Nobody quite knows what to do with today’s gospel. After consulting more bible commentaries than I had time to keep track of this week, the only consensus I found among the scholars who study scripture is that this story Jesus tells his disciples is a strange one. “Jesus’ most confusing parable,” said one commentator. “A difficult text,” wrote another, in characteristic understated fashion. “Jesus’ weirdest…” said a third.
It’s an interesting lesson, I’ll admit, to have at the center of a day when we’re welcoming people back to worship at this one time and in this one space. Many of you have delighted in the beauty of God’s creation at our summer beach service, our Sandy Mass on the Grass at Gillson Park. Many of you have been away, as my family and I were, part of the time, for travel and rest and play. And some of you may be here with us for the first time today, searching for a new church to call your own. Welcome home, everybody, on this Homecoming Sunday. We’re glad you’re here.
In keeping with what’s happening in people’s lives right now, as lots of folks both tall and small have begun and returned to school, and as we prepare to begin our own church school year here at St. A’s, we will bless the gift of learning today. We’ll give thanks for the opportunity to study, and we will give thanks for those who teach. We will bless backpacks, giving thanks for students having what they need in order to learn and grow. And we will ask God’s provision and the community’s generosity for those who don’t.
So recognizing all that, I spent a good deal of time this week, studying for what exactly the good news of this gospel story might be.
As Jesus tells his disciples, a rich man has a manager who is about to lose his job. The manager hasn’t done that job well, and his boss, the rich man, finds out about it. Before the manager leaves, though, his soon-to-be-former employer asks for a reckoning of the accounts. The manager is scared. He knows his options are limited, he knows this is probably his last chance to lay any kind of groundwork for his own future. So he uses what he has, while he can. “This way, maybe people will remember, and help me,” he thinks.
The manager brings in his boss’ clients, and he cuts their debts. One debt he cuts by a fifth; another, by half.
As Jesus tells the story, the manager’s still-for-now boss finds out about what this manager has done. And the wealthy boss – who now has lost a fifth or even a half of what was owed to him – this wealthy employer congratulates the manager for his shrewdness. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it’s gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes,” Jesus says. “If then you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” Jesus asks.
Honestly, I’m grateful that we’re blessing curiosity today. Because I find Jesus’ words here…curious…indeed.
So I went to school on this passage. I found confessionals from scholars who said the kinds of things that people who study and write about scripture don’t usually tend to say: “This is confusing.” “It doesn’t make sense.” “I don’t know.” I found an argument claiming that the manager is actually a hero for helping to dismantle an unjust system by his dishonest actions. I read arguments that questioned and parsed where exactly the parable ended and Jesus’ instruction began. Some writers claimed that this passage is an imperative to preach about money. Others were equally insistent that it isn’t actually about money at all, but relationships.
In short, after no small amount of exploration, I can tell you that there was zero consensus about what this story means.
And my job, as I see it, as your rector and preacher, is to bring you the good news of the gospel; not to stage my own version of what one delightful preacher called a “desperate attempt to rescue Jesus from his own parable.”
The succession of events seems curious. Last week’s gospel lesson began with the scribes and the Pharisees complaining to each other: “This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” Jesus responds by telling the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. After that, he also tells the story of the prodigal son – which will be read another Sunday. So there’s the gap of missing the prodigal story, and then today’s parable about the shrewd manager.
There doesn’t seem to be much separation in this process. Jesus is teaching, he hears the scribes and Pharisees complain, and he responds with the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal.
After that, Luke’s gospel says, Jesus tells the disciples the parable of today’s gospel passage about the dishonest manager and his rich boss. We know from the very next verse after today’s lesson that the Pharisees hear this parable, and they’re mad enough about it that they ridicule Jesus. But the text tells us that he’s not talking to the Pharisees. He’s telling the disciples.
So I wonder what it means, that after hearing grumbling about his inclusiveness of people (tax collectors! sinners!) whom respectable folks would tend to hold at a distance, Jesus turns to his twelve disciples and tells them a weird and confusing story that champions a rather more than shifty kind of a guy as the example the disciples should follow.
I love this season of going back to school. I love the smell of sharp pencils and the opening of new notebooks. From my mid-20s until beginning seminary in my mid-30s, I served as a high school teacher. And the thing I loved to teach best of all was writing.
In my last couple of years in that role, the administration team for my school made the decision to adopt a new writing curriculum. I don’t remember much about the curriculum adoption process, except that it seemed like the teachers who would be implementing it were maybe not as involved in that process as we would have hoped. It’s possible that I might have wrinkled my nose about that. And even worse, to my high-minded ideals about what teaching and writing are supposed to be: this curriculum used a formula…a script, even.
Well. “This administration welcomes curricula, and expects teachers to teach…” like, had I known this weird passage a little better at that point, it’s possible that I might have been the one grumbling it among the scribes in the teachers’ lounge.
But here’s the thing: it worked. My students who were already strong writers mastered the rules quickly and well enough that they could break them, and they became even better writers. And my students who had convinced themselves that they couldn’t write used the formulas, and yes, even the scripting, as a scaffold to help themselves through the writing process. Students who had never turned in any writing assignments in my class began writing sentences and then paragraphs and then essays. And they were good.
And I would have thought I had nothing to learn – and worse, that my students would have nothing to learn – from a writing program that taught by formula.
“This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” It’s interesting that this complaint provokes a series of parables about finding and restoring what was lost, about celebrating that restoration with joy.
If we look only at presentation and formula, it can be too easy to excuse our own lack of curiosity. Because what are we actually doing when we dismiss the dishonest manager? Are we saying that we have nothing to learn from someone like him? Is that why some of the commentators I found contorted themselves to make the manager into a socially acceptable guy? And if that’s what we try to do, underneath it aren’t we really trying to say that there are some kinds of people who have nothing to teach us about God’s kingdom? Aren’t we really trying to draw a bright line between ourselves as earnest-and-trying-to-be-faithful people, and those “others,” whoever they are?
The confounding good news of this gospel is that Jesus welcomes sinners, and he eats with us. The curious and interesting hope of this weird story is that he is talking to his disciples – the ones who will be the teachers of what he has taught – and he uses a strange and unlikely illustration of someone those earnest-and-trying-to-be-faithful disciples could stand to learn something from. And he does it all to point again and again and again to a kingdom where everybody is welcome.
So blessings, this day, on confusion and strange teachings and holy weirdness. Blessings on questions and curiosity. Blessings on backpacks and bibles and writing pads and calculators. Blessings on formulas and scripts, on shrewdness and discovery. Blessings on you, as you come home to this church. And blessings on the God who welcomes us all to the kingdom.
 http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-20c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel Thanks as well to the author of this text, Scott Hoezee, for the frame that set much of this sermon for me…after such head-banging.