Can the Jesus who told the beautiful encouraging parables about finding what and who is lost last week also be the author of this week’s parable that seems to be advocating some very questionable behaviour? Well yes and the connection is all about outrageous grace and forgiveness! (Luke 16:1-13)
Sometimes it is hard to make out what Jesus is on about because he says some things we find obscure and counter intuitive. And then there is the distance created by the difference between a first century audience and us. But at first, and even second, hearing this parable sounds like Jesus is encouraging us into some fairly dubious behaviour. It sounds as though Jesus is admiring the dishonest shrewd wheeling and dealing manager who is engaging in some fire sales before going out of business with someone else’s goods!
But given that this is unlikely, and would fly in the face of what we have been hearing for the last few weeks, it is worth a closer look. Remember context is nearly everything and this is part of the teaching offered in the presence of the Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling about who Jesus welcomes and eats with so this is the topic under discussion. And Jesus offers some explanation or at least keys for interpreting the parable in verses 10 to 13. Clearly Jesus is not really that interested in clever trading per see but in true riches, riches that will not rust or cannot be stolen or destroyed by moth (the language of just a few weeks ago). If there were any thought that Jesus was actually condoning or encouraging dishonest business deals then this is dismissed as he states very clearly: “Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” This is much more than just clever a maxim for teaching children how to handle pocket money or to test an employee’s future reliability by secretly testing them with less important tasks first.
Now we have to live in this world and therefore we need to have a relationship with the things that make for wealth. But we need to be very clear about who is the master, what has priority, who or what has authority in our lives. And this I believe is the real punch line to the parable – who has authority to do what and what sort of economy or household is the kingdom. Remember that Jesus has had the Pharisees and the scribes questioning by what authority he forgives and heals people? Jesus is taking this character in the parable (probably a story already doing the rounds in his day) and says “see this rogue who forgives debts that are not his to forgive? Well I am the rogue who forgives debts, who cancels out debt, who forgives sins.” Jesus claims for himself an authority to wheel and deal in human sin and forgiveness that does not seem to be rightfully his and he is either a rogue or the son of God. (And given that the rich man in the parable strangely approves of the manager’s business transactions we are to assume that Jesus believes that God approves of his forgiveness of debt!)
Jesus is being provocative again. “Well here I am and yes I am forgiving debts like there is no tomorrow. And yes, I am messing with your minds again. I am trying to break down the way you see the world and relate to it. I am trying to break open your ability to perceive the nearness of the kingdom of heaven.
I am trying to help you break free from slavery to what doesn’t really matter.”
Now despite the exaggerated language (remember the comments about rhetoric and hyperbole a few weeks ago) of dishonest wealth and spiritual riches I don’t think we should get sucked into too easy and polarised thinking: material vs spiritual, good vs bad. For if we hear the gospel in the light of the prophet Amos, with whom Jesus would have been very familiar, then we cannot simply separate the material world from the spiritual. The prophet warns against those who would rob the poor, who are ungenerous and says that God will not forget their deeds. Putting these two concerns together again – to serve God rather than wealth, and to act justly with the poor – we yet again come to the two great commandments; to love God with our all and our neighbour as ourselves.
Jesus is pointing to an outrageous beyond-rational grace. Forgiving debts that don’t deserve to be forgiven. Eating and drinking with those who are not proper. Healing those who were without hope. Too often in religious life we act as though grace were metered out grudgingly to the not very bad like welfare cheques that are just enough to keep people alive but not living. This parable reminds us that God’s grace is ridiculously generous and God’s redemptive forgiveness is poured out for people we may not think deserve grace. Who do we find it hard to desire God’s grace for? The poor who seems to have contributed to their own poverty? Those with addictions to nasty substances? Those who work for companies we don’t approve of? Those who are in prison for terrible crimes? Those who have different theologies? It can be very unsettling to live in a world in which those who annoy, disturb, frighten us the most are also the object of Jesus’ outrageous grace.
The other great mistake we make in religious life is to imagine that grace only happens at the beginning, that like some divine courtship Jesus showers us with grace to seduce us and then we are on our own and must strive to live godly lives by will power and perseverance alone! God’s grace knows no bounds. There is no reason to believe that grace which we knew at the beginning of our relationship with God is any less available to us today. Indeed the further we travel with God the more dependent upon grace we need to become.
And so this strange parable is actually challenging us to live a life more radically reliant on God’s good desires for us, to be reliant on God as the source of all good things and not on our own strivings and shrewd anxious bargaining. This is a challenge to be more alive and hopeful and generous. For to serve God rather than mammon or wealth is to be open to God’s generous outrageous grace to us and to live knowing that this grace extends to those we might struggle to welcome.
Even so , come Lord Jesus Christ and open our hearts and minds to accept your radical grace for us and others.