XVI Pentecost, Year C
Jer 8:18-9:1 or * Am 8:4-7
Ps 79:1-9 * Ps 113
1 Tm 2:1-7
My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: "Is the LORD notin Zion? Is her King not in her?" ("Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?") "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. " For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!
* (Amos 8:4-7)
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
(1 Timothy 2:1-7)
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all –this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
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. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 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.’ 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. 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. "Whoever is faithful in a 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? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
Before we can begin to deal with the reading appointed for this week, we need to answer one very important question. Where does the parable end? With Fitzmeyer, we choose to see the ending of Jesus’ parable as the end of verse 8a, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”
The other sayings, while it is entirely likely that they are attributable to Jesus, are most certainly appended to the parable, and reading them together makes it difficult for a proper reading of the parable to occur. The appended sayings of this parable have the feel of ‘sermon notes’ as C.H. Dodd has pointed out.
Even ending the parable at 8a, we have a most puzzling conundrum. A “dishonest manager” is commended for “falsifying” (so Fitzmeyer) the accounts of his master’s debtors. Even more difficult is the application of mimetic theory to this parable. Still, there is ample Gospel to be heard here (especially once we free it from the appended sayings that turn the parable into an ethical exhortation), and mimetic theory continues to offer us interpretive assistance.
Commentators and preachers have spent many a word encouraging their hearers/readers to make “prudent” use of the resources available to them, so as to merit praise on the Day of Judgment, all because of this parable. Others have speculated as to the identity of the “honest manager” whose existence is never even suggested.
None of these approaches offers us the opportunity to preach Gospel this Sunday. Only one does, only one is consistent with Jesus’ teaching and way of life. Only one makes sense of the praise heaped on the manager after he reduces the account totals for his master’s debtors.
First, let’s bring to the fore some of the elements of mimetic theory that we can find in the text. We are given an initial image of two men, a rich man and his manager. The manager is far more than an employee in this case. He is likely a slave born in the household, one who is specially trained and educated, one who functions as though he were the master in the master’s absence.
In this arrangement, we see emerging the pattern of Model and Rival. Here the manager serves as a mirror of his master, having served in his stead. He has become his master’s “double,” even to the extent of treating the master’s property as though it were his own. For this mimetic behavior, he is criticized. The master says that he can no longer function as his steward, because he has behaved instead as his double.
It is worth noting that in the master’s response, there is no note of anger, of reprisal. Instead, he simply says that, as the manager has confused himself with the one he represents, he will no longer be allowed to serve in this capacity.
Threatened with the loss of this occupation, the manager does the unthinkable. He reduces the debts of those who owe money to his master, so as to win their favor for the time when he will be without employment, so that they will “receive him into their homes.” And for this, he is praised, indication that the master must have wanted these resources used in this way from the start!
The reason for this is simple, really. The “lord,” the kyrios, praises him because he “forgives” debts.
It is important to remember how Luke aligns the forgiveness of sin with the forgiveness of debt. Once we take note of the parallel between cancellation of debt and the forgiveness of sin, the rest of the parable becomes much clearer. Though Luke’s setting of the parable in the context of Jesus’ confrontation with the religious authorities (The Pharisees and scribes of verse 2) it remains likely that the “head of household” represents those who “spoke for” God, those who might have confused their roles, using the “property” or “resources” placed at their disposal for their own benefit.
What Jesus’ hearers are advised to do is to use their positions, for as long as they have them, to do what the manager did, to forgive “debts” or sin.
In this parable, we have both the doubling of the Model by the Rival, and the refusal of the Model to respond in kind. The master (God) instead (mercifully) breaks the system that results in the doubling (“you may no longer be my manager”) and then praises the manager for giving away his resources or possessions, modeling instead God’s lack of “desire” for those possessions.
The master’s illogical behavior in this parable shows God’s non-mimetic nature more clearly than perhaps any but the parable of the Waiting Father, both of them peculiar to Luke. In both, the property of the character standing in for God is sacrificed. In both, the character who is celebrated is initially guilty of “squandering” that property. (The only two occasions in the New Testament in which diaskorpizo is used in this sense of “wasting.”)
In this parable, Jesus pushes us past the scapegoating process to the earlier conditions that lead to it; desire, rivalry, doubling. He offers us an escape before we reach the point of needing a victim, an escape found in imitation of the master, who shows no desire, refuses to engage in mimetic rivalry, who finally praises the manger for doing the right thing, even if it is for some dubious reasons.
We refer our readers again to David Moessner’s book on the travel narrative (within which we find this pericope) in Luke’s Gospel “The Lord of the Banquet.” In it he points out that a major theme of the central portion of the Gospel is the way that Jesus is received (welcomed into) the homes of some along the way, but refused hospitality by others. Those who “hear” him, receive him. It is no accident that Jesus teaches this parable among those who do not accept his message of deliverance, who do not welcome him into their homes. Following Moessner’s Deuteronomic hypothesis, Jesus, as the prophet like Moses, proclaims the ‘holy Word’ of God that is rejected. The failure to hear and failure of hospitality are “of a piece.”
Once again, we are confronted with the scandalously generous love of the One Jesus calls “Abba.” This master’s praise has nothing at all to do with the manager’s history or intent, but rather with the forgiveness that resulted from his actions.
I wonder what would happen if each of us, as preachers, being threatened with the loss of our positions, started to preach God’s gracious (gratuitous!) forgiveness rather than God’s expectations or the church’s need for our money or volunteer service. Would the lightened burden our congregations felt result in renewed ministry? Would we feel as though we had “sold out” in order to preserve our jobs? Would God care why we’d done it?