This is one of Jesus’ parables that has bothered me for a long time. Here’s a swindler who knows that he’s about to get caught and is well aware that there is enough evidence out there to convict him. So what he does is turn up the heat on his crimes. He goes to people who owe money to his boss and invites them to falsify the account books in their favor before the dishonest steward is chucked out and their chance passes. That part is bad enough, but when he was finally audited, Jesus says,
“His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” [Luke 16:8]
The end of the parable doesn’t end with his punishment, let alone a wholesale purge of dishonest dealers or reform of corrupt business practices. It ends with Jesus’ recommendation that people he calls “the children of light” [16:8] learn a lesson from this guy.
“Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” [Luke 16:9]
That doesn’t fit well with my picture of the man who tossed the moneychangers out of the Temple.
Then, last Thursday morning, I stopped at Giant before a meeting to pick up a box of day-old donuts. (If you get there early in the morning, they are just as good as the night before.) I went to the self-serve checkout and scanned the box, and nothing happened. Over and over, nothing happened. The cashier who stands there keeping an eye on folks like me came over and she tried, and nothing happened. So she punched some buttons and then the price came up: $2.49. The sticker said $3.49 – an instant test of honesty, which I am proud to say I passed. The check-out lady told me that they’ve asked “them” (whoever that is) to fix their stickers and they don’t bother, so now she’s just letting it go through. Nobody’s going to correct anything until it hurts them. Okay, now I’m taking advantage of the broken system. Or am I helping apply pressure to fix it? Or both?
The dishonest manager in the parable, when he discounted the debts, drew people into his own web. He knew the system and worked it. He gained friends and allies who would not be talking against him because they, too, were benefiting from the system. What would happen, Jesus asks, if the “children of light” did the same thing, and implicated others in good deeds, rather than shady ones?
It’s a fictional story, but Victor Hugo tells at the start of Les Miserables of how Jean Valjean, a man convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, is released from punishment as a galley slave and turned loose without any help or resources. He sets out across country, looking for work as he goes, but nobody will hire him because his papers identify him as a convicted thief. After a few days he is given supper and a night’s shelter by the bishop of a small town, the first person to show him kindness in years. In the middle of the night, he gets up and steals the silverware and sneaks out. The police, who have been watching Valjean, stop him and return him with the stolen goods to the scene of the crime. The bishop thanks the police for bringing him back, grabs the silver candlesticks from his mantle, and says, “Here. You forgot these. I hope it’s enough to get you home.” When the confused police had left, as the story goes, the bishop tells the man who had robbed him,
“‘Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.’
Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity: --
‘Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.’”
If only it were always that easy! But God bless (and God does bless) those who give it a try.
I don’t mean that it’s possible, or even advisable, to throw money at a situation and assume that it will be used honestly or well, or that it will make people’s problems go away. It’s one tool in the box, sure, but Jesus’ parable teaches his disciples to do more than that.
Destructive forces are always ready to drag someone into their circle. Why shouldn’t those who live by God’s ways be every bit as ready, and every bit as intentional? The dishonest manager was commended for his shrewdness. Why should those who work for the Lord be any less creative?
This parable advises us to learn from the dishonest manager how to implicate people, but to implicate them in doing good, to involve them in active deeds of mercy that draw them away from darkness and into God’s light. Jesus attitude was that the more people were working for God’s kingdom, the better.
“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’” [Mark 9:38-41]
Many years ago, the religious life groups at Duke started up the world’s first campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which is an explicitly Christian operation. They weren’t going to refuse construction help or donations from other student groups, but when it came time to hold organizational meetings or to set out to the job site, they started with prayer. Those prayers were also led sometimes by one of the Jewish students; everybody was fine with that, and no one asked them to work on Saturdays. But some of the non-religious volunteers said that they didn’t feel comfortable with prayer being on the agenda, which led to a rich conversation about why people who were part of the project were there at all. For the organizers, this was a part of their spiritual life from start to finish, not just when their heads were bowed. They asked those who didn’t want to be part of the prayer circle simply to wait patiently for them. (There was also an offer to set up a second group if they wanted, but nobody ever really went for that. It would have been called “Habitat for Humanists”.) The interesting thing was that by the end of the semester, no one was sitting out the prayer time.
“the children of this age are more shrewd in their dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” [Luke 16:8]
but when the children of light do get it together, good things happen.