Let’s look at this parable from Jesus more closely. There is a rich man who is an absentee landowner, common in Jesus time. He has left his property in the complete and legal care of a manager. The manager is accused of squandering the property. Squandering is an interesting charge, I suppose it means the manager is wasting the wealth of the landowner. In the parable right before this one about the prodigal son the bad son was said to have squandered his early inheritance in a foreign land on wine, women and song. That son, like this manager, had not used the wealth entrusted to them as intended.
The boss calls the manager before him, and without asking for any defense or explanation, simply tells him to pack all his accounting books and get out. The land owner could have been harsher and thrown him in prison, but he’s not really a bad guy, just impatient at times. The manager is realistic about his predicament, his soft life of management has not prepared him for hard labor or begging. Neither is the sort of lifestyle he would enjoy. Interesting that he says the exact same words when he is leaving his bosses office as the bad son says when he finds himself wrestling for pea pods in a pig sty, “What will I do?” Both men faced with certain death, have to figure out what to do to survive.
The manager decides to feather his unemployment nest by gaining favor with his boss’s creditors. These guys owe his boss a lot, so much that it is reasonable to think that neither his boss nor the manager ever thought they were going to see a red cent. The first one owes the equivalent of 900 gallons of olive oil. This is a huge debt that is hard to imagine a peasant in the time of Jesus repaying. Not to worry, the manager announces. We are cutting the debt in half, today only, but you have to act quickly. And you, the other bum in the corner, what do you owe? One hundred sacks of wheat. Not to worry, this is your luck day, let’s make it eighty, but you have to act quickly. I’m thinking the two deadbeat creditors are ecstatic at their good fortune.
Because the manager is the legal representative of the estate owner, all of this kosher. Of course, the owner, a powerful man, could explain the situation to the deadbeats and tell them the deal is no good, but that would have made him look bad in the community. What does the manager get for all of this? He has two creditors that owe him one big favor, and as soon as those unemployment checks stop, he is surely planning on collecting.
How does all of this end? Unbelievably with the land owner chuckling and commending the shrewd manager. Here he thought the guy was an idiot and he finds out he has crafty like a fox. His dishonest actions, because there really is no other way to describe them, have won him the respect of the landowner who was about to throw him out just a day ago. In a time of crisis, he acted shrewdly and that is exactly the kind of guy this landowner wants on his team.
Parables pack a punch because they have a surprise ending. The Good Samaritan parable’s punch was that anyone who had ever met a Samaritan knew there was no such thing as a good one. The punch of the prodigal son parable was that the son who comes in for criticism is the hardworking son who never leaves the farm, nor squanders any of dear old dad’s money. The punch of the story of laborers in the field is that it is unfair to pay a guy who works hard for ten hours the same amount as a guy who only works for two hours. Parables are meant for us to scratch our heads and say, huh?
Yet, this one seems to bother many really smart, religious people. St. Augustine himself is supposed to have commented that he couldn’t believe this parable came from the lips of our Lord. When you read writings on this parable you find many creative ways for people to explain it, with speculative details added that help the parable make “sense”. One writer wondered if Luke had simply misheard this one and we will never know the “right” way our Lord told it.
I am sticking with Mark Twain. He said “It’s not the parts of the Scripture that I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts that I do understand.” We understand this parable. We are meant to identify with the scoundrel, the manager that is identified as dishonest by Jesus himself. There is no sugar coating what this guy did or explaining it away by facts or speculations that are simply not in the story that Jesus told. The manager starts out as a bad guy worthy of being fired for wasting the land owner’s possessions. He ends up a bad guy who is rewarded for giving away the land owner’s possessions.
Surely, Jesus did not mean to tell his listeners to be dishonest. Yes, I think that is exactly what Jesus is telling his listeners, at least when it comes to the landowners possessions. Surely, we are not called to be shrewd, such a crude word, whoever heard of a shrewd saint? Yes, we are called to be shrewd. Surely, we are not called to be self serving like this scheming manager? When our lives are on the line, this is exactly what we are called to be.
The point is that God doesn’t run this world by the business practices that we can all learn about at the OSU Fisher College of Business. God is not looking to turn a profit on this store. God doesn’t care what those two guys owed anymore than he cares what you owe, because all of them, us, owe far more then we can repay. God simply wants those deadbeats, people like us, brought back into relationship. I imagine before the dishonest manager’s fire sale, these two were avoiding phone calls from the estate owner like the plague. Now, they are dropping by to say hi to the landowner again. Exactly, what he wanted.
We are to use the gifts God gives us the way God intended to them be used and not squander those gifts. When we squander the gifts God gives us, it leads to our death. Squandering gifts leads to eating pea pods with pigs in pig sty’s. Squandering gifts leads to getting sacked with no way to make a living. Squandering gifts leads to finding ourselves in hell begging for a glass of ice water as the rich man in the very next parable that Jesus tells.
How do we squander our gifts from God? The same way we squander anything, when we don’t use them for what they are intended. God gives us gifts so that we will draw others into relationship with God. With God’s gifts, the father threw for his deadbeat son a party when he came home. With God’s gifts, the dishonest manager drew two dead beats back into relationship with the landowner. With God’s gifts, the rich man could have saved the poor man named Lazarus that was begging at his door everyday. With God’s gifts, Jesus cleared the debt that all of us owe, and invited us to His table for a feast.
With your gifts of wealth, you can make the plight of the hungry better, or the ministry of this church stronger. With your gifts of teaching, you can help our kids know about God’s love, or mentor inner city kid’s downtown. With your gifts of painting, you can make this house of worship an inviting place for new comers to visit, or life in a low income apartment bearable. With your gift of cooking, you can feed the homeless at Faith Mission with us monthly, or a meal for our Octoberfest celebration on Sunday, October 21. Or, you could use your wealth to buy a boat, your teaching to make a living, your painting to make your home beautiful, your cooking to get on the reality show, Hell’s Kitchen. All of these are good, acceptable ways to use your gifts. It seems only fair that you should get something out of what is yours. However, it is not all that God intended. You are squandering them because you aren’t also giving them away.
It’s called grace, amazing grace that is given so freely and abundantly, that we don’t need to keep track of who got what when, but to celebrate that there is more then enough to go around, why bother to keep track of what anyone owes. God isn’t looking for a few good MBA graduates, bean counters carefully meting God’s gifts. God is looking for a few dishonest managers, willing to give away the store to the lost, the least, the scoundrels of this world so many more will join us in the Kingdom. This parable isn’t proof that even Jesus has an off day because Jesus was dead on with this one. Amen