SJF • Proper 20c • Tobias Haller BSG
The steward said, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.”
Today’s gospel contains one of those difficult passages: a parable that doesn’t seem at first to make much sense. Jesus seems to praise a dishonest steward for his dishonesty, and more than that, appears to counsel his disciples to do the same, to “make friends by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” A hard text, it’s true; but if I’ve learned anything from wrestling with the Scripture, it’s that the hard parts provide the richest reward in understanding if you take the time to study them with care. Like Jacob, if we hang onto and wrestle with God’s word — all night if we have to — though we may feel a little out of joint by morning, we will also receive God’s blessing, and a glimpse of God’s wisdom.
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So let’s look at this difficult parable of the rich man and his shifty servant, and the even more difficult conclusion that Jesus draws from it. The main problem with the parable itself isn’t the behavior of the dishonest servant; after all, servants are often dishonest, and this man isn’t the first to have squandered a master’s property, and get the boot because of it. So he sets himself to make friends in the town — because he’s too weak to work by the sweat of his brow and too proud to beg — in order to assure his future. He offers a cut-rate discount to all the people in debt to his master, in the hopes that when he’s out of a job they’ll remember his generosity and take him in.
So far, so bad, we might say! But then comes the surprise: the master, finding out about the dishonest servant’s debt-forgiveness program, far from saying, “You’ve cheated me out of half of what was owed me!” instead praises this man for acting shrewdly!
Now, I have to confess I have wrestled with that part of the text for a long time, but then recently I had an experience that reminded me of how this works in the real world. A few weeks ago I bought a new TV set at a sale price, after a good bit of shopping around. I got it for half price, which to me seemed like a very good deal. I didn’t realize how good until I saw, in another so-called discount store, the same model listed at full price, but then “marked down” by only a third — so still costing more than the same one I bought at another store! And, get this, the “bargain” price at this discount store was for a floor display model, while the one I got for so much less at the other store was new in the box!
And I realize now, of course, in light of this Gospel, that even the price I paid was probably more than the store paid the manufacturer — so that even if they weren’t making a big profit, they were actually making more than the store that kept the same TV set unsold on their shelves because people knew they could get it cheaper elsewhere.
If you look at the gospel’s rich man and his shrewd manager in that light, we can probably guess that the amount the customers owed to him may well have been twice the actual value of the debts — so that even at the discount price of 50 or 20 percent off, the rich man was still probably making a profit — or at least breaking even — and getting the wheat and oil in hand that he could sell elsewhere for even more! Unsold goods on the racks and shelves — and uncollected debts — aren’t money in the bank. So while it looks like our rich man and Circuit City are taking a loss, discount business-people are shrewdly keeping their cash flowing, using the money from what they sell at a discount to buy what they can sell at greater profit. Truly, the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light!
So it is that the shrewd servant in our gospel is not only making friends with those to whom he offers a discount, but earns his master’s praise for bringing in real commodities instead of just accumulating accounts receivable and a pile of unpaid bills.
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Now, of course, Jesus was not interested in offering his disciples an MBA degree from Harvard Business School. This is a parable, remember: a story that stands for something about the life — not of the business world — but of the kingdom of God. And where, in God’s kingdom, do we hear about forgiving others their debts? Where do we hear of the authority and commandment that Jesus committed to his church to offer forgiveness of sins to those who repent and seek to live a new life? Aren’t we assured in the prayer we pray every day, the prayer that he himself taught us, that God will forgive us our sins only when — and to the same extent that — we forgive those who sin against us? Isn’t this the way we are called to “make friends” by means of the shrewd wealth of forgiveness, the forgiveness that seems to give away (for that is what for-give means: because once we’ve forgiven something we can’t hold on to it any longer)? Because we’ve given up control over what was owed to us, we have stored up a wealth of gratitude for this forgiveness of debts, so that we can be welcomed in by those whom we have forgiven.
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None of us, after all, can ever pay God back for all we owe — not only for all we’ve been given, but for all the debt we’ve incurred by the wrong we’ve done. We all need that “discount” of forgiveness that God has committed to his franchise holders here on earth, the leaders and members of the church, to whom God through Christ has committed the mark-down ministry of the forgiveness of sins. This is the only commerce in which the church is called to engage: the shrewd discount sale that spreads the good news of the kingdom, that God in his great generosity is setting aside the cost of sin — which is death — and has nailed it to the cross in Christ Jesus, the one mediator, who gave himself as a ransom for all, that all might be saved. He paid the full price, after all, and the only thing he saved was us.
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The problem is that some church leaders and members don’t always act so generously with the forgiveness committed to them. They hold back on God’s grace; they set conditions and limits on how much forgiveness they will dole out, and are choosey about those to whom they will give it. They will lavish forgiveness on their own sins, thinking them trifles, while holding others to — and judging others by — a standard they themselves are unable to attain.
We see this kind of behavior prefigured in the wicked and deceitful merchants whom the prophet Amos cursed, who use false balances, who make their measuring cups small and put their thumbs on the scales. Far from forgiving debt, far from holding to a square deal, these thieves steal even from the widows and orphans, from the poor and needy.
These are those who not only do not forgive, but who try to hold others to a higher standard than they live by themselves. They reckon their own sins light, but when another of whom they disapprove comes before them, they put their thumb on the scale and shake their heads. “Oh, you couldn’t possibly afford this; you’ll have to make do with a cheaper cut!” So say those who tilt the scales of justice unfairly; and the Lord assures us he will never forget any of their deeds.
The truth is, my friends, Jesus, the friend of sinners, calls us to be friends of sinners too — and that’s good news, for it would be a very lonely world if we could only associate with people who were free from sin. That would be a club with no members, like the one Groucho Marx referred to when he said, “I would never belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member!” Fortunately, we are assured, all of us having sinned and yet been forgiven, that God does welcome us into the fellowship of the church — on the sole condition that we welcome each other as well, forgiving those who trespass against us, as we have been forgiven our trespasses, setting aside the debts of sin, marking-down the cost at a super discount: for Jesus paid the price long ago, on lay-away, once and for all, and it is up to us simply to pass along the savings.
You know the option, my friends; we have no excuse, and we know what will happen if we don’t forgive. This is a fire sale I’m talking about. The world is passing away, and we are called to live each day with the going-out-of-business sale mentality. Do you want to save — and be saved? Well come to God’s great end-of-the-world sale, where he’s slashed the price of sin — put death out of business! — and rejoice in God’s abundant discount, as we forgive each other and so assure that we will be forgiven. So it is we will find at the last that we are welcomed into the eternal homes, where we will forever praise our only mediator and advocate, the friend of sinners and the ransom of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+