Amos 8:4-7+Psalm 113+1 Timothy 2:1-7+Luke 16:1-13
Many years ago when I worked at Episcopal Community Services in Philadelphia, one of our programs was called “Teens Taking Over,” and it was designed to help vulnerable youth from underserved neighborhoods to have a chance at success, designing their own after-school and career-development programs and connecting with mentors in the professional world who could guide them along the way. At the time, using a strengths-based approached to social work was fairly new, especially when working with teens, but it was a way of taking whatever positives one could find and leveraging them into pathways to success.
I will never forget the program director explaining to me about one young teenager who came from really difficult circumstances. In order to help support his family, he dealt drugs on the street corner. Now this did not, to me, sound like much of a strength. To my mind, this young person was on the fast-track to jail. But to the program director, this young man’s determination and perseverance in making sure he went to school while managing to provide enough money to keep his siblings fed was, in fact, a strength, overlooking for a moment how he made that money.
It does take grit and determination to do that, and when your family situation is so desperate, that he could find a way – any way – to keep his family from starving is a pretty remarkable strength, so helping him channel that strength into preparing for adulthood was the plan for him in our program.
I was reminded of this young man from Philadelphia this week as I pondered this truly difficult reading from Luke, in which is appears that God, as the master in the parable, is commending the dishonest manager for bilking him out of what he is owed. There are many ways this parable has been interpreted, scholars getting twisted in knots to explain away this unsavory character, but Jesus told a story that, I think, we just have to wrestle with as best we can.
And the best way I know how to wrestle some gospel out of the parable of the dishonest manager is to remember the young man in Philadelphia and the idea of strengths-based care. The young man was doing something of which we might disapprove in order to support his family who, through the oppressive systems of racism and inner-city neglect, could not make it.
This manager whom we are quick to judge may have been taking a swing at an oppressive system, too, removing the exorbitant interest charged to people who could ill afford it, and, literally, forgiving their debts. Jesus included words about debt-forgiveness in the prayer he taught the disciples. Justice for the poor was a common theme for him. The wealthy landowner, like so many others, likely charged his tenants and laborers outrageous interest in violation of Mosaic law, and the manager landed a blow for equality by striking it from the books.
Then why would the rich man commend him for it? Maybe because he had been found out, exposed for the extortionist he was, and to save face – an all-important matter in that culture – he commends the manager for his shrewdness, which can also be translated from the Greek as being “prudent” or “wise.” Perhaps this manager has done the boss a favor before everyone found out what a sleazebag he really was.
As we heard earlier, the prophet Amos thundered at the people of Israel:
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. (Amos 8:4-7)
These are the wealthy who can’t wait for the sabbath to end so that they can get back to work cheating the poor, selling the leftover wheat rather than leaving the gleanings for the hungry. It is in this same vein that the wealthy man in our parable cheated those who were indebted to him, and the manager, who appears so dishonest, may actually be “squandering” the property as a corrective, an attempt to mitigate the evil being done. I like to believe that this dishonest manager is using his wits to do good, that he is being faithful in his small responsibilities, and that he is truly worthy of managing real riches.
Jesus ends this parable with one of those famous sayings that make most of us squirm in our seats, because, especially in 21st century America, we are a money-driven people. Everything comes at a price, often a steep price, and our quest for more than enough is always going to leave someone without. It’s the way the system works. And it is wholly contrary to God’s ways. The first commandment is to love God and to have no other gods. We have all made an idol of money and the possessions that come with it.
In order to love God with all our hearts and minds and strength, we have to be willing to love God’s world and God’s people in the way that God does. In order to do that, we must seek the good of all people, especially those for whom justice and safety and security have been scarce commodities. You really can’t do that if you seek your own well-being, your own wealth and comfort first. This is why America First is such an abomination. It creates an idol out of ourselves and what we need, and ignores the needs of the world, which God loves equally well.
So go and be shrewd on behalf of those who are being used and abused by the powerful and the monied. Use your strengths to work good in this world.