Rev. Doug Floyd
Amos 8:4-12, Psalm 138, 1 Timothy 2:1–7, Luke 16:1-13
Imagine if UT were throwing a big event to celebrate the Vols football program and they announced a list of honored guests of folks such as Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin, and of course Steve Spurrier. Reading the Gospel sometimes feels like Jesus is honoring all the wrong people: a prostitute, a demoniac, a tax collector, and even a criminal while he is being executed. Jesus consistently welcomes people that seem unclean, unlikeable, and unrespectable.
At the same time, Jesus doesn’t go light on sin. He does not overlook behaviors and attitudes that damage us and damage others. Even as human sinfulness dehumanizes us, it isolates us from God: the only one who can heal and restore. Jesus words and actions directly confront the sin while simultaneously extending mercy. This binding together of judgment and mercy at the same time is difficult for us.
We often prefer to show mercy to specific kinds of people who elicit our sympathy while also calling down judgment on others who we feel are dead wrong and in need of a shaking. Jesus directly exposes the sin of the woman at the well while simultaneously offering her living water. He confronts Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus while also inviting him into a new way of life and service.
Lately, we’ve been visiting a series of stories in Luke where Jesus eats and fellowships with these inappropriate people: people that should be hidden from view and certainly not celebrated. Today we’re told a story of dishonest land manager and the story before it in chapter 15 is that of a prodigal son.
I’ll be honest, today’s story borders on baffling. I read one sermon this week that suggested the landowner and his dishonest manager are both corrupt, and Jesus is not praising the corruption but the ingenuity. For me, that rings hollow.
When Julian the Apostate came to power in 355 AD, he sought to remove Christianity as Rome’s state religion and restore the pagan gods. In his arguments against Christianity, he cited the parable of the dishonest manager as an example of Jesus praising bad behavior. Some writers see no redeeming value in the story, and many writers suggest it is the most confusing of the parables.
There is a way we might see this parable as a continuation of the stories and actions of Jesus turning toward inappropriate people. Today, I want to offer a reading of this parable from Kenneth Bailey the late scholar and missionary who spent 40 years serving in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Cyprus among the same kinds of villages where Jesus told these stories.
Today’s story is a part of a series of stories where Jesus has been focusing on prodigals, on lost sheep, on the sickly, the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. And now he sets his sights on a dishonest manager. This manager serves between the landowner and his tenants. The tenants farm the land and typically pay rent in the form of produce at the harvest time. According to Bailey, this is a legal agreement that they sign and then pay the manager once a year.
He is responsible for keeping the accounts in order, collecting the rents, and paying the manager. It has been reported to the landowner, possibly by several of the renters, that the manager is not managing the property fairly and possibly trying to collect additional funds beside the agreed upon contract.
The landowner confronts him. “What’s this I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management for you can no longer be my manager.” There are two things to highlight in this story: judgment and in a sense mercy. The landowner may have followed up the complaints he has received and determines the manager is guilty. He confronts the manager with his guilt and passes sentence.
We see this in the miracles and parables of Jesus. He does not take sin lightly. In his gentleness and lovingkindness, he exposes sin. Even today in our own world, confrontation for sinful behavior may save a person’s life, a person’s marriage, a person’s future. The parent gently but firmly confronts the sin of the child with consequences, and this act may literally save the child’s life.
At the same time, the landowner does not through the manager into jail, does not publicly shame him, and even gives him the opportunity to collect his books and return to the landowner. If you’ve ever been laid off from a job, you may know firsthand the walk of shame. A security leads the employee to his desk to empty the contents and then leave the building.
The manager does not defend him, does not plead for mercy, but accept his judgment. He does not try to point the finger at someone else, but realizes that his own behavior has led to this situation. At the same time, he also realizes that he has no where to go. He does not think that he could survive working the land. He needs his reputation in the community to be good, so that he can start over.
At the same time, he realizes that the landowner is a good man and a generous man. Even by allowing him get his books in order and present them to the landowner before leaving is in some sense merciful. So the manager comes up with a bold plan. He will take a risk on the generosity of the manager. He calls the renters in to review the accounts. This is clearly not harvest or time to collect rents, so the renters must assume that the landowner has directed the manager to review the accounts.
Then he reviews the contract with each renter and offers a discount. Essentially this makes it look like he is bestowing a gift from the landowner to the renter: a sort of bonus. This might be compared to a supervisor who secures a surprise year-end bonus for the employees in a department. The employees would be grateful for the bonus, and most likely their gratitude would extend to the boss and the supervisor.
The manager is taking the risk that the landowner will honor these discounts because he knows that the landowner is a generous man. The renters and the community at large will celebrate the generosity of the landowner. At the same time, this goodwill may help the manager as he seeks a new position.
The landowner commends the manager, which suggests that he will allow the generous discount to stand. This kind of worldly generosity finds parallel in the spiritual world. For we serve a generous Creator who extends mercy to thousands of generations.
The Pharisees tended to regulate this mercy to the insiders. In their eyes, Jesus seems almost profligate in the way he extends God’s mercy to those who are unworthy. He will eventually even extend this mercy beyond Israel to all the Gentile world, which will shock all of Judaism. This morning I included a quote from another parable in the bulletin. Once again, it is a story of a landowner who continues to hire workers until late in the day. He shows the same generosity to the workers at the end of the day that he did to those at the start of the day. When confronted by the early workers, he responds, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:15)
He has been generous to all. And the only response to His generous love is thanksgiving.
Today’s Gospel story is juxtaposed with the Paul’s declaration that he has been called to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. Last week, the reading emphasized Paul’s own experience of God’s generosity as he was redeemed from being a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent opponent into an Apostle of Jesus Christ. We also heard Amos’s call to those who would ignore and trample the needy.
Over these last few weeks, we keep being reminded of the mercy of God that far more generous that we will ever be. The Good News we proclaim is even better than we can fully understand. God does hide sin. God does not ignore judgment. But he does make a way for the most unlikely of sinners to become saints.
of unspeakable generosity of grace caused people like Richard Wurmbrand to love
and witness to his persecutors, for Corrie Ten Boom to extend grace and
forgiveness to the Nazi guard who tormented her, and even for St. Patrick to
return to the very people who had enslaved him and spend the rest of his life
proclaiming the mercy and forgiveness of God to his former enemies.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, Combined Edition, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 86-118.