Isn't this a tough passage? This is one of the "hard sayings" of Jesus. This passage shows us a Jesus who seems inclined to compromise with evil, a Jesus who is pragmatic and believes the end justifies the means. Because of this, our text has always been a embarrassment to the Church. Emperor Julian of Rome, who was called the Apostate because he fell away from Christianity, used this parable as proof that Christianity was beneath the religion of the gods and goddesses of Rome.
Well, what about it? Are the ethics of this parable the ones we want kids to learn? Does this parable prove that you must mold your morals to the situation you find yourself in out in the business world? Is the Brass Rule of the business world correct? Are we to do unto others before they do unto us? You might be able to make a case for this if the parable was about business but it's not. It's about being busted!
Busted! That must have been the thought that ran through the manager's mind when his boss said, "What's this I hear about you?" That question was a standard one which masters asked in such a situation. The manger wouldn't know how much his boss knew, and so he might be frightened into spilling his guts. Can't you feel the manger's stomach knot, his muscles tense, and his heart pound, as he thinks, "How much does the boss know? How much evidence does he have against me? Would it be better to give myself up or not?"
We have a shrewd manger here. He dummies up. He knows he's guilty. He knows he has no real defense. If he opens his mouth, he will only be opening himself up to further investigation. So he says nothing, but silence in the face of an accusation does imply guilt. His boss knows this, and so says, "Hand over the books; give an account of your management. You can't be manger any longer." Busted! There is no way out. The day of reckoning has come, and this manager is more than a day late and a dollar short. The books are going to reveal what his silence had tried to conceal.
Before we proceed with the parable, let's apply the first 3 verses to us: A day of reckoning approaches for us too. We'll be called before the judgment seat of Christ, and what will the books reveal about our management of God's possessions? Have we wasted what rightfully belongs to God? What have we done with the house and home, wife and children, clothing and shoes, food and drink that God has so richly bestowed on us? Have we used them to His glory or taken them for granted at best and abused them at worst? What have we done with the forgiveness and grace He has poured on us in Baptism, Absolution, and Communion? Have we used their grace and forgiveness to fight against our sins or have we used them as permission to wallow in our sins?
What are we going to say when God says, "What's this I've heard about you? Let's see what the books have to say about you." Remember God, according to the Old Testament lesson, never forgets anything we have done. It will all be there in the books. Every sin, every wasted grace, every disgusting thought, every perverted urge. We are so busted!
So was this manager. You can see him leaving his boss shaking his head saying, "What am I going to do now?" As evidence of how desperate the manager is, he actually considers 2 occupations which were regarded as incredibly demeaning for an educated man like himself. He considers digging or working the soil which the ancients listed as the hardest kind of work. But the manager rejects it not because it's beneath him, but because he knows he's not strong enough for that kind of hard work. He even considers begging, but his educated pride won't let him stoop that low.
All of sudden he exclaims, "I've got it!" If we were drawing a cartoon, there would be a light bulb popping on over the manager's head at this point. He has the solution. Remember the problem he wants to solve is finding another job. He is not looking for a place to be a freeloader. So when he says that he has a plan to be welcomed into people's homes once he's fired, he not thinking of being a perpetual guest with them. He wants work. He wants no part of begging either on the street or by freeloading in a home.
This fired manager has thought of a plan to remain employed as a manager. He wastes no time in putting it into action. He immediately calls in his boss's debtors. These had rented land from his boss and signed IOU's promising to pay back a certain amount of the goods they harvested from the land. The first one had signed an IOU to pay 800 gallons of olive oil and the second had signed one to pay 1,000 bushels of wheat. A rich man would have many more debtors. These two are just examples of the many.
Evidently the debtors don't know the manger has been fired; otherwise, they wouldn't have had anything to do with him. But when the manager summons them, they just think he has business to discuss. It wasn't uncommon for debtors to be summoned, and it wasn't unheard of for a landowner to reduce the agreed on rent. Their managers went to the fields daily. If they reported unusually poor conditions for crops, the landowner might have them go to renters saying, "Look, my master knows the poor conditions. He as agreed to lower your IOU." The debtors must've thought this was what was happening; otherwise, when they reduced their IOU's they would've been guilty of a grievous crime.
