There’s a moment at the end of a night when the sounds have disappeared and conversations fade. You look around and see the stragglers are all that’s left of the party.
Often ones who helped set up or planned to help clean up. Ones who wait until everyone else is gone so that the real conversation can happen.
I like that time. It’s more focused. More real.
Proper 20C | Luke 16:1-13
Finally the big show is over. It’s the after-party. The host pours herself a drink and sits down. Now we can talk.
And in our gospel, the big party is both literal and metaphorical. Jesus was just telling the Parable of Generosity: with the lost sheep, coin, and sons. A parable which culminates with a big party. They kill the fatted calf and have a blow-out because the son who was dead has been raised!
The parable ends with a fade-to-black. We don’t know what happens to the older son who storms out, who the father tries to convince to come back inside. Much like that dinner party at the Pharisee’s house fades without clear resolution.
But those wine glasses should be clinking in our ears as this one begins.
The big party fades in the text because the big crowd is suddenly gone. Jesus speaks to his disciples who have walked this road with him. This is the audience for Jesus’s after party conversation.
A Conversation About Debt.
The disciples have heard about three examples of people in the kindom.
- The one who dies and is reborn. Lost to the world and returned.
- The one who was always there. Lost at home and found there.
- The one who goes out looking for the lost. And celebrates when the lost is found. In the wilderness or behind the furniture. Or even slinking out the back door.
Now Jesus takes a completely different tack with his students. He tosses them a much harder parable, one that continues to haunt and confuse his most earnest followers today.
And the biggest cause of our confusion is that we assume these parables are allegories. And GOD is one of the characters. We often assume GOD is the shepherd or the woman or the father. So then GOD is the rich man of this story. As my friend David points out, GOD is never the rich man.
The rich have their reward on earth, right? The greatest are the least. For GOD to be good, he can’t be rich.
So this parable is not an image of the kindom. If anything, this is an image of how the kindom peeks through into our world. To show us how separate we are from GOD.
So the rich man isn’t GOD. The world of this story isn’t the kindom but our world. The next step is to remember how this story would be heard and how that connects to Jesus’s other teaching.
Traditional Jewish teaching condemns usury.
So we should notice the most significant building block of this story is debt. That this rich man has burdened all these people with huge debt loads.
We know these are huge because, these jugs of oil and containers of wheat are something like 20 times as many as one farmer could produce.
So either this is massive debt in the hands of two individuals, or these are entire communities indebted to a single rich man.
So this manager, fired by the owner, is losing his job, and probably his home.
The scenario Jesus is painting is troubling and not the image we know of the kindom. But it does sound familiar and resonate with our world, doesn’t it?
Payday lending. Credit cards with 30% interest. Taking on $100K or more in student debt to get jobs which max out at $40K a year. And those loans carry a 10% interest themselves.
This parable is perhaps the most “us” of any parable in the gospels. I think Jesus wants us to see ourselves in that manager.
The manager’s burden is a disciple’s burden.
The landscape Jesus paints looks like our world with its wealthy, landowning princes. Just like the people the Jewish leaders depend on. Financially. To support their ministry, their institution, and their personal income.
And then there are the poor schmucks in the dirt getting trampled on and kicked around by Roman soldiers and their Temple sidekicks. They’re the ones suffering from dropsy, possessed by a legion of demons, or facing homelessness because both their husband and only son have died.
But here in the middle of that are the disciples, called together to hear this tragic parable. Marked off as different.
So this parable is different. And the manager isn’t a good guy doing good things or a bad guy doing bad things because he isn’t the story’s hero or villain. He’s the anti-hero forced to confront the system from which he has long benefited.
This story isn’t about the manager’s honesty and integrity. It’s about the economic system he trusts. And how that system would destroy him like the countless others.
The villain in the story is the system.
Jesus has painted a lose/lose scenario for the manager. One that goes beyond pious religious behavior. We’re not supposed to like him.
Its lose/lose because it’s rigged against everyone, including people like him. This rich man has everyone in his debt. He gets his way. And he can fire this manager and put him out onto the street.
How does this compare with the Exodus? When GOD leads the people to freedom. Feeds them. Provides clean water. Builds a community with boundaries and meets everyone’s basic needs.
And the journey to the Promised Land was made long, not because the people kept sinning or because they were bad people. But because they didn’t get what GOD was up to. They wanted what they wanted.
But GOD tells them over and over not only what GOD wants, but who GOD is.
GOD is liberation. Freedom. Love to the unloved and hope to the hopeless.
And if they don’t understand that message about GOD, then they’ll struggle to get the message about each other. So GOD gives them Sabbath and Jubilee. Freedom from slavery, from poverty, from debts.
Jesus’s disciples receive this parable in light of this message of liberation.
And what this parable reveals is that there is another way in this world.
That’s why the Manager switches teams.
By the end of the parable, the manager is a convert. A selfish one. He does it out of self-interest. And he does it with the skill of an opportunist.
But he changes teams. Economic teams. He moves from the owner’s team of wealth extraction (gaining by taking from others) to a model of relationship economics. An economics of service and support.
His trickery and slashing people’s debts is as selfish an act as the owner’s. But instead of putting money into the hands of a single person, he reduces the burdens of his neighbors and invites them into a new relationship.
As he tries to save his own skin, he is ultimately saving the skin of his neighbors. Who are also suffering in a corrupt system of oppression and extortion.
This isn’t the kindom, and he isn’t living the kindom, but he’s on the right track.
We don’t live in the kindom yet.
Not for a lack of trying. Not because it isn’t GOD’s dream for us. But because we’re like the tribes in the desert. Told over and over not to enslave each other in debt, but to forgive it. We’re told over and over to not hurt our neighbors and to love them instead. But we let our frustrations bubble over.
Jesus shows how oppressive our system is. How indebted we have made our own people. And how we have struggled to share in Kindom economics: of forgiveness and care and hope and support.
We’re like the manager stuck with a system which creates wealth for some and brings great pain upon others. Which impoverishes cities, states, and even nations and cripples their prospects with debt.
In the midst of our own perceived lose/lose situation, we all can see it’s out of whack. That no matter what we do someone falls through the cracks.
This is the challenge of following Jesus now. As ever.
Jesus invites us, his people, to look at our world as upside down from GOD’s dream. It’s backward. Flipped. Our focus is in the opposite direction.
How we’re pointed toward self and protection. Toward a mighty God and political influence. Moved to judge success in the world by economic dominance. How many communities we can impoverish! How many jugs of oil and containers of wheat we can amass! For…what? Resale?
To buy up water rights of public streams, rivers, and lakes so that we can profit from selling them back to the people at a raised rate?
When Jesus says “You cannot serve God and wealth” I kinda think he means it.
This parable reveals how GOD sees serving wealth. And its anti-hero is someone breaking free from greed. Free from greed over good.
As we saw in the previous chapters, serving GOD is freeing others from what prevents wholeness and health. It’s mercy and love. Forgiving debts and restoring the out-cast as an in-drawn.
It’s throwing that big party, not squandering our wealth. And killing the fatted calf and calling up our friends. It’s opening the guest list to the undesirable and the weird. To the traitor and the skunk.
It’s to heal the broken and welcome the stranger. And we are being called in the midst of this confusing world to find ways to rebel and serve GOD, not wealth. To work with GOD to build the kindom piece by peace. In this community and throughout the world.
Jesus shows us the way out of a lose/lose system is to not play along with it. Find the other way. A way, peaking through the pain of debt and job loss and economic frustration. There’s another way. An ancient way called Jubilee. A way of relation and liberation. And the very love of GOD.