A Flawed, Curious, Hopeful, Forgiving Human

Luke 16:1-13  – The 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time  – for Sunday, September 22, 2013

“There was a rich man who had a manager…” (Luke 16:1)

There is one parable

More than any of Jesus’ stories

That befuddles

Intrigues and frightens me.

I don’t know why it troubles me so

(And yet I do)

Go ahead, those more wise, experienced and confident than me, tell me what this parable only found at Luke 16:1-9 means . . .

Then 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. (2) So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” (3) Then 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. (4) I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” (5) So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” (6) He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” (7) Then 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.” (8) And 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. (9) And 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.

BreechBefore I answer what I possibly think believe the parable means, let me explain a few interpretive decisions regarding this irksome and enlightened tale.

  • I posted this parable. I usually assume you can look up the Biblical chapters and sentences on your own, but I wanted easy access to Luke’s words.
  • However, I only included part of the parable. If you wish to read the absent verses (10-13 in Luke’s 16th chapter), feel free! For me, those verses were add-ons inspired by the early Christian community’s efforts to sugarcoat Jesus’ story. It’s as if they were tsk-tsking, wagging a finger and urging followers to serve God rather than gold. How simplistic and misleading.
  • When I began posting weekly reflections in June ‘07, I privately vowed to avoid reading the scholarly tomes about the Bible that crowd my bookshelves. I also vowed to avoid other like-minded blogs by Internet colleagues, whether ne’er-do-wells like me or respected theologians. I didn’t want others to influence my musings or to unknowingly “steal” ideas. Weird, eh? But I’ve occasionally ignored my silly vow . . . like now. I read again James Breech’s chapter on Luke 16:1-13 in his extraordinary The Silence of Jesus, published way, way, way back in 1983. Much of my thoughts regarding this parable can be attributed to Breech. Like me, he may also be wrong about everything. But his insights on Jesus’ parables transformed my faith.

*           *           *

This is what is frequently suggested for comprehending Jesus’ tale: be shrewd and decisive in your faith like the manager!

Oh, you mean the conniving, cheating, self-serving, it’s-not-my-fault manager? Nope, not me, please.

Breech suggested this . . .

“…the narrative focuses on the issue of trust: the rich man is not primarily concerned about his possessions, but about the steward whom he has entrusted to be responsible for them.”

And this . . .

“Jesus develops the narrative in such a way that it focuses on the issue of trust between the rich man and his steward; in other words, on the interpersonal basis of their relationship.”

Trust . . . in a relationship. Trust, with the ones you know. Trust, with the stranger.

I believe, for all of my dull-witted thinking and weak-willed heart, the parable was firmly about “the rich man.” After all, it bluntly began with its main subject: There was a rich man…. But it doesn’t matter that he’s rich. So, it’s really about a man . . . but it also doesn’t matter that the lead character was masculine. It’s about how humans live with other humans.

How does the rich man act? How does the manager act?

Nothing the manager did revealed him as a loving, vulnerable human. Instead, the manager was manipulative and selfish. In Jesus’ tale, we were given a glimpse of the manager’s thoughts:  What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? What! His master didn’t take the position away! The manager screwed himself by squandering the rich man’s property. But, ah, how humans craftily blame another. I’ve met people like the manager, who casually and consistently blamed others for their failures. Do you wish me, in my faith, to sally forth and be like the manager? No. Thank. You.

There was a flawed, curious, hopeful, forgiving human in this story. And that person was the story’s focus. The rich man’s essential question to the manager will be: What is this that I hear about ___?

What’s the word the rich man used? Was he concerned about his possessions, pride, and prestige or about how others saw him, or did he fret about his retirement fund and stock options? Nope. Instead, his odd, personal question was: What is this that I hear about you?

The rich man was wounded; the steward had wrecked their relationship by his greed/incompetence/laziness/silence. But there were no accusations from the rich man to his manager about the manager’s “work.” We, the reader and hearer of this troubling tale, discover and rediscover how Jesus felt about the value and vulnerability of relationships.

I have long believed Jesus didn’t call anyone to follow him into a particular religion. Jesus, after all, was never Christian (in any of Christianity’s thousand variations). And as a Jew, Jesus unsettled his fellow Jews by claiming he didn’t come to change a single “iota” of the law and yet kept exposing the flaws of the laws. If you only think about lusting after another, it’s no different than the act of lust. Turn the other cheek and (by the way) don’t think you only have two cheeks. Forgiveness trumped finances. Intolerance was intolerable. The institution of any religion was and is never as precious as the individual.

Why does this parable trouble me so?

It invites me to prioritize relationship over religion and persons over property. It demands I trust you. And when I do, I believes that makes me rich.

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