The manager is working on a deadline. He has to hand over the books soon. He has no time to debate percentages with the renters, so he gives them all a 500 denari discount which translates in the two examples to 400 gallons of oil and 200 bushels of wheat. This isn't small potatoes. 500 denari was a year and half's wages. 400 gallons of olive oil would last a family for years. 200 bushels of wheat would feed a man for 8 years. You can imagine how overjoyed the renters were to get such discounts. The manger would be to them like a factory foreman passing out generous Christmas bonuses. It's not his money, but he gets the slaps on the back and hearty handshakes because everyone connects him with the reductions.
This manger, although dishonest, is shrewd by Jesus' own estimation, and it's his shrewdness not his dishonesty which is commended, yes even recommended by Jesus...Why?
The dishonest manger was busted by his boss. There was no way out. His boss had him cold. He couldn't claim he was not guilty, and He had no resources of his own to get himself out of the mess. He was busted by and before His boss, but in being busted, the manager found out something wonderful about him. His boss was extraordinarily merciful. He could've jailed him right on the spot and demanded complete repayment of the money lost or stolen by the manager. But what happened? His boss didn't scold him. His boss didn't publicize the accusations or the firing. His boss didn't even demand the books back instantly. The boss dealt with manger gently, mercifully even though he was guilty as sin.
Friends, do we or don't we have a Lord like this boss? Doesn't Psalm 103 tell us the Lord does not reward us according to our sins? Doesn't Psalm 136 tell us 26 times that God's mercy "endures forever?" Doesn't Psalm 145 say that His "tender mercies are over all His works?" And doesn't Psalm 147 say, "The Lord favors those who hope in His mercy?" In addition to the Lord telling us of His abundant, everlasting mercy, doesn't He show us it? We with regularity waste His possessions? Yet each day He dumps another load at our feet. And has the Lord ever asked for payment for such blessings? Where would we be if he asked us to pay for each healthy kid, each answered prayer, for each deliverance from danger?
The manger knew two things: His boss was just and so busted him, and his boss was incredibly merciful. So he banked everything on his boss's mercy. He showed amazing mercy to all the renters in his boss's name. So by the time the manager was called to hand over the books, a celebration would've been going on in the community. People would be praising the boss as the most noble, generous, and merciful man that had ever rented out land.
The boss would be faced with two choices. He could be known as just and enforce his legal right to undo all that his fired manager had done. This would nail that dishonest manager to the wall as his sins deserved. But if the boss did this, the community's joy would be turned to sadness and anger, and he would be cursed for his stinginess. Or he could be known as merciful and let what the fired manager did stand. The boss would continue to get praise and thanks from the community. The manager would continue to ride high on the wave of popular opinion. The boss wouldn't be able to fire him, and if he "let him go" it would be easy for such a popular manager to get a position again in that community.
This parable strikes our American minds as strange. That a boss would rather be known as merciful than right goes against the grain of our minds, but not that of Jesus' hearers. They had a different mind set; this mind set still exists in the Middle East. In 1960 a woman went to an official in the King of Jordan's administration asking for advice on how to free her convicted husband. He advised her to wait outside of the palace until the king's motorcade was about to leave. Then she was to throw herself in front of the king's car and make her plea. "Don't plead his innocence," the official warned, "You know he is guilty and so does the king. To offer excuses will destroy all hope. Throw yourself on the mercy of the king." The woman did. She threw herself before the king's limousine crying loudly, "My husband's crimes are great but the mercy of the king is greater!" Her husband was released.
Like the parable, this story strikes us as odd because we know that if we leaped in front of President's Bush's motorcade the Secret Service would pump us full of bullets and then charge us with assault! But don't reject the point of the story or of the parable. The answer to the dishonest manger's very real guilt was found not in his excuses, not in his efforts but in the mercy of His boss. This is where the answer to your guilt lies as well.
You've been busted by God. You have violated His law, broke His commandments, and wasted His good gifts. You can't excuse your behavior; you can't justify your behavior; you can't repay God for His loss. But you can fall down before Him saying, "My sins are indeed great, but Your mercy for Christ's sake is greater even than my sins. You had no mercy on Christ who bore my sins; therefore, I am able to ask for mercy."
In the Epistle, God tells us that He desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Friend, you are part of the "all people." God wants to have mercy on you, and God can have mercy on you because Jesus gave Himself over to death to pay the cost of mercy for all people. You can trust that your Boss, God, will not fail to show the mercy that His only beloved Son paid so dearly for. In Jesus, for the sake of His spilled blood, His cried tears, His hellish suffering, God would rather be known as merciful to sinners than as the One who punishes them. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XVIII (10-7-01) Luke 16:1-8