Fr. Bill Carroll – The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 18, 2022
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, we hear a notoriously difficult story from Jesus. The parable of the Dishonest Steward (the translation we are using calls him a “manager”) is very hard to understand. Indeed, there are parts of it that may strike us as offensive.
And it’s often that way with parables—these weird little stories from Jesus. More often than not, our Lord takes something familiar and makes it stranger. There is a twist in the story, and it’s the twist that matters. Jesus intends for his parables to change our thinking—about God, about each other, and about the world.
And so, we don’t have to approve of the crime that’s committed in the story. Or even like the manager. But we need to ponder why the master comes to praise the manager’s behavior. Here is the scandal of the story. It’s intended to offend us. At first the master behaves the ways we’d expect. He’s surprised and he’s angered by the manager’s behavior. And so, he fires him.
But then the manager starts to write off the debts of all the people who owe his master money. He makes friendships by means of his master’s wealth.
Why does the master approve of this behavior? He even seems a little amused. It’s quite a switch, isn’t it? In the world we know, the master would fight to get his property back—every last penny of it.
The key to understanding this parable is what Jesus says elsewhere in Luke. In chapter four, in his inaugural address as the Messiah, Jesus proclaims forgiveness of debt and freedom from slavery. And, in so doing, he’s calling attention to the jubilee tradition of the Old Testament. You can see it in Isaiah and Leviticus, and elsewhere in the Bible. According to that tradition, because God set Israel free from slavery in Egypt and gave them the promised land as a gift, every seven years (and then every fifty years), there is a reset built into the economy.
Now, I’m not sure these laws were ever followed very closely, but they did provide for a regular, periodic bankruptcy, where everyone got to start over. Land that had been sold reverted to the family who received it in the Exodus. People who had sold themselves into slavery were also set free. And all monetary debts were canceled.
In Luke chapter four, Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah about the “year of the Lord’s favor.” He then proclaims to his hometown synagogue that “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Throughout Luke, Jesus proclaims forgiveness of debt, both literally and as a metaphor for sin. Remember Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which many Christians still use, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
In light of these stories about debt in Luke, we can start to see what Jesus is driving at in the parable we heard today. For Jesus, we can afford to be more generous with our neighbors. Because God has given us all we have and all we are as a free gift.
And so, here’s the point. Here is the Good News in this weird little story. In the power of the Spirit, we have been authorized to forgive each other our sins. Sin is a debt that we owe only to God, and yet we have been authorized by Jesus to cancel that debt for each other.
Too often, we picture God like a master who expects the very last penny from us. By the end of Jesus’ story, though, the master isn’t driving such a hard bargain. He’s more like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
In fact, the Prodigal Son comes right before the Dishonest Steward. And it comes right after the parables we heard last week about the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. In the Dishonest Steward, Jesus is still responding to the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees, who don’t like the sinful company he’s keeping. Jesus is claiming the authority of God for himself. As the Son of God and the Messianic king, Jesus has the authority to cancel our debts and forgive our sins.
And that’s where the mind-blowing revelation of God comes in: God doesn’t need a “return on investment.” God isn’t afraid to waste resources on people like us. God isn’t bound by the laws of scarcity. He can afford to be cheated. He can afford to forgive us. And so, God forgives not just our small debts—but even the big ones. In the end, Jesus gives his life for ours—out of the sheer abundance of God’s grace.
And so, God approves of the foolish and wasteful misuse of his gifts on those who don’t deserve them. God approves of us giving each other second and third and fourth chances. God approves of us forgiving each other seventy-seven times. Because God doesn’t give in order to get something. God has no need for control. Think about it: If God kept a ledger, we’d never get out of debt.
But Jesus paid it all. He wrote off our debts, so that we could have a fresh start. Jesus calls us to renounce the works of sin and death—and to follow him in the new and better way of love. But to do that (given our life experience) we’re going to need to be forgiven. And so, in his Kingdom, the works of love are not to earn our salvation. Instead, they are expressions of gratitude for God’s boundless gifts.
For God is not a master, but our Creator.
God is not a creditor, but our Redeemer.
And God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.