Proper 20 (September 18-24)
Texts: Luke 16:1-13;
THE REIGN OF COMPASSION
What would it be like if the greatest power in this world, the principal by which it operated, was that of mercy and compassion. Could you call up your Mastercard rep, for example, and say, “I made a mistake and overextended myself this month; and I can’t make my payment.” And the rep would say, “Oh, that’s O.K., you’re forgiven. Don’t worry about it.” That would bring a new meaning to “Forgive us debts as we forgive our debtors,” wouldn’t it?!
Or what if Bill Gates called up the CEO of Apple one day, and said, “Gee, we’ve really been hogging your market share in the computer business. What can we do to help you out?” Or what if you really made a huge mistake at work that cost your company millions of dollars, and you boss simply said, “Tough break! These things happen. You’ll do better next time.” In the real world, there wouldn’t be a next time, would there?
No, our world doesn’t operate on mercy and compassion, does it? It operates on the cold, hard facts of fair exchange of value, and on the reality that only the best producers survive. Mercy and compassion rarely come into play in the structures and logic that orders our societies. It’s a “dog eat dog” world out there, right?
Today’s parable seems to be about exactly that: the usual “dog eat dog” world of work and business. A manager who works for a rich man is caught in some kind of incompetence. Jesus tells us that he has squandered his master’s property. In other words, he’s made some goof that has cost his company millions of dollars. So what’s the consequences? He’s fired. He’s told to settle up accounts and to get lost.
But this rich man, this CEO, hasn’t learned the tricks of modern layoffs, where you walk into your already cleared-out office one morning, get handed the pink slip, turn over your keys, and get escorted out by the security guard. In this “dog eat dog” world one can’t be trusted to not do something to get even. Apparently, this CEO in Jesus’ parable hadn’t learned that yet, so he makes the mistake of letting the guy stay on to settle up his last accounts. And this shrewd manager makes the most of his opportunity. He pulls a sting operation. He makes some friends with his CEO’s clients by writing off substantial portions of their bills. Smart guy! He gets even with his old boss and potentially wins himself a new boss. These clients of his old boss will owe him a favor. The sneaky manager has pulled a fast one.
The parable doesn’t end here, however. A sting isn’t fun anymore if you get caught, and that’s apparently what happens. We get to hear how the CEO responds when he finds out. And this is where the real surprise comes in. So far, everything in this parable has gone according the rules of our get-even, exchange-oriented, “dog eat dog” world. But the ending throws everything out of whack. The manager apparently doesn’t get his just desserts this time. For his incompetence, he got fired. For his dishonesty, one might expect him to get thrown in jail. Instead, Jesus simply tells us, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” No jail. No retribution of any kind. Rather, a commendation. What’s going on here? Are we getting a glimpse of mercy? Is this master showing mercy to his manager? What happened to “dog eat dog” world?
And if the ending of the parable isn’t confusing enough, Luke’s Jesus gives us this string of pithy proverbs to follow: all that stuff about children of this age vs. children of the light; and being a very little faithful vs. being a very little dishonest; and, finally, “No slave can serve two masters.” The bottom line of this story is apparently, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Is all this stuff supposed to help us understand the surprise ending? Or does it seem to make things more confusing?
To better understand this parable, we need to place it in the wider context of the gospel itself. What Jesus is trying to get us to imagine, to glimpse, is exactly what we began with this morning. Jesus wants us to imagine a kingdom of mercy, a reign of compassion. Because that’s the kingdom he came to bring into this world from God, a kingdom whose reigning power is that of compassion. So, in essence, we have only two choices in life: serve the kingdoms of this world, which amounts to serving wealth, or serve God in his reign of compassion. You cannot serve two masters; you cannot serve God and wealth. There are only two basic paths in life: God’s way is the way of merciful love, the way of compassion. Our way is the way of tit-for-tat, of staying even with the neighbor, the way of competing with one another for “wealth” (using the word very broadly) until some folks lose out altogether. It is the way of those who produce the most survive. Those who don’t produce don’t survive. Survival of the fittest.
