Sermon for 16 Pentecost Yr C, 19/09/2004
Based on Lk 16:1-13
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
A robber whose conscience got the better of him gave his loot back to the Victoria store he stole it from.
“I know what I did was very wrong,” the anonymous robber wrote in a letter to Sooter Studios, a photographic studio that was held up.
“Enclosed you will find every cent I took from your store.”
The text is from a copy of the letter the man sent to the Victoria Times-Colonist.
In the robbery, a man armed with what later proved to be a toy gun walked into the studio, located in a suburban shopping mall.
“I have two small children who need food. I don’t want to hurt you. Please help,” he said.
The clerk gave him $140.
The man wrote:
“My sincerest apologies for robbing your store. I have no idea what got into me. I do not want to spend the rest of my life in jail. Begging and borrowing are all right but not stealing—I can’t believe I actually did it.
“For all the harm I have caused, I humbly apologize and beg your pardon…”
The letter was signed “Not a Thief.” 1
Unlike this story of a repentant robber, the dishonest manager in today’s gospel is far from repentant. He is, through and through, dishonest, unethical, and unrepentant. Bible scholars have, for a long time, scratched their heads and debated this parable. It is, indeed, classified as one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus. There have been at least three ways scholars have interpreted this parable of the dishonest manager. Each of these three interpretations however presents problems of their own.
The first way of interpreting the parable is reading it literally. However, if we read it literally, then it becomes a parable promoting the most unethical of business practices. First of all, the dishonest manager is called onto the carpet for squandering his master’s property. Then, once he learns that he’s fired, he acts very quickly and decisively to save his own skin by approaching two of the master’s debtors and telling the first to pay only half of what is owed, and the second to pay eighty percent of what is owed the master. Now here he has gained two accomplices in his crime, whom he may be in a position to blackmail at a later date because of this shady business deal that he makes with the debtors. But, worst of all, the dishonest manager remains dishonest, even though it might be “shrewd” of him—nonetheless it still is fraud, as he obviously “doctored up” the books to present to his master, cheating the latter yet a second time. Taken literally, there’s no way then of getting around the fact that what this manager did was highly unethical.
The second way this parable has been interpreted is emphasising the theme of the underdog. Here we have a manager who gets himself into hot water for his unethical mismanagement of the rich man’s property. He’s got a lot to loose, his job as well as his reputation. Then, when he’s up against it, he is most resourceful in using his quick-wittedness to redeem himself and come out a winner. All of us are attracted to “the underdog theme,” especially in the face of a power differential involving the main actors. If the underdog is facing oppression and injustice because of an abuse of some powerful tyrant, then we cheer on the underdog and hope that he or she overcomes all obstacles and wins out against the villain. However, in this parable, there is little to cheer about regarding the underdog, since he is a most unethical and selfish character. This is hardly the triumph of justice over tyranny—unless, of course, the manager’s master was himself an unethical character, but of that we cannot be certain, given what the parable tells us. So, once again, the “underdog theme” falls flat, because unlike most underdog characters, this one gives legitimacy to the vices of cheating and stealing to win the game.
The third way this parable has been interpreted relies too heavily on speculation about money-lending customs of that day and hence draws conclusions based on silence and the unknown. Some commentators speculate that the manager was not dishonest when he convinced the debtors to pay the amounts that they did. Why? Because they believe that the fifty percent and twenty percent not paid would have been commissions that normally the manager received over and above the original cost of the debts to the master. In this case, say the commentators, the manager would actually be ethical and perhaps even be considered unselfish by sacrificing his normal commission. However, such an interpretation is not based on information provided in the parable.
Over against these interpretations of the parable, I think there are two more likely and convincing ones. First, there is one which goes back to Reformation times and John Calvin. In commenting on the parable, Calvin had this to say: “How stupid it is to want to interpret it in every detail! Christ simply meant that the children of this world are more diligent in their concern for their own fleeting interests than the (children) of light for their eternal well-being.” In other words, Calvin urges us to learn from the diligence of the children of this world, but do not employ that diligence in a negative way. Some worldly-wise business people put a tremendous amount of resourcefulness, time, energy and commitment into making their business a success. By putting one’s diligence to work in the service of others, think of how much good can be accomplished in the church and in the world.
The second possible interpretation emphasises reading this parable in light of the larger context of other parables—especially in Luke’s Gospel as an organic whole. Today’s parable then makes sense in light of, for example, the parable of the prodigal son in Luke chapter fifteen. If we take the master in today’s parable to symbolize or represent God, and the manager to represent each of us. We have, once again, a parable of grace towards lost, undeserving sinners. God sees through the manager’s shrewd, unethical scheme. Yet, in spite of his lack of ethics the master commends him. Is this commendation by the master the same as the father’s welcome of his prodigal son in Luke fifteen? Perhaps. If so, then what we have here is another of Luke’s favourite themes—that Jesus came to save lost sinners, surely this dishonest manager was a lost sinner. Did the master restore the manager after he commended him? We don’t know for sure, it seems to be left open-ended, just like the open-ended elder son of Luke fifteen.
So, there you have it, a very difficult, yet compelling parable, which alludes to the grace of God at work in even the most lost of sinners. God continues to surprise us!
1Cited from: Edmonton Journal, July 30, 1984, p. A2, “Repentant robber returning the loot.”