This passage of the Gospel we have just heard, the parable of the dishonest manager and Jesus’s following comments about money, is known to be confusing – actually it’s known to be one of the most confusing passages in the Gospel. But I was taught that a good way to deal with confusion is to start by identifying what we’re confused about, and so that’s where we are going to start today.
To me, there are actually two difficulties in this passage:
First thing that can confuse us is that it looks like Jesus presents the dishonest manager as an example, and invites us to imitate him by stealing from our Masters to make friends with their money. The question is: why would Jesus asks us to do something immoral?
And then, the second thing that can confuse us in this passage is that, after he tells the parable, Jesus makes comments that seem to completely contradict what he’s just said: He asks us to be faithful with the money that is entrusted to us!
So what are we to do about that? Well, I was wondering if a good way of starting could be to consider that, as two negative sentences equal a positive, the comments Jesus makes after he tells the parable could be meant to solve the contradiction, instead of aggravating it. I was wondering if the comments Jesus makes / or Luke chose to add in here / about trustworthiness and honesty aren’t meant to clue us in that the parable isn’t (first thing) about money, the way we handle money and how we use it. It seems to me that the wealth of the earthly Master in the story is meant to be an image of the true riches of the heavenly Master, since Jesus compares them both and so the money in the story would be a mirror to understand God’s wealth – the kingdom of God. This parable – like all of Jesus’s parables – is about the kingdom of God!
How is the kingdom of God to be understood in this parable? Well, it starts by introducing us to a wealthy Master to whom a lot of people owe something, so it looks like Jesus wants to remind us first that all riches belong to God, not only material things of course, but everything in life, and in this regard we are all debtors – we all owe our lives to God and everything we possess. We all have received from God. On top of that, like the dishonest manager, we also may have stolen from God: We have hurt God, sinned against God, in one way or another. Even if we don’t want to hurt God personally, the thing is that when we hurt each other, we hurt God first. The debtors may think they owe their debts to the manager, but really, they all have taken from the Master’s treasure.
It may be something we easily forget and we need to pause here a little bit. When we hurt one another, we first hurt God. God is not hurt like an almighty majesty would be offended because we haven’t “played by the rules”, God is hurt as an all loving, compassionate and sensitive being. If we want to have a sense of that, we can meditate on Jeremiah’s words in our first reading today. Jeremiah impersonates what’s going on inside God’s heart. He says: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick (…) For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt (…) [may] my eyes [be] a fountain of tears so I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people”. That God suffer in us, for us and because of us, this is the meaning of the cross, but these images are already very much alive in the Old Testament.
When we are victims of injustices, we can find a lot of comfort knowing that if somebody offends us, God is on our side as God suffers from their sins even more than we do. But knowing this, that our offenders hurt God through what they do to us, also puts us in a strange position and gives us a great responsibility: It means that, like the manager in the story handles the debts contracted towards his Master, we all stand in between those who sin against us and God, and we have the choice to accuse or to release them in front of God.
So the question the Gospel has for us today could be this: How do we handle the debts people contract against God when their sin is hurting us?
It seems to me that this is really what Jesus is talking about. And what he advises us, as “children of light”, is to handle those debts created by sin in the same way the “children of this age” handle their own business. What the manager does is to use his in between position to reduce the debtors’ debts towards the Master because he knows he owes his Master even more and he is going to need friends– Well, I think this is how we are invited to look at our own situation as Christians. People sin against us and hurt us, but we also stand in need of forgiveness in front of the same God, and so the best thing to do is not to always accuse our offenders. That’s what we pray every time in the Lord’s prayer: We are sinners but we hope God will forgive us as we forgive each other’s offenses.
Paul today in the Letter to Timothy reminds us that we need to make for everyone supplications, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving. He says, of course Jesus is the only mediator between God and humankind, but if we pray to Jesus, we can all be mediators for one another, we can all intercede for one another, and what would be more precious to God’s heart that we may be able to intercede for those who hurt us? How could God hold something against them, if we don’t? St Teresa of Lisieux had often a naive and yet beautiful way to say deep things, and this is what she used to say: When somebody hurts me, I try not to show God that I suffer about it, so God will be more likely to forgive them.
Of course, it’s a manner of speaking, an image, as it’s an image when the manager writes off half the debts on his Master’s bills. God does not do the math, listing everything we owe to God and one another…It’s a manner of saying that even our sufferings, the way people hurt us, are an opportunity to do something good. I heard a pastor say something once I will never forget. He said: “When somebody hurts you, (…) you’ll have to make a choice”. Indeed, when people hurt us, we need to make a choice: Do we use what they did to us against them to make them feel bad about themselves / ashamed / guilty? Do we hold on to our grudges so we can feel better about ourselves / feel like the innocent, the righteous one? Or do we use the opportunity to mend the relationships/ set other free / not let the person be defined by what they did? How do we use the debts to open the future and head towards healing? Jesus says that like the manager, we have to make friends: work towards reconciliation. Not keep on accusing them.
Now forgiving is not about ignoring a situation, covering up, renouncing justice or enabling people to do evil. Forgiving is FIRST about not seeking to hurt back in the same way we’ve been hurt. You need to look clearly at the bill to let go of the debt, to not hold on to what happened and to start something new. We also have to know that it’s always God who forgives in the end, but if it is the direction where we want to go, if we try to forgive even a little bit though we are still angry or wounded, we have already make half of the work and we can put the rest into God’s hands. This is being smart before God if we live our lives like this. The “dishonest manager” often translates “the shrewd one”. Because the wonder is that Jesus tells us: forgiving will benefit others, but doing so is also in your own interest! We need to forgive because it’s going to benefit ourselves! Most of the bad things that happen to us can be an opportunity to grow into more loving / honest / generous people instead of holding on to our grudges and let us be defined only by the (bad) things that happen to us.
Now of course – and we’ll finish with that- in this passage of the Gospel, Jesus also talks about money. Jesus wants us to look at the way we handle money b/c it reveals what’s in our hearts. If we’re not generous when people owe us concrete money, how generous are we going to be able when they owe us emotionally? If we can’t let go of a small debt of money somebody has towards us, how can we let go of the hurt they did to us? You know there is always this gap between this person we think we are in our heads, and there is this person we are in real life. Most of us feel like we’re nice and friendly people. Now when we do something as simple as looking at our bank accounts, we may get a “reality check”, because the way we handle material things say a lot about the way we handle spiritual matters. Our bank statements often respond with no ambiguity to the question: What is it that really count in my life?
The way we handle our money is like a mirror of the way we handle our hearts. The good news is that working on the way we handle money could help us to change our hearts. Start with letting go of this small debt, maybe you’ll be able to let go of the sin. Or maybe that will be the other way around: maybe by paying our debts, hold ourselves accountable towards others, we’ll be able to acknowledge our debts when we hurt others – and in the end find forgiveness and reconciliation, or as the parable puts it, maybe just finding friends to welcome us into their homes. Amen.