Yet God sent Jesus into the world to essentially be one of the losers, branded a criminal and hung upon the cross. Even from the cross Jesus refused to play the game of tit-for-tat. Instead, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Can you imagine anymore mercy than that? It is the same power of mercy and compassion that raised Jesus from the dead and promises to transform our lives if we are only faithful to it even a very little.
Where is mercy in today’s parable? Is anyone being faithful to it even a very little? Yes, the manager in this parable is being merciful about as little as can be. He is still a child of his age, of this “dog eat dog” human world. He is a child of exchange and staying even, so he tries to use mercy as a commodity, as something to trade. To his master’s clients, he shows a contrived mercy, writing off big chunks of their bills, in order that they might show mercy back to him. In his coming time of need, at which he might very well become one of those losers, those non-producers, who don’t survive, he hopes that those on whom he has shown mercy will show mercy on him and welcome him into their homes.
What does this minuscule piece of faithfulness, this faith in God’s way of mercy, get the poor dishonest manager? In Jesus’ story it surprisingly gets him even more mercy than he bargained for: a commendation from the guy who has just sacked him, and on whom he has just worked a bit of revenge, a bit of tit-for-tat. Even for this child of the age who showed the smallest amount of faithfulness to God’s way of mercy, he found an even greater mercy.
But we have seen this before in Luke’s gospel: someone who was faithful to the kingdom of mercy even a very little and then was overwhelmed by it. Once again, we turn to the beloved parable of the Prodigal Son. In fact, Jesus gives us some significant clues that we should read these two parables together. For one thing, he uses almost same wording for both the Prodigal Son and the Dishonest Manager. For both he says that they “squandered their possessions.” And then they both these characters, when they find themselves in the positions of losers needing mercy, talk to themselves in trying to hatch a way out of their fixes. The Prodigal Son “comes to himself” and plots a scheme to live once again off of his father’s being, albeit as a hired-hand this time instead of as a son. He hopes his father will have at least enough compassion to make him a hired hand. The Dishonest Steward is discovered by his master, but he is able to scheme another way in which to rely on mercy: if not from his master, then from his master’s clients. But the bottom line in both stories is to find a way to warrant mercy and be welcomed home. Before the Prodigal Son even has a chance to work his scheme, he finds his father running out to welcome him home. The dishonest steward shows mercy to the clients with the expectation that they will repay him in kind, with the end result that “people may welcome me into their homes.”
Is this what Jesus is getting at with his contrast between children of this age’s generation and children of light? Children of the light should be wise enough to know about the kind of gracious mercy that our heavenly father shows us in Jesus Christ. But how often do we put faith in that mercy? Are we even a little bit faithful to such mercy? Or do the children of this generation even outdo us when it comes to mercy, albeit an exchange form of mercy? Perhaps we are more like the elder brother, and don’t want to celebrate mercy. We’d rather rely on our own competence: we aren’t incompetent boobs like the prodigal son or the dishonest steward who squander our possessions away. No, we know how to take care of our possessions.
Well, Jesus has set the table for us once again today, a table of celebration to welcome us home into his kingdom of mercy. Will we accept the invitation to fully enter his kingdom? The word of grace to us today is that it takes only a very little faithfulness. We bring our tiny piece of faithfulness to our Lord’s table today and he feeds us with a mercy and compassion that is enough to spill over into the rest of our week, a mercy and compassion that we might share with the others we meet, our family, our friends, our co-workers. Where is the mercy and compassion in your life? Is it hard to hold onto that mercy during the week in this world that operates by other powers? You bet. But it only takes a little to begin with, and our Good Shepherd prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies so that our cups of mercy might overflow. Surely, that goodness and mercy will pursue us all the days of our lives, that we might dwell in God’s household of mercy forever. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, September 19-20, 1998