by Vitor Westhelle
Professor of Systematic Theology
“Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ;
strive side by side for the faith of the gospel.” (Phil. 1:27)
“It’s the economy, stupid!” You may remember the slogan of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. “Follow the money,” was the advice that the informant, known as “deep throat,” gave to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. This then led to the unveiling of the Watergate scandal that culminated in the impeachment of President Nixon. We are back to the economy, and of all things through a biblical text; actually the gospel lesson is about a certain oikonómos, an economist, or better translated for the time, a manager, an administrator. And, him we will follow. It is after all about the economy, this text, as much as the reading of Amos.
Not often is a preacher gifted with a gospel text so easy to read and understand, we just need to follow what happened with that oikonómos. No, I am not delusional. I know the reputation of this text as one that presents more quandaries, twists and apparent self-contradictions, than practically any other text. You certainly have heard different takes on this text as I have, especially this week. As I matter of fact I have even a sermon published on this text that I now have to part company with. But I beg you; bear with me, for what I am preaching today is not what I have done three years ago. I have myself squandered the riches of this story, to use one of its own lines. The history of this text’s redactions finds an array of different opinions from commentary to commentary. But I became convinced that we often plunge into the midst of the parable as if being parachuted into high seas. And the only thing we can see with the rhetorical waters of the parable to our neck, aided by the modern editors’ subtitles to the pericopes, is a dishonest, unjust, administrator, a defrauded boss that praises the rascal for his shrewdness, and then Jesus who seems to condone it. We no longer see the shores where waters are calmer and through the surface of which we can still look at our feet firm on the ground. Indeed if we plunge into the text in this way we will soon join the company of many an interpreter who has drowned in those high waters.
So, let’s move to the shore where the waters are shallow and the surface serene. This parable is part of a collection distinctive of Luke and is called by some as the Gospel of the Dispossessed, of the Outcast, or simple the Gospel of the Poor. And it is followed in the same collection peculiar to Luke by some sayings regarding wealth and then by the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. As a matter of fact, both parables, the one of the dishonest manager that we have for today and that of Lazarus, start with exactly the same words: “There was a rich man…” And we know how the story with Lazarus goes for the rich man. Riches, abundance of earthly wealth—we might just say, the economy—are for Luke’s Gospel of the Poor a religion indeed. And tell me, friends, how did the servant, the employee, get to be blamed as it stands in practically all the editorial subtitles given by modern commentators?
It was not without wit and a sardonic sense of humor that the great British economist Joan Robinson coined one of her signature lines: “Economy is not merely a branch of theology” (But that it also is, it also is). And the god of this theology in the New Testament is called Mammon, a word repeated three times in this pericope, which NRSV translates as “wealth.”
So here the story begins at the shore of the text, and the next thing we know is that rumors and accusations are mounted against the administrator, the manager of the rich man’s wealth. In religious terms, the manager is, in fact, the private priest in the wealthy man’s religion. Nothing is said about whether the allegations and rumors were true or even sought to be verified. It just says that the rich man asked for the papers to be put in order and then let go of the manager. Allegations without verification have destroyed many a lives, not lest were such allegations and innuendos that nailed Jesus to a cross. We know how it goes.
The next scene sets the stage for an act of conversion. The priest in the cult of Mammon turns his coat, betrays his calling. And it dawns on him that in order to survive he needed friends, he needed a community. And so he slashes the bills of his boss’ debtors and have them rewrite the invoices. Forgiveness is always and the only gateway to community building. Notice that he did not take money for himself; he did not embezzle himself, but forgave the debt of others. He put the rich man’s wealth at service, by forgiving the debt or at least parts of it; for “the wealth that is not at service,” said Luther, “is robbery.” It is not by chance that Karl Marx called Luther the “first national economist.”
And the surprising praise he receives from his defrauded master can be read as a sign, a tender glimpse of grace touching the heart of the rich man. For through this act, according to Luke, the manager was helping the rich man to fulfill the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone that is indebted to us.” And here we have an inkling, a portend pointing to the story of Zacchaeus that comes a bit later in Luke. The rich man has not yet gone as far as Zacchaeus went. Shrewd as his manger was, he was still very parsimonious in his forgiveness. Lutheran theology with its famous simul (totally this and totally that) sometimes overlooks the small graces in everyday life, life in this side of eternity, life in the playground of God’s good creation where things are finite, and mixed, most of the times small and tiny, but tender and beautiful.
The manager’s guile that got him bad press, is defined in our text as shrewdness, but it can also mean, “prudence,” to “be wise,” “cunning,” or “astute.” In Greek it is the very same word (phrónimos) as we have in Matthew when Jesus, describing the impending persecution the disciples were to face, gives this advice: “be wise (or shrewd) as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Mt 10:16)
So, here we have this converted economist, a hybrid between a serpent and a dove, being shrewd and making peace, even parsimonious as he was in his deliverance. But don’t be harsh on him. That is what life is: a thread of small graces woven against the little deaths that everyday we endure. And they are many that we drag tied to our ankles as shackles. We don’t need to name them. They are all too familiar, the crosses we carry. Yet life is the ephemeral beauty of awakening at sunrise every morning; small and fleeting, but full of splendor. These shall be called salvations. A visa for an international student entrapped in red tape and obtuseness; a debt deferred; a foreclosure avoided; a job offer; a lab test that says “negative;” a difficult exam passed; an unexpected loving word; an embrace of peace; some flowers that will eventually wither; a drop of refreshing water at the fountain and womb of our being when the fires of hell are burning all around; a crumb of the bread of life, and a taste of the chalice of joy; a gesture of forgiveness. They are so many, yet often neglected in its insignificant profusion. Do not be oblivious to them; believe in what Arundhathi Roy called the “God of small things.” These small things are adornments in life’s excursions. They are life detectors.
The saying of Jesus—that the one who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much—can also mean: the one ready to forgive a little might be trusted to forgive much. Take your time. Consider abundance, even when barely noticeable. Embroil them in the tapestry of your every day. And dare to celebrate, for this we are gathered here: for crumbs that make a banquet.
So, my friends, the bottom line to understand this passage is only the very simple statement at the end: “You cannot serve two masters … You cannot serve God and Mammon.” You cannot be an economist of the kingdom of God and of the kingdom of Mammon at the same time. It’s after all about the economy. But it is up to us to decide whose this economy is. And we do it time and again. But this decision is within the realm of freedom granted to us as creatures of a good creation. We can decide in which economy we will serve as priests. Follow the example of the economist of our parable; squander the riches of Mammon, and forgive, give forth, and be forgiven.