Preacher The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
Our gospel reading today from Luke is not an easy one to understand. It is the parable of the Shrewd Manager, also known as that of the Dishonest Steward. I prefer the title of the Shrewd Manager, because that is more positive a description. We would want to condemn dishonesty, whereas shrewdness can be a good quality to have. And in the parable the manager is clearly commended, not condemned. It is a curious story that Jesus puts to his disciples. He asks them to imagine that a rich man, perhaps an absentee landlord, had put a manager in charge of his estate and all the financial dealings associated with it. News gets back to the rich owner that his manager is squandering his property. The rich owner decides to dismiss the manager and demands that the manager accounts for his actions.
So the manager is faced with a crisis – he is about to lose his job and perhaps his home as well if he lived on the rich man’s estate. The manager is loath to do any manual labour or to beg. So instead he devises a crafty scheme. He summons the rich owner’s debtors and reduces their debts. This is clever – it means that the debtors may come to see both the owner and the manager in a better light, and be thankful. The debtors will be well-disposed towards the manager and even welcoming to him. They might even give him a room to stay in. When the owner gets to hear of this, he does not condemn the manager for dishonesty. No, rather he commends and congratulates the manager for his ingenuity. In the face of a crisis, the manager didn’t go under. Instead he cleverly turned the crisis to his advantage. In modern terms we might say he did some good social networking and in so doing made some new friends.
Jesus’ parables are always about God and the Kingdom of God – and showing us what God and the Kingdom of God are like. So what is there in this strange parable to show us what God is like? I think part of the answer to that question is a common theme found in the gospels – forgiveness. Just as the manager, by reducing what the debtors owed, was kind and merciful to them – so God, by forgiving our sins in Christ, was merciful to humankind. This financial language is often used in the gospels to show how God has forgiven us. It is even there again in the Lord’s prayer:
“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”
As one translation puts it. In other words, the cancelling of financial debts is a metaphor for God forgiving sins – most especially in the death and resurrection of Jesus. There can be problems with such a metaphor, and the theory of penal substitution for Jesus’ death on the cross is perhaps the most difficult of all the theories of atonement. It makes it seem as if God is punishing Jesus by sending him to his death. Whereas it was the evil intent of human beings – notably some of the religious and political leaders of Jesus’ day – who sent Jesus to his death. The resurrection reveals that such evil intent would not have the last word, and Jesus is vindicated.
In today’s gospel the financial metaphor is very much present. Indeed the whole parable hinges on it. And – as so often in the scriptures – different levels of meaning are all at work simultaneously. The letting off of debts certainly evokes the gospel theme of forgiveness of sins. But the punch line, at the very end of the sayings that follow on from the parable, is Jesus pronouncing:
“You cannot serve God and wealth”.
Jesus here seems to be making a point that serves at a literal level of meaning as well as any other. For Jesus here challenges his listeners (and he tells this parable to his disciples) to be very careful about their attitude towards – and use of – money. It’s as if money has an intrinsic tendency to catch us out where spiritual matters are concerned. It can be all too easy for us to let money become a kind of idol, so that we put our desire for money and wealth before our spiritual concerns, even before God and our desire for God. And that is the danger. For in the Kingdom of God, it is always God and the values of the Kingdom that must come first. It is how we use money that matters. Do we use it as part of our loving and serving God, and loving and serving our neighbour?
The manager realised that it was more important to be generous to his master’s debtors, than to exact their full debts from them. By being generous, he forged a new relationship with the debtors that had previously been solely about money. By giving practical help, he would himself become the recipient of practical help. In this was his shrewdness. It is the kind of shrewdness that Jesus elsewhere commended when he said,
“Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves”.
In some strange, mysterious way the manager of the story acts in a Christ-like manner and evokes a Christ-like response. For this he is to be commended. He does not allow himself to become a victim of circumstance. Instead he transforms the crisis into an opportunity that benefits both himself and his master’s debtors.
The theme of forgiveness is central to the New Testament writings, and we have a less oblique example of it in our second reading today from the first Letter to Timothy, often referred to as one of the Pastoral Epistles. Here it is categorically stated that,
“God our Saviour…desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”.
Similarly, in the same passage, Jesus is described as the one
“who gave himself a ransom for all”.
The words “everyone” and “for all” here are indicative of a theological stance that as it developed was not main-stream Christian thought, but rather grew through the writings of Origen and other early Christian writers and became known as the doctrine of Universalism. This doctrine holds that ultimately all free moral creatures – whether angels, human beings or devils – will share in the grace of salvation. According to this doctrine hell is essentially purgative and therefore temporary – and all intelligent beings will in the end be saved. Christians are divided on this issue, and I have often enjoyed many arguments and discussions on the matter. It is an issue that Bible study groups will invariably need to tackle.
At the end of the day of course, whatever our own views on the matter, we are left with a profound mystery. Our faith assures us that God is love and that God’s forgiveness is available for all. And our faith also shows us that our beliefs need to be put into practice. May God enable us all to grow more deeply in living out God’s Kingdom and building up its values through lives given in loving service for God and our neighbour. And let us remember that every crisis is an opportunity to transform our difficulties into channels of God’s love to the world.