’s financial security; the landowner was only interested in maximizing his own profit. And the manager realizes that’s how all those farmers must feel, too—that they’re only useful for making somebody else a profit, that they’re only useful for money.
Now the manager’s eyes are opened to the ways this system values profits over people, and he decides he will participate in the system no more. In fact, he decides he’s going to disrupt that system. So he calls the farmers in one at a time. “How much did you owe my master? One hundred jugs of olive oil? Make it fifty. A hundred containers of wheat? Make it eighty.” He’s had it with this economic system that takes from the poor to enrich the already wealthy. So he flips the script. He decides to give some of the landowner’s excess back to the poor. Dishonest? Probably. An act of justice? What do you think?
That short passage we read from Amos was written centuries before the Gospel of Luke, and it is addressed to those who “trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land.” More specifically Amos is writing about grain traders who piously observe the mandatory day of rest by refraining from business as the law commands, but then as soon as the Sabbath day is over immediately return to preying on their less fortunate neighbors. The traders are pictured here cheating with the scales and using dishonest measurements in order to swindle farmers who come selling their wheat. The wrongdoing Amos calls out here is more profound than mere dishonesty and deception in the carrying out of their business. What condemns these grain traders is a lust for wealth that causes them to devalue people.
It’s that same lust for wealth and that same devaluing of others that is exposed and condemned in the Gospel reading. The manager in the parable isn’t someone who is evil and terrible. The manager is someone who sees through the injustice of the economic system and decides he’s not going to be part of it anymore. He refuses to go along with a system that values money over people.
Of course, we all have to use money. But Brian McLaren suggests that every time we take out our wallets, we should wash our hands, because if we’re not careful, money can tempt us to value wealth more than people, and more than creation itself. Money can tempt us to look at the world around us and see only how people and resources might be exploited for profit.
If you’ve been following the global youth climate strike this week, you know that the conversation hasn’t just been about carbon emissions and rising temperatures. Youth all around the world have been making a more fundamental critique, protesting an economic system that values profits over the well-being of human life and of the earth itself. Greta Thunberg is the Swedish teenager whose activism launched what has become a worldwide protest, and earlier this year she said in a speech, “If solutions within this system are so difficult to find then maybe we should change the system itself.” The youth who are leading this movement say the biggest problem is that power is concentrated in the hands of people who value money above all else, including the very future of human civilization and the future of our planet. And now these youth are saying, “It’s time to flip the script. It’s time to disrupt the system. We will participate in this system no more.”
The biggest problem with an economic system that tells us some people are expendable is that someday each one of us—like the manager in today’s parable—will discover that we, too, are expendable. Each week we invite the kids of the congregation to come forward for a time with children, and you probably think we sound like a broken record, because every single week we tell our children, “God loves you. You matter to God. No matter what the world tries to tell you, each and every single person matters to God.” And then we leave this place, and all of us go back into a world that tell us, and participate in an economic system that is built on the notion, that actually, some people don’t matter. Some people are expendable. That youmight be expendable. That is not the kind of world God wants us to live in.
So here’s an invitation: Flip the script. Figure out what it would mean for you to be part of changing the system, of telling the world the same story God has told us here today—that each and every person matters and nobody is expendable. Flip the script.
Sheila M. Cannon, “Climate strikes: Greta Thunberg calls for ‘system change not climate change’ – here’s what that could look like,” on The Conversation, March 15, 2019, http://theconversation.com/climate-strikes-greta-thunberg-calls-for-system-change-not-climate-change-heres-what-that-could-look-like-112891.
Bryce Greene, “OPINION: Capitalism needs to be overcome if we are to combat the climate crisis,” in The Indiana Daily Student, September 19, 2019, http://www.idsnews.com/article/2019/09/opstrike091919.
Brian McLaren, “C43: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (2019),” on A Sermon for Every Sunday, http://asermonforeverysunday.com/sermons/c43-the-fifteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-c-2019/.
Matt Skinner, “Dirty Rotten Preaching Scoundrels,” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2019, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5380.