18 Pentecost, Proper 20, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary
The whole economic system in Jesus’ day was unjust and exploitative. During his lifetime, there was a profound transfer of land ownership in Israel. Parcels of land which generations of families had owned and farmed were lost. The Roman economic system was stacked against them. Local peasant farmers found themselves manipulated into debt and eventually forced to forfeit their property to wealthy, absentee international overlords who often retained these same peasant families to work as sharecroppers for foreign masters on what used to be their own land, and to do so for wages that were at or below subsistence level. In the Roman Empire, wealth and income became concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer elites. It was a corrupt and ruthless system.
A wealthy absentee owner would employ a local manager to oversee his business interests. A manager was under great pressure to produce big profits to enhance the owner’s power and prestige in the deadly competitive world of Roman social and political politics. Here’s how it worked:
Amanager contracted with the local sharecroppers by creating a debt. The manager paid a certain amount of money for an agreed amount of oil or wheat due at harvest. But Jewish law forbade the charging of interest on debts. So the merchant hid the interest by including the price plus interest in a single figure. The hidden interest rate was 25% for money and 50% for goods that could spoil or be tampered with.
So imagine a sharecropper and a manager agreeing to a harvest price for 50 jugs of olive oil. The manager would then write on the books 75 jugs instead of the agreed 50, hiding the interest in the total. Everything written down would belong to the absentee landowner. The manager made his money under the table, with an unrecorded payment from the sharecropper for the privilege of making a loan at 50% interest to deliver 75 jugs of olive oil for the price of 50.
It was a rotten system, and everyone hated everyone else because it was so fundamentally exploitative. Owners squeezed their managers for high profits, managers squeezed the sharecroppers for low prices, then the managers embezzled what they could off the books, while money flowed uphill toward the elites. Suspicion abounded.
So Jesus tells a story of some debtor sharecroppers exposing a manager’s fraud. The absentee owner calls for the books, a sign that he will fire the manager. Quickly the manager calls in the debtors before they know he is to be fired, and he cooks the books, reducing their debts by the amount of hidden interest which was the owner’s profit. The manager is trying to make friends. It’s a risky and bold move.
In the Middle East everybody shares their news with everybody else. Very soon throughout the village everyone would have been praising the manager and his master for their generosity and honor.i
Now the master has to decide what to do. To retract the agreement would cost him great honor and turn all of that the praise into insult. In the Roman world, honor was more valuable than money. So the master praises his shrewd manager, knowing even without the hidden interest, he’s made a good profit. And everyone is happy. Here’s how one scholar explains it:
The parable began with the usual social scripts: owners distrust managers; peasants hate managers; managers cheat both tenants and owners. But by means of his outrageous actions, the manager manages to reverse all these scripts so that, at the close of the parable, peasants are praising the master, the master commends the manager, and the manager has relieved the burden on the peasants and kept his job.ii
Out of this miserable system of deceit and exploitation comes something that seems like a piece of the kingdom of heaven, a new community of generosity and joy.
Here’s where I’d like to take this parable. I find myself strained and conflicted right now by so many people and so many systems that seem dysfunctional, unjust and exploitative, from the EpiPen scandal to the presidential race. There is so much deceit and dishonesty, greed and corruption, suspicion and manipulation, that it is very easy to become depressed or cynical. But Jesus invites us to imagine a new order that can break though scandal and outrage, even by means of a dishonest manager and dishonest wealth.
Let me share one of the ways I try to maintain hope. I have come to believe that nearly everyone is trying to do the best they can. When you consider the insight, resources, and emotional nourishment available to them, people generally are doing the best they can. Even when people do things that I think are wrong, if I take into consideration that person’s own experience, their level of understanding and conscious awareness; if I take into account their fears, suffering, or their state of emotional nourishment, I can usually understand something of how they came to act as they did, as bad as it seems. If I can get to that understanding, I can usually nurture some empathy for them. Even when people are doing pretty wrong- headed and destructive things, they probably are doing the best they can. I find some consolation and even some hope in that.
The other way I maintain hope is to believe that God is always bringing new life out of death. God loves, God forgives, and God creates resurrection. That’s what God does. That’s the story of the cross. Look for the signs of new life emerging out of our brokenness.
Here’s an example. Because I have experienced God as infinite love, and because I believe every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, I have a visceral aversion to a popular but wrong-headed way of presenting the Gospel. Some Christians divide humanity into saved and unsaved, us and them, and imply that God will eternally torment anyone who doesn’t believe just right. It’s a world view that is almost the opposite of what we see in Jesus. But that’s the way some people have understood the Gospel, and they believe that conscientiously. But they bug the fire out of me.
Some of you remember Pat Robertson, a TV evangelist. Bugged the fire out of me. And yet, in his desire that every person be literate enough to read the Bible, his ministry developed and funded an excellent literacy program that they gave away free to anyone. We used that resource in my church in Jackson, Mississippi, for a tutoring program at a nearby elementary school. And I am grateful to Pat Robertson for that.
When my friend Sam Totten has risked his life to bring food to starving people in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, one of the most dangerous and tragic places on the globe, Sam has received transportation and support from Franklin Graham’s ministry in the ground there. I rarely appreciate Franklin Graham’s interpretation of the Gospel, but I applaud his relief work in Sudan.
One more preacher-evangelist who is on my “thank you” list. Our former governor Mike Huckabee, whose theology I usually can’t endorse, was a champion on behalf of Arkansas children, helping start our acclaimed “ARKids First” Medicaid program, as well as our ABC pre-school education that helps thousands of at-risk children get up to speed at the most crucial time of their intellectual development.
I am a fan of Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham and Mick Huckabee despite some significant religious disagreements.
When your buttons get pushed, when you feel depressed or cynical because the system seems corrupt or unjust, I invite you to hope and pray for God to raise up people like the dishonest manager who beat the system for good. Look for signs of new life coming out of death. Pray for understanding for all of us who do harm even while we are doing our best.
Try to bring grace and light to darkness, not just more hostility and darkness. Live in the light of God’s unqualified love which is bringing all things into fullness in God’s kingdom. And when you are afraid, remember “perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:8) Let your anger, frustration, depression and fear be grounded in the perfect, infinite love of God. Then look for signs of hope. You never know when a desperate dishonest manager will turn everything around for good.
i Paul McCracken, from his weekly email “Sunday Lectionary Texts” from the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration, September 13, 2016.
ii William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech, Westminster John Knox, 1994, p. 257. I edited the terms to be consistent with the rest of the sermon: “owners” for “masters” and “managers” for “stewards”