Today Jesus tells us a truly curious story.
There are parts of it that we can relate to easily:
we all have to make decisions about how to use our money every day.
Most of us manage projects or people at least some of the time.
We all understand that our decisions have consequences beyond ourselves.
But it seems to me, Jesus’ story is so strange
as to challenge our notion of what it means to be a Christian
and perhaps challenges our understanding of Jesus himself.
Here’s the story:
There was a RICH MAN, Jesus says,
who outsourced the daily management of his money.
Maybe he’s too busy chillaxin’ by the pool
or working on his golf game to attend to his own assets,
but for whatever reason,
he has entrusted a manager to attend to his portfolio.
And he gives his manager complete control of
and complete responsibility for his money and property,
including the power to buy and sell,
and the authority to make contracts in his name.
He clearly trusts his manager.
But someone comes to report to the RICH MAN
that his manager has been wasting his assets
and has scattered them to the wind,
and so the RICH MAN calls the manager in and says, you’re under audit.
Bring me proof that these accusations aren’t true, or you’re fired.
The manager is given time to go get the documentation:
receipts, spreadsheets, and contracts,
but he seems to know that the paper trial will only incriminate him.
The manager understands he’s in deep, and living paycheck to paycheck as he does,
he’s going to be in real trouble when the inevitable happens,
so he knows he needs to think fast.
He knows his reputation will soon be ruined and doesn’t want to end up on the street.
He looks up other job listings online but he’s not qualified for anything else.
And then, in a moment of clarity he looks back at his spreadsheets
and the names of people who are indebted to his boss,
and he has an idea that’s just crazy enough to work.
He calls the RICH MAN’s clients into his office
and like an exiting president handing out pardons,
he uses his last moments of power, before his name is stripped off the door
to RE-negotiate these clients’ contracts to their favor,
reducing what they owe by half in one case,
by 20% in another case, and doing this over and over,
one by one, until he reaches the end of the list.
It seems haphazard,
but by the time the manager has to pack up his office
under watch of the security guard and is escorted to the parking lot,
the rich man has half his assets cleaned out,
the clients have received a huge windfall,
and the manager has secured a future in which he will not be destitute
because in this Greco-Roman culture there was a reciprocity ethic
under which those who received a favor
were literally bound to take care of the one to whom they were now indebted.
But the strangeness of the story comes when, to our surprise,
the RICH MAN praises the manager
who has just unjustly swindled him out of his assets,
because, he says, the manager acted wisely, with shrewdness,
displaying a sharp power of judgment.
And JESUS says, see how the children of this age
are more shrewd that the children of light, so
Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth.
But how can this be?
Isn’t this strange?
Don’t we expect Jesus to tell a story about an honest manager
rather than a dishonest manager?
Wouldn’t this story be more in keeping with a Christian ethic
if the manager had been virtuous from the beginning
and never gotten himself in a tight spot?
Are we right in understanding that Jesus is lifting up this manager
as an example for what our lives should look like?
If this story has implications for our lives,
how are we to reconcile the fact that as disciples of Jesus
we’re called to be moral people?
Here’s the thing.
From the perspective of the clients, the amounts owed were enormous.
Biblical commentators say that the amount of oil owed by the first client
would equal a years’ worth of wages.
Similarly, the wheat debt of the second
would represent a share of almost 100 acres,
which would be 20 times larger than the average family’s holdings.
So the depth of the mercy these people received when their debt was cancelled
is just hard to put a value on.
If someone told you, for example,
to sit down and cut your mortgage in half, I
believe you’d see it as an amazing act of mercy, no matter why the person did it.
If someone said they would cancel a big chunk of your debt,
you might not care whether it was to save their own skin or not,
you’d just be thinking about the weight lifted off your shoulders.
The heart of this story is mercy
And the heart of Jesus is mercy.
Everything Jesus does is for the benefit of others –
his healing, his teaching, his dying, his rising, his ascending to rule in love and kindness,
and Jesus invites us to learn his way of mercy.
And so Jesus’ story centers on a manager
whose initial priority was only in taking care of himself –
not the rich man’s wealth and not other people,
but in the moment when it all comes crashing down
and he has to look truthfully at himself
and comes face to face with his weakness, his failure, and his need,
he realizes FINALLY that taking care of other people will actually,
truly be good for him.
And so he acts in mercy toward the clients of the rich man,
and that mercy matters more than how he felt about it or what was behind his motivation.
Our very best acts of mercy and kindness that we as a church ever perform –
feeding the hungry, supplying school children with supplies,
sending our handmade quilts around the world to provide heat in the cold,
assembling personal care kits for Moments of Hope –
none of these acts have their genesis in our motivation.
All the acts of mercy that flow through us
begin with God who called us into being and has blessed us with every blessing we receive,
chiefly the gift of Jesus,
who gave his life as a ransom for all,
that we might live in the peace and health of God in this life and the next.
God is rich in mercy, and we could try to waste it,
and I know that I do, my guess is you do too,
but there is no bottom.
God’s mercy is endless.
God doesn’t become less rich because his mercy is squandered.
His mercy can’t be wasted so that there is less of it to go around.
His mercy came to the world in the face of Jesus Christ
and was wasted, ignored, hated, shunned, combated and crucified and buried in a grave,
but we can’t deplete God’s mercy
and Jesus Christ returned to continue to bring God’s mercy
that is now resurrected, perfected, and everlasting, and will come again.
Our merciful and loving God, in Jesus Christ keeps coming to us,
empowering us to follow him in being merciful
and in showing love toward one another.
We mistakenly think that if we take care of ourselves and our wants
we will be the happiest we can be,
but Jesus shows us that it is in the mercy of caring for our neighbors,
near and far,
and especially those in need –
that the fabric of the human community is tighter, stronger, and healthier
and we all are better off.
This is the way in which the Lord takes the weak up out of the dust
and lifts the poor from the ashes,
enthroning them with the rulers of the people.
In Jesus’ story, the RICH MAN praises the manager
because he finally acts for the benefit of others
and comes to see the value of doing something good for his neighbors
rather than just for himself,
and Jesus lifts up the manager in the story for being shrewd –
that is wise and crafty,
encouraging us to be more like this.
It could be that there are many ways the world outside the church
is more shrewd than the church.
More capable of taking care of others but also preserving itself.
It seems to me that one way the world is shrewder that we are is in simply acknowledging value.
How good are we at naming the value of participating in the life of the church?
The world is very good at this.
When I see an ad for shoes,
it usually tells me why the shoes are worth buying.
The company has become expert at making a case
for why they would be valuable to me.
When I see an add for a degree program,
the school is not shy to explain that if I were to enroll
I could expect to acquire advanced tools,
learn from innovative research,
and develop skills through proven frameworks for success.
I think we sometimes assume that people will attend worship
and participate in our programs
without us having to explain the value –
that because we know the value it should be understood by everyone.
Or perhaps we think that obligation
should bring people together under the umbrella of the church,
but obligation in the church – and maybe in pretty much every facet of life – is dead,
and maybe that’s not even a bad thing,
and so I think it is not wrong to be wise,
thoughtful, determined, and even shrewd in laying out a case for people
as to the value of life in the beloved community.
How should we articulate the value of worshipping God
and growing in friendship with God and one another?
Would we say that the church is a place to belong?
Would we say that the church is a place to discover your gifts and use them?
Would we say that the church is a place
to be included even if the world tells you you’re different?
Would we say the church is a people of peace
in the midst of a world of violence?
Would we say that the scriptures of God
are how we make sense of being
and learn where humankind comes from
and where we are headed
and what to do with the gift of our life in the meantime?
Would we say the church
is the way we experience God’s mercy
that will sustain our service to the neighbor who is poor,
and the refugee who is alone,
and the person who is sick?
Would you say that the church
is God’s invitation to learn forgiveness in community?
Would we say the church is the community
that follows Jesus in the way
that will ultimately end in the death of our individual dreams of self-grandeur
and where we are born into God’s dream for humanity?
How will we articulate the good news of this strange and curious God
who elevates our relationships with one another
over everything else?
Will we be bold enough to share the good news of this strange and curious
And beautiful God
Or will we keep it for ourselves?