The story of the dishonest manager can be taken in a number of ways. It has long been considered problematic because Jesus seems to praise dishonesty. The servant takes advantage of his position and therefore takes advantage of his employer. Viewed from a literalistic standpoint, the story raises more questions than it answers.
Thankfully it is a parable which means that it is not supposed to be taken literally but is trying to teach something that is beyond the story itself. It is just unclear what exactly that something is. Some people will say that this is a story challenging the common understanding of the time that material wealth was sign of God’s blessing. The word “dishonest” is used quite a bit in the translation. He is a dishonest manager. If you can’t be faithful with dishonest wealth how can you be faithful with true wealth. The Greek word translated as dishonest is a word that also means things like unjust, unfair, unrighteous. I would suggest that in verse 11 it might best be translated as false or fake (“If then you have not been faithful with the fake wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches”). Because otherwise we can dismiss the text saying, “I earned my wealth. It is not dishonest wealth.” I think it might point to the idea that what we consider to be wealth (money and possessions) are in fact false wealth, fake wealth. Real wealth is the kingdom of God. The stuff that we put in the offering plate is Monopoly money, important in the context of the game, but worthless outside of it.
That is one possibility. Other people will say that this is story about generosity. The manager represents the employer. So by cutting people’s debts, he makes the employer look good and generous. The employer praises the steward for being tricky but also for making him look good. Then Jesus brings us back and says, “Go and do likewise.” It’s not so much about using money to make friends as it is that your generosity points back to God. Your generosity says something about the God you represent. Be generous as your God is generous.
I think where I want to focus today as we do our healing rite is freedom and freedom as a source of joy. The dishonest manager sets people free by changing a few numbers. He doesn’t even clear the peoples’ debts; he just makes them more manageable. They are still obligated to the owner, but not to the same degree. He gives them a taste of freedom and giving people that taste of freedom is a joyful thing. He is no longer the guy who comes around to remind me of my debts and obligations. He is the guy who has offered a little bit of freedom. I like that guy.
We could say that the manager is praised for being shrewd or wise because he has also discovered a sense of freedom in the story. It’s a freedom that comes out of desperation, but the freedom of realizing that these accounts are not his accounts and these debts are not his debts. In the first scene he was fired and now is just supposed to bring the record book. So he has this little window of freedom and uses it cunningly and joyfully.
Now to be clear, this is neither good business practice nor good accounting practice. The kingdom of heaven is a bad business model if you are trying to make a profit. One lesson from the story is that our God is a really bad accountant. Our God keeps forgiving debts, pardoning mistakes and setting us free. So many of the stories of healing in scripture involve Jesus forgiving sins and setting someone free. The unclean are made clean. The Sabbath rules are ignored for the sake of healing. The dead are raised. And for those who are not freaked out by rules being broken and debts being forgiven, it is a joyful experience.
This is another way to talk about joy. Freedom is joy. This is why the cross has become a sign of freedom. Jesus’ death is the ultimate moment of letting go, mistakes forgiven, debts cleared. Yet it is also an example of what it means to let go. Jesus denies himself, detaches from all that is considered good and great and successful in this lifetime so that he can show what true greatness, resurrection, means. We are going to talk more about this next week as we talk about generosity and joy. Generosity comes from a loose attachment to your stuff and the ability to let go. But today we are going to have the rite of healing, as a sign pointing to that freedom in the gospel.
Some people really like this healing service and find it meaningful. Some are uncertain as to the point of it. I see it as a living parable. We are pointing to a reality beyond our own, an understanding of God beyond what makes sense. We are pointing toward freedom. We are taking a stand for freedom in the way that like many of our actions as Christians aren’t necessarily rational, like saying that ancient texts are still relevant, that a handshake conveys peace, that bread and wine can hold the infinite. This is performance art, a living symbol of the nature of a loving God and the promise of freedom. This is a community taking a stand for freedom in Christ. This is a community taking a stand for joy.