Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Prodigal Manager

A sermon on Luke 16:1-13
Note: The sermon will make more sense if you read the parable first.

It’s a little bit embarrassing that I have opened so many sermons in the last couple of months by telling you how difficult it is to preach on whatever passage has been assigned for that Sunday. I had really hoped not to do it this week. So I opened my Bible with hope and determination, and found myself utterly puzzled by the Gospel passage. Not to be deterred, I opened my commentaries and navigated to my favorite lectionary blogs to find a little interpretive assistance. Commentator after commentator declared unequivocally that this week is known as Jesus’ most inexplicable parable. 

Perhaps the problem is not with the parable, but with how we are trying to interpret it. Christian interpreters have a tendency to approach the puzzling and confusing passages of the Bible as if they were algebra problems. If we just do enough research, we imagine, the correct answer will emerge. Find the right theological concept, or Old Testament reference, or alternate meaning of a Greek word, and solve for X. The Jewish tradition, of which Jesus and the disciples were part, has other modes of interpretation that might fit better for us today. The practice of “midrash” takes those puzzling places and intriguing gaps in scripture as jumping-off points, imaginatively fleshing out characters and events with a rich tradition of stories. From this point of view, a confusing scripture is not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity for faithful imagination. Rather than an algebra equation with one correct answer, we could envision it as a melody line in need of harmonization. It’s not that “anything goes”: there are plenty of notes that will create jangling discord rather than transcendent harmony; but with study, prayer, and inspiration, there are countless ways to add to the music.

In that spirit, I am going to tell you three very short stories today, stories in the voices of three of the characters in this parable, as we imagine together what Jesus might have been saying in this parable about the rich man, the manager, and the debtors. 

This is the first story, the story of the debtor: 

A hundred jugs of oil is a lot of oil. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to pay it back. Olive oil isn’t cheap now, for all your industrialization and mechanization, but imagine what it cost us then, how much labor went into cultivating those olive groves and pressing out the oil in presses of rough-hewn stone and wood. A hundred jugs of oil I owed! Even the fifty I originally borrowed was a lot – too much – but what choice did I have? My kids needed to eat. You all talk about credit card debt and student loan debt and home owners’ debt as if debt were a twenty-first century problem, but believe me, debt is an old, old thing. 

I knew that I had borrowed fifty, and Josiah the manager knew I was borrowing fifty, and the rich man Nicodemus would have known I was borrowing fifty if he kept his own books. But the Torah laws forbid charging interest. And in a world like ours, that was never going to work – no one was going to lend out of the kindness of their hearts – so everyone just knew the workaround. You would just write down the larger amount, as though that was what you had borrowed to begin with. Oil you have to pay back double, because it’s risky. The jugs can crack, or the oil can go rancid, and then the lender is out of luck. 

Anyway, word got around one day that Josiah had been less than scrupulous with the books – something about sneaking food to someone and trying to cover it up. Nicodemus had caught wind of it and was firing him. When I got word that Josiah wanted me to come and see him right away, I was afraid that my loan was about to be called in. I didn’t have the hundred jugs of oil. I might, someday, be able to repay the original fifty, but not a hundred. Not today. I rushed to Nicodemus’s property, terrified by visions of what would happen to me and my children when I couldn’t pay up. Debtor’s prison? Slavery? 

But that’s not what happened at all. “How much do you owe?” Josiah asked. “A hundred jugs of oil,” I replied. “Are you sure?” Josiah inquired, looking at me significantly, “I could swear I only gave you fifty.” He was right, of course; fifty is what I’d borrowed. “Let’s correct this bill,” Josiah said smoothly. And it was done, the illicit interest forgiven and my debt halved in the stroke of a pen. The reduction of my debt gave me relief, peace of mind, hope, a chance at freedom, finally, from the debt that had weighed on me. Did he do it for selfish reasons? Maybe he did. But blessing came from it anyway: when Josiah came to my door, I had something to offer: a place to stay and a warm meal for someone who had once been a debt collector, but was now a friend in need. It was a blessing and a gift to have something to offer; I, who had always had to ask and borrow and receive, was able to extend hospitality and kindness, grace freely given, as I had freely received. Thanks be to God. 

This is the second story, the story of the manager: 

You start off with the best intentions. Or at least, I had. I was hired to manage Nicodemus’s property and I swore to myself that I wouldn’t be like those other managers. You see, managers didn’t get a fixed salary, paid by the employer. Instead, their income came from extra charges to the borrowers. Someone borrows fifty jugs of oil, say, and pays back a hundred to the property, and a few to the manager as well. Tax collectors make their money the same way, but they’re even less popular, since they work for the Romans. 

I never wanted to be one of the bad guys, squeezing wealth out of the desperation of the poor, but what could I do? You have to feed your kids somehow. And you want a decent pair of sandals, and maybe to eat meat at dinner every so often, and some wine. And would it really be so bad to get one piece of jewelry for your wife? Next thing you know, you’re charging as much as those guys you hated – or even more! 

I felt so guilty all the time, but I just didn’t know what to do. I lived every day with this gnawing, vague sense of helplessness and shame. Sometimes I’d try to soothe my conscience – someone would come who would never be able to pay back their debt, and I’d lend to them and just never follow up. Someone in terrible need, just on the edge of ruin. I’d try to make it come out right in the books, but it never quite did. 

I guess Nicodemus must’ve found out about one of them, because one day he sent me a message: he was going to need an accounting of the property, because he wasn’t going to employ me anymore. I summoned everyone who was indebted to Nicodemus, and I could feel this palpable sense of dread, as they all waited to talk to me. I could see them all, the ones I had given a break to, and the ones I had overcharged to try to cover for it, and I knew they all just hated me. 

But here’s the thing: I knew my job and my comfortable life were slipping away; there was nothing I could do anymore to try to hold on to them. And once I knew that, all of the rules that had kept me bound up with guilt and worry melted away, and I knew what to do. There would be grace and mercy poured out into my life in the days to come, but I didn’t know that yet. I just knew that in the few hours I had left managing Nicodemus’s property, I finally could be faithful to the one who made me, instead of the one who employed me; I finally could serve God instead of wealth. In that room, I turned away from everything I was supposed to do, and I canceled debts left and right. I proclaimed good news to the poor, and release to those captive to crushing debt. And the Spirit of the Lord was upon me. Thanks be to God.

This is the third story, the story of the rich man: 

I know that, comparatively speaking, I never had much to complain about. Feeling conflicted about being rich doesn’t hold a candle to the worries of families who can’t feed all their kids. I know. But there it was: I felt conflicted about my wealth. Guilty, even. I knew that the scriptures didn’t look kindly on the rich. I tried to figure out what to do about it, sometimes, but I just felt stuck. I didn’t go around making “the ephah small and the shekel great,” as the prophet Amos once wrote, but the laws against charging interest? I couldn’t just give out free money. I was rich, not stupid. 

There were nice things about being wealthy, but the lending and the collecting and the accounting… it was all so uncomfortable. I was relieved to finally hire Josiah to handle things. He seemed to be doing a fine job, so mostly I just let him handle things; it was easier that way, and the less I thought about it, the less guilty I felt. 

Everything was going smoothly until one evening when I was at a dinner party, where I heard from a friend that Josiah had given a winter’s worth of food to a poor widow out of my storehouses. I guess he thought he’d be able to cover it up, but she’d let it slip to the other women at the well. The story was all over town, and I was a laughing stock. I would have been willing to give the widow the food if Josiah would have just asked me, but to find out that he’d been stealing from my stores like that and trying to cover it up? I was furious. I got up the next morning and went to demand a thorough accounting, sending a messenger ahead of me. 

By the time I got there, though, Josiah had taken matters into his own hands. He had canceled the interest on every single loan, and I’m pretty sure that some debts had been canceled altogether. Pride, fear, and defiance mingled on Josiah’s face. I know I should’ve been angry, but to be honest, we were so far past that that all I felt was a kind of relief, a sense of freedom. It was like all the wealth I’d accumulated had trapped me under its weight, and I didn’t realize how constricting and suffocating it was until it started to lift. 

I think Josiah expected me to fire him, or worse. I probably could’ve had him thrown in jail. But I looked around at the people he had freed from debt and fear and anxiety, and I knew he had freed me as well. And so I thanked him, and I asked him to do one last thing as the manager of my property: to give it all away to whoever needed it. That night, with little more than the shoes on my feet, the clothes on my back, and the walking stick in my hand, I left my old life behind and started down the road. I’d heard there was a rabbi traveling the countryside, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and teaching about a kingdom where grace and mercy flow like cool water. I set out to follow him. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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