September 22, 2013
The Outrageous Parable
Today’s lectionary, our Gospel reading, presents us with what some people have deemed Jesus’ most outrageous parable. Why? The manager in the story is shady and his dealings with others are shady; yet, the Master in the story fails to condemn the shadiness.
Parables in the New Testament have names like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son or the Lost Coin. This one is called the Shrewd Manager or Dishonest Manager. We don’t feel as “warm” toward it as the others, do we? And, why would it be recorded as a parable Jesus would tell? Usually a parable tells us something about ourselves and something about the nature of God. What message about human nature or about God’s nature do you hear?
The parable begins by introducing us to the manager. He’s a crook, dishonest, plain and simple. He cheats the master by reducing the size of debts and runs the risk of being thrown into prison for stealing. So far, we know that this scenario is not so farfetched. We can name present day examples pretty readily of those who have doctored the books and risked getting caught.
But, we learn that in 1st century Palestine, the manager was doing what was a common practice. He earned his salary through commissions attached to transactions. This poor guy was doing what others did except, as the scriptures say, he took advantage of his position. He made some bad choices and became greedy in his management. That’s when he got caught. Yes, again, present day examples come to our minds and we have felt their effects. I don’t think we have much compassion or forgiveness for this type of management.
You would expect the “rich man” or the owner/master of the company to feel as we do and be ready to press charges but the owner, instead of condemning him, commends him. What a twist! The dishonest manager acts shrewdly and is praised for it by the owner of the company. The parable says he praised him because he knew how to look after himself.
The story is told and, then, the teaching begins. Jesus tells his audience to be smart, to be shrewd, in what is right. He wanted those who followed him and believed in God’s goodness, God’s right way, to act in this way. We agree with the teaching but why use an “outrageous” example? The parable is a stretch for well disciplined, obedient, law-abiding minds. It is a “stretch” for “good Christians” who like order and discipline. (That’s who we are, right?)
But, to understand the parable and its teaching, we must allow ourselves to move from judgment of the manager’s dishonesty and our tendency to build a case against him, to an understanding of why he did what he did. Yes, he was trying to take care of himself and his family, he was struggling to do “something” to survive a bad decision, and so he worked the angle of making friends with those who could help him. He knew he needed a plan to survive. The fact that he acted, even though, devious, was “smart.”
The rich man or owner of the business saw this and named the manager’s behavior as creative survival even though what he did was wrong. It seems we learn that God’s nature is one to look upon a situation and judge it differently than we may expect it to be judged. There is compassion for those who need second chances, even crooks, and goodness is not about “getting even.” How does this translate into present situations in our lives, in our world, in our politics? I hear much about “getting even,” do you?
We approach an understanding of the meaning of the parable by asking how we can relate to this dishonest manager. We can all relate in some way if we dig deep into our pasts and poke around in our present affairs. That means, looking within, and being careful not to point the finger and the blame. It means being open, curious, and ready to own blame. It means being ready to criticize that which we have held close and dear and ready to give up something that has become sacred even when our instincts tell us otherwise.
This is one of the reasons I’m glad we have, as a congregation, established a time to talk together about matters of substance related to faith and practice. These Round Table discussions are opportunities to dive deeper into the depths of self-examination (particularly, denominational examination) and reflection on our responses to these matters of substance.
We looked last Sunday (9/15) during our Round Table discussion meeting at two recently approved resolutions presented at the Synod meeting last June. There were many others but we focused on the “bullying and discrimination” resolution and the “Doctrine of Discovery” resolution. Both were of interest and, if you get into the particulars, similar in nature/content.
You can pick up copies of these resolutions that I gave out last week if you were not here or find them on-line (UCC.org/Synod Resolutions). We’ll hope to look at more of the resolutions in future discussions. Many of you, I know, are interested in discussing the resolution on immigration reform. I hope we may do this in December.
In these discussions, it is good that we may voice our concerns and our sorrows in what we have participated in as individuals or as a nation. We know that we have not always shown the best side of our Christian character and we have reason to acknowledge, confess, and repent in our historic complicity with evil. Jesus teaching (Matthew 7) that we draw the log out of our own eye before attempting to draw the speck out of another’s is a good guide for these discussions on sensitive issues. For example, we ask, “How do we bully or discriminate against others? When have we supported the Doctrine of Discovery?”
Jesus wanted us to focus on being people who show God’s goodness, compassion, justice; his response was to give second chances, to focus on grace, not judgment. That is usually the gist of the story in all of the parables. Why is it so hard for us to exhibit attitudes or stand up for attitudes that are clearly serving God, not the bank, not the powers that be??
I was reading a newspaper article last Friday about an interview with Pope Francis in Vatican City. Perhaps you read it. It impressed me! The Pope has stirred quite a controversy within the Roman Catholic Church, especially with the clergy, regarding his encouragement to emphasize compassion over condemnation when discussing social issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality. He said that the church has locked itself up in small things, in small minded rules.
He asked his readers to name what is paramount, what is important. Is it “doctrine” or is it “mercy?” Lastly, he stated that they needed to find a new balance and gave these questions: What should the church look like in the world? What should we be doing? What is our vision?
Those are our questions as well, aren’t they? How do we answer? What does this outrageous parable have to say to us? We are grateful that we are encouraged to live our faith as ministers of mercy. We are grateful that we are all called to be pastors of wounded souls. We are grateful that God’s future, in our hands, is amazingly open and surprising and it is not about “getting even.”
May we, with Jeremiah, pray that God’s healing balm, something like the balm of Gilead, be an ointment for our souls and bring healing to the nations. May this salve bring boldness, confidence and trust that God will heal us and we can be agents of the healing when we follow the way of an “outrageous” parable.
Surely, the balm in Gilead we read about and sang about, is Christ holding us in our grief and all our needs and helping us be “smart” about the choices we make and the sermons we preach. May Christ, indeed, give us the will not be to become the evil we deplore. This is the good news of the Gospel. This is the outrageous parable that links us to a gracious God. Thanks be to God. Amen.