15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 18, 2022
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Torrington, CT
1Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then 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.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
10“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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No 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.” – Luke 16:1-13
My five-year-old daughter loves the phrase “It’s not fair.” On the list of things that are at one point or another not fair: limits on screen time, wearing clothing outside the house, eating vegetables, taking a bath, going to school, only getting two desserts after dinner, leaving the playground after 2 hours of playing, and not getting a new toy every time we set foot in a store.
Now, as adults and older youth we can look at that list and say, well, that’s not exactly unfair so much as just not getting what you want in the moment. And I’m often sympathetic to my own kid and other kids whose lives are dictated by adults and by forces they don’t always understand. Sometimes by forces the adults in their lives don’t even understand. I do what I can to explain the difference between what I don’t like and what isn’t fair, but sometimes, I’ll admit, I just respond with some version of “too bad” or “well, I’m the grown up and I say so.”
But I thought of my daughter’s vehement insistence of unfairness when I read the parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel reading. The manager isn’t really doing a good job and is about to get fired. So he cooks the books to curry favor with the master’s debtors in order to find a soft landing. And, instead of a full-on criminal prosecution he gets commended for his shrewdness.
It’s not fair!!!
It may well be that in this story there is some genuine unfairness. The manager is unfair to the master in squandering his property. The manager gives away more of the master’s property in cancelling part of all the outstanding IOUs. And fair would be making him pay it all back.
But then we could step back and question the fairness of a system in which some seem to hold all the wealth and all the power. A system in which some are in debt to others in ways that might be hard to get out of. The inequality in power in wealth in Jesus time and place make our own wealth inequality look mild. Was it fair to have a foreign power occupying the land? Was it fair to have a few wealthy landowners and the vast majority of people in utter poverty?
Maybe we even step back further and cry out to God about the unfairness of how difficult it was for people of the first century just to survive, to eke out a living, to avoid life-ending disease or escape famine in a harsh world without many of the modern conveniences we now rely on.
If we train our vision in the right way, we may well see genuine unfairness everywhere we look. There’s genuine unfairness in the way people are treated because of their skin color. There’s unfairness in full-time wages that don’t cover basic food and housing. There’s unfairness in the ways dominant powers affect the climate and people with less power often pay the first consequences.
But then, sometimes, like my daughter, we see unfairness in things that just aren’t what we want. Someone else gets a promotion we wanted. We didn’t get as big of a raise as we thought we deserved. Someone else got a lucky break and we didn’t. Maybe you’re thinking now of some of the things that feel unfair in your life right now, justified or no.
Either way we’ve been trained to look at the world this way. This becomes one of our primary questions from early childhood: What’s fair? Did each person get an equal slice of cake? Does everyone get a fair turn to speak? Are wages and debts paid according to the record? Does each person have what’s due to them? Somehow we’re wired to add things up and plead our case when things aren’t by the record books: “It’s not fair!”
This parable, however, seems instead to throw out the record-keeping books altogether. “Wrong question!” Jesus says! The point isn’t about fair. The point is about…well, wait…what is the point about? If it’s not about fair, if it’s not that fundamental question we’ve been trained to ask, we might have a hard time wrapping our minds around what question it might be instead.
My go-to commentator on Jesus’ parables, Robert Farrar Capon, suggests that in this story which he calls “The Hardest Parable,” the Christ figure is, in fact, this squirrelly manager, sometimes called the dishonest or shrewd manager. Not adjectives we usually apply to Jesus. But Jesus does celebrate his work as he tells this little story. Capon argues for this for three reasons: First, the manager’s life as he knows it is over – it’s as close to death as he can get while still breathing. So the whole thing is set in motion by his dying. Second, other people – the ones who owe something to the master – are given life out of this manager’s experience of dying. And third, he says this: “The unjust steward is the Christ-figure because he is a crook, like Jesus. The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing – which is the only kind of grace there is.” [Kingdom, Grace, Judgment by Robert Farrar Capon, Eerdmans, 2002, p. 307]
And before you say, “But it’s not fair to call Jesus a crook!” let’s remember that he pulled some folks up out of their graves, stole some souls right out of the depths of hell, and carried off our backs some pretty hefty wrongs. Nothing about Jesus is fair. Fair would be tit for tat, paying for what you did wrong, evening the score, weighing the scales. And Jesus just doesn’t play by those rules.
In the last few weeks’ worth of gospel readings he’s been hanging out with sinners and tax collectors and – gasp! – even eating with them. Not fair! He’s been searching after one lost sheep, leaving the 99 behind. Not fair! Hate father and mother and sibling to follow him? Not fair! Take up your cross? Definitely not fair! Coming up shortly in the narrative of Luke’s Gospel is a call is give up all your possessions to follow. Not fair!
This is where the rest of today’s gospel follows – you can’t serve both God and wealth. Wealth is measured by the numbers, by bookkeeping. Money, reputation, success. Church growth measured by attendance and finances – it’s all bookkeeping. And much as I love a good spreadsheet and believe firmly in transparency and accountability of finances, I don’t think Jesus is all that invested in the bottom line of our budgets.
What would it look like for our world if we stopped asking what was fair and started asking what was most life-giving? Instead of calculating our due, what if we gave generously of what we had until the needs of all were met? What if we operated out of a mindset that figured out how everyone could best live in community instead of arguing over the things that ultimately will die with us when we make our way to our graves? What if our churches asked what we could give away and where we could go serve instead of who will come in to support us? How might our world be different? How might our churches be different? How might our own sense of life and freedom be different if we asked those questions instead?
I think in some ways the shifts in our world in terms of our awareness of racism and inequality and the changes accelerated by the pandemic, we’re being forced into these new questions. And honestly, it’s not always easy to change our mindset, beautiful as it might sound in the moment. It means the dismantling of a lot of things we have grown familiar and comfortable with. But if we keep shifting our questions, we might discover in the pain not only the death of some things but the resurrection to new life that Jesus works among us. And hopefully we aren’t so busy shouting “It’s not fair!” that we miss the new life God is bringing about, not just in a life after death kind of way but in an every-day resurrection kind of way. And, thankfully, for our broken selves and our broken world, God isn’t fair. God is grace instead.
-Pastor Steven Wilco