Every week, during our Schola formation class, children hear faith stories from a Montessori-based curriculum called Godly Play. Parables are quite popular in Godly Play, and each parable storytelling begins with the same introduction. Holding up a box that is painted gold, the storyteller gazes wonderingly at it and says to the listening children that the box has a lid on it, like a door that is shut. Parables often seem like they have closed lids on them when you try to understand them. Sometimes when you come to a parable, it won’t open for you. And other times it will. But don’t be discouraged by the closed lid; you just have to keep coming back again and again to the parable.
Well, let’s just admit that today’s parable of the dishonest manager not only seems to have a lid on it most of the time, but the lid appears to be padlocked on a par with Fort Knox and the key is nowhere in sight. If you are feeling confused after hearing this parable, you are in good company.
I admit that I went looking for a key as I soon as I began to prepare for this sermon, and I quickly discovered that there are dozens of keys that all claim to open the parable box, to some extent, and they look vastly different from one another. Some are a bit ostentatious and resemble our giant key to the Fiske doors. Others are simpler and tiny enough to fit on my key ring.
Commentators on this confounding parable, in their quest to solve its puzzle, have engaged in astounding hermeneutical gymnastics to make some sense of it. And in many cases, these interpretive ventures are earnestly trying to do one thing: to make unlikeable characters seem more likeable.
The really problematic character, in this case, is the dishonest manager, because Jesus singles him out as a model for resourcefulness. In that case, can he really be all that bad? And so some interpreters have sought to unlock the hidden heroic qualities of the dishonest manager. He is a hero, apparently, because in reducing the debts owed by his master’s debtors, the manager selflessly eliminates the commission he would ordinarily have collected on such debts. Did you follow that? Maybe that’s the case, maybe not. In any event, it requires reading a lot back into the text.
It’s also troubling for some people that Jesus himself enjoins his disciples to make friends by means of dishonest wealth, so that when the money is gone, the eternal homes will be open to them.
All kinds of questions arise. Is Jesus advocating a Robin Hood tactic in which one robs the rich and gives to the poor? Is shrewdness being labeled a virtue? And what’s with all this business of making friends through shady means so that they can return the hospitality? I mean, we also know that Jesus expects hospitality to be based on sincerity alone, not on the prospect of reciprocity.
On the surface, it certainly appears that the dishonest manager is lauded for his very dishonesty. He is shrewd because he’s a child of this age, and the parable seems to urge those of us who are concerned about being children of the light to learn something from the manager’s cunning behavior. Maybe that’s the real message of the parable, maybe not.
This parable is further complicated by the fact that money is at the root of it. Luke has conditioned us to have a negative view of wealth, and Jesus himself says that one cannot serve both God and wealth—or mammon, to use that colorful Biblical word. It all seems to be so either/or. We feel that the parable must have a right interpretation and a wrong interpretation. You must choose God or money. You’re either 100% trustworthy all the time or you’re completely dishonest and a bad egg. There’s no in-between, and God certainly isn’t found in such a liminal place. So much for the Anglican via media.
And yet such a view puts us in a very difficult position—those of us who desire to be children of the light and yet who live in many respects as children of this age. Living in this age as aspiring children of the light is a never-ending torment. We can’t live without money, and yet we seem to be told that we can’t live righteously with it. And we are back where we started, knocking on the lid of the parable, waiting for it to open for us.
I think the problem is when we try to tidy up this parable, or any parable for that matter. Don’t we all want to find the correct key that opens the byzantine padlock on an obtuse parable so that its true moral meaning will be discovered? But let’s be Godly Play children for just a minute. What if we are not intended to figure out the meaning, and what if there is not simply one meaning? Instead of trying to allegorize this parable or make the rich man personify God who commends a dishonest manager, could we simply take this parable on its own terms, nothing more, nothing less?
Like the world in which we live, the world of the parable is not a perfect world, and so we don’t need to try to make it one. And precisely because it’s not a perfect world, Jesus uses it to speak to us most profoundly in our human imperfection. When we walk on interpretative high wires and pull off fire-eating circus tricks to clean up parables, we risk imposing a previously-constructed moral universe onto Scripture. But what if we turned things around and let Christ speak to us, unfettered by our attempts to make the text fit our desires or our need to reform the complicated, unlikeable characters? So, let’s explore again that world of the parable of the dishonest manager.
In this real world, the manager is indeed dishonest, highly conniving, and has been shamelessly squandering the property of his manager. The manager is irresponsible and untrustworthy. The rich man is equally odious. He is actively trying to make a substantial profit off his debtors through usurious means. And he only commends his dishonest manager because he has no way out. If the rich man revoked his manager’s actions, which were intended to placate the debtors, the rich man would only appear more detestable. And so, he commends the manager’s actions in order to make himself look generous, but in reality, he has had no other legitimate option.
It’s all a rather unsavory situation, if you ask me, and the characters are oily and highly distasteful. But into this world of reprobates, Jesus enters with his wisdom and the potential for redemption. Even from this morally dubious scenario, there might be a lesson to learn. Even in a distorted world riddled with mammon, it might still be possible for grace to break in. Even dishonest wealth might be transfigured into something glorious. Perhaps an untrustworthy manager has one or two redeemable qualities. A stopped clock, after all, is right twice a day.
You see, while Jesus appears to present us with impossible choices between two diametrically opposed things, he actually helps us find grace in the moral haziness of an imperfect world. Perhaps serving God instead of mammon is not impractically eschewing money in a society that runs on it. Instead, maybe it means not worshipping money and knowing when it has become one’s god. Jesus is urging us to be faithful stewards of the mammon of this age—because after all we do live in this age. And by being responsible and resourceful with worldly wealth, and using it for the good of others, we anticipate that glorious age to come where we shall truly be children of light.
Or maybe, just maybe, a largely dishonest manager is capable of doing a noble thing once in a blue moon, like reducing debt for struggling debtors, even if his intentions are unclear and his motives are mixed. By ceasing our quest for that key that will perfectly open the parable, we can better see how each tiny moment of life, even in its apparent hopelessness and wretchedness, could bear fruit for the kingdom of God.
I don’t believe that our task is to figure out the moral character of the rich man or the dishonest manager. In some sense, that has already been done for us. And it should be clear that Jesus is not commending dishonesty. He is, instead, offering us a more nuanced moral compass, where even the mammon of this world can be transformed by God into true riches.
The options are now manifold. Is it then possible for a wicked corporation or a ruthless government to experience redemption, even if through the fleeting honesty of one person? Is it then possible that someone you deem morally bankrupt might be capable, through God’s wondrous providence, of some small act of kindness? And could that person, like the dishonest manager, have an internal reflective monologue in which he or she decides to do something morally commendable, at least once? And even if that action is not moral perfection itself, maybe God is still at work there. Because if God in Christ has indeed redeemed this creation and is still dragging it to himself in salvific love, God is doing so in the squalor and mess of this world, using all of it, just as he did on that trash heap of Golgotha.
Was the rich man unscrupulous? Maybe. Was the dishonest manager really a bad egg? Perhaps. But who’s to say that even such folks are never open to God’s grace? Isn’t unrighteous mammon capable of being harnessed to build up God’s kingdom?
So, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to keep coming back to the parable box with its obstinate lid, and instead of trying to force the right key into it, I’m going to let it speak in its own mysterious way. And then, just then, I might gain some inkling of God’s unfathomable but glorious redeeming love.
Preached by Father Kyle Babin
22 September 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia