The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This part of the lectionary cycle is probably my favorite, as we hear and reflect on Jesus' parables.Indulge me in reviewing what we know about parables as a teaching method:
The story is actually pretty simple: The Steward – a business manager - accused of mismanaging or squandering his master’s property. He is given notice and asked to provide a final accounting for the master before his responsibilities are terminated. Worried about future unemployment, he devises a strategy: He forgives part of each debtor’s debt. When his action becomes known, he is commended by master and keeps his job.
The parable becomes confusing when we hear Jesus’ commentary after he finishes the parable itself: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” – Which is sometimes alternately translated as “worldly wealth” – “so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
Jesus affirms the actions of steward and concludes with teaching “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Does Jesus support manipulative business practices?
Why has Luke included this story and what does it teach us?
I have a number of thoughts about this parable, rather than an explanation.
1. I think it is a mistake for us to think we need to understand and make sense out of every word that Jesus is reported to have spoken. We cannot assume this or any other gospel texts to be objectively reliable as verbatim accounts of Jesus’ teachings.
The Gospel of Luke took written form somewhere between 60 and 85 CE, some 30 to 50 years after Jesus’ death. It consists, as do the other gospels, of stories and memories that had been handed down among Jesus’ followers.
Stories are ways to make meaning, and to share meaning: the early church developed and reinforced their faith by organizing and interpreting the received memories of Jesus’ life and teachings. We have faith, in the modern Church, that the Holy Spirit was involved in the process that led to what we receive as the canonical gospels, but Jesus’ teachings have been interpreted nonetheless.
2. We need to ask what the basic concern of the parable is. Is it about wealth and our relationship to money, or is it about forgiveness?
Of course it is about both. Throughout his teachings Jesus takes strong and extreme position about dangers of wealth, but telling this story in context of his growing conflict with other religious leaders, it is equally about forgiveness.
Since more teachings about wealth coming up in the next few weeks, let’s think now about the role of forgiveness in today’s parable.
The parable’s protagonist, the steward or manager draws master’s attention (and approval) by forgiving debts. In forgiving debts, the steward rejects the expectations – even the responsibilities – of accepted & reasonable business practice.
The master, in turn, forgives the steward’s past mismanagement and keeps him on in his position after he learns of the steward’s actions toward his debtors.
1st c. Palestine had notoriously inequitable economic system – wealth was held in the hands of few, and there was no real option for the poor to change their status. The manager in the parable, by forgiving debts, disrupts the system.
We have to ask - When the manager goes back and forgives the debts, is he doing so to benefit himself, or perhaps following his heart in a way he hasn’t previously been able to?
3. It is important not to miss striking parallel between steward and Jesus, which is perhaps why the parable resonated with church. Just as the steward is a rogue, going outside of the boundaries of an accepted economic system,
Jesus is a rogue rabbi, disrupting the accepted system of religious practice.
Religious system relied on ritual sacrifice for divine favor. Jesus, however, came along giving away forgiveness and acceptance without requiring promises or sacrifices, without regard for accepted interpretation of Mosaic Law.
It is this offering of “free grace” that provokes the criticism and opposition of religious authorities.
* * *
This week I had reason to think hard about the limit of forgiveness. I spent Thursday and Friday in Anti-Racism Training provided by National Conference for Community and Justice – organization that supports social justice work through educational and community-building programs.
I have worked at learning about race and racism for decades; even so, I was amazed at the new history I learned in this workshop about the pervasive and deliberate and systemic policies and practices that undergird and perpetuate racial inequality in our nation – not just in the past, and not just in the south.
The hardest part of the workshop, however, was an extended exercise in which white participants spent an hour talking together about the privileges we enjoy and the assumptions we make as white folks, while the POC were in another room talking about their experience as POC. When we returned we did a “fishbowl” exercise in which each group, in turn, sat in an inner circle recapping highlights of what they had discussed while the other group sat in an outer circle listening. When the white folks’ turn came to sit outside the circle and listen, I was in tears at the pain I heard in the stories of my sisters and brothers of color. One young AA woman, in fact, decided that she needed to leave the workshop because she was feeling exhausted and overwhelmed and hopeless, after that exercise, in facing the challenges of living as a black woman in white America.
I share this not only because it is in the forefront of my mind as I continue to process what I learned in the workshop, but because it raises for me the devastating question of how forgiveness can exist when such egregious wrongs have been done and so much hurt inflicted, and how relationships can be built against such a backdrop.
How much are we bound to assumptions and formulas about who “deserves” or “is qualified for” God’s grace? How much do we keep tally sheets about who deserves forgiveness, or who needs to be the one to apologize, or to make things right? Who has proven untrustworthy and needs to be avoided?
How can we leave behind assumptions about who deserves favor and instead, spread God’s grace through our lives?
How can we be instruments of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation in our families, our friendships, our workplaces, our church?
As we go forward into this week,
Let us acknowledge where we have caused harm – both by our actions and by our inaction, and let us admit where we need to make amends.
Let us examine the debts we are carrying on our own relational and emotional account books and figure out what we need to do to forgive them.
Let us look for ways to share the grace God has given us.
In Jesus’ name.
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