(Photo of Wilmette, Oregon sewage treatment plant courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(This piece originally appeared in Episcopal Café's Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, November 13, 2011)
Readings for Sunday, November 13:
Psalms 66, 67 (Morning)
Psalms 19, 46 (Evening)
1 Maccabees 2:29-43, 49-50
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager is not on most people's short list of "My Favorite Parables," because, frankly, everyone in the story is a tad on the slimy side. We're well acquainted with the pattern Jesus tends to use when a parable has a rich boss in the story--by and large the rich bosses tend to care about making money and not so much about doing the right thing. Another tip-off on the boss' character is that he shows his admiration for the manager's "shrewdness." We are told from the get-go that the manager is a bit of a scuzzball--he squanders the boss' property--and when he gets canned, he goes about the business of making friends one last time at the boss' expense. Finally, the clients are not entirely on the up-and-up either--it's obvious they're getting a real deal and it's clear they aren't asking any questions about it.
This parable tends to leave a bit of an acrid taste in our mouths. Our tendency is to think, "Whaaaa? Jesus is telling the disciples they need to be more like this manager guy? Wait a minute. That just seems so "not right" here..." We strain for a shred of allegory to glean at least a bite of something virtuous, and it's just not there. It's also a parable unique to Luke, so we don't have anything else in the Gospels for comparison.
One of the things to remember about looking at the parables through the lens of Luke is that unlike Matthew, who loves to turbocharge parables with a heavy dose of allegory on the side, Luke is more into illustrating lessons for the next world with examples from this world. There's nothing new under the sun when it comes to the fine art of "making friends with someone else's money," and our manager in the story does it flawlessly.
Also, the fact of the matter is, none of us are immune to the flaws in the story. When we've been the boss, have we ever looked the other way at an employee who was a bit less than forthright as long as no one gave us grief for it, or we weren't losing money or good will on account of it? How many times have we been a little on the loose side with someone else's money compared to our own, or tried to look good for ourselves on the company's dime? Have we ever had the cashier at the Big Box Store ring up the cheaper item by mistake and not uttered a peep? In the case of the latter, we might even rationalized it by thinking, "Well, I don't like that company anyway--it's not like they aren't making money," or even morphed that one into some sort of Robin Hood fantasy--the little folks putting one over on the big rich corporation.
The hidden nugget in this parable, however, is in the diligence of this dishonest manager, and the reality of our own diligence for the wrong reasons, sometimes. As my late grandmother used to say, "When you go into the cesspool, don't act surprised if you come out smelling like sewage." (Well...she didn't exactly use the word "sewage.") But what we learn from our foray into the sewage is we can have a surprising diligence about dealing with other people's money for our gain, we have an ability to avert our eyes from wrongdoing, and we can keep our mouths shut if we are getting a deal.
But let's flip this upside down and backwards, in the way Jesus tends to do with confusing parables. Jesus asks the disciples, "Well, boys, if you haven't been shrewd in your dishonesty, how in the world can I expect you to be shrewd in acquiring the good things of the Kingdom of Heaven? If you don't know a deal when you see it with the cheap stuff, how will you understand a deal when it comes to the good stuff? You can't have it both ways. You can't just stop the bad behavior and do nothing for the service of God."
So, let's reframe the questions with a different objective in mind--the objective of building up the Body of Christ rather than playing along with the ways of the world. When we are the boss, can we use the same blind eye we used with the shady employee to create forgiving space for the employee who made a mistake because of inexperience or confusion? How might we use the resources available to us to give other people the credit for their good works or open-heartedness? Is it possible to keep our mouths shut about the times we feel slighted by others and trust it was an honest mistake, rather than assume it was a personal dig and take on the mantle of victimization?
Our parable challenges us not to discard the wisdom we learned while wallowing in the cesspool, but to transform it--to create sapphires from sewage--a magnificent alchemy, indeed.