Most commentaries or sermons about today’s gospel, the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-13; Proper 20, Year C), either begin with or quickly make the point that is it just a strange and difficult text; and it is. It doesn’t make sense. A dishonest employee is commended by his boss? That’s not how we want the world to be. That’s not what we teach our kids. Jesus describes a world we know only too well. A world in which dishonesty, corruption, self-interest, and ill-gotten wealth rule the day. A world in which selfish ambition often secures praise and prosperity, while honesty garners cynicism and contempt. A world in which the heavy burden of debt cripples people both financially and morally. A world in which unfairness, exploitation, and privilege are so systemic, we barely notice — much less protest. A world in which ethical living is neither straightforward nor easy.
Maybe the parable of the shrewd manager is simply a grim but truthful portait of the world as it is — the real world in which we are called to be children of light. Maybe the story is an acknowledgment that the calling is both radically countercultural and painfully hard. Maybe the story is Jesus leaning in towards us and saying, I know. It’s bad out there. It’s bad in here! I get it.
So I want to begin somewhere else. I want to begin with something that, while not necessarily easier, is a bit more understandable and familiar.
Give me an accounting of your management, the master said to his manager. We’ve all heard those words. It may not have been those exact words but at some time in our life, probably many times, an accounting has been demanded.
- The IRS invites us to bring our papers and account for the numbers on our tax return.
- Did you ever get called to the principal’s office?
- You sit down with a therapist or spiritual director and he or she says, So tell me about your life. What’s going on?
- The boss says she wants to see you in her office.
- You come home and your spouse speaks those four dreaded words, We need to talk.
- Almost every Sunday we come to the place in the liturgy when the priest or layreader says, Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.
In all of those situations, an accounting of our management is being demanded. It’s not easy. Giving an accounting can be an uncomfortable and even a fearful time. We review our words and actions wondering, What have I done? What have I left undone? What will happen to me? What will I do?
No one likes to have to give an accounting. We’re pretty private about our books. Not only do we not want others to see the balance, sometimes we do not want to see the balance. We do not want to face and deal with that reality. But that’s what this accounting asks of us.
You see the accounting demanded of this manager, just like the ones demanded of us, is really an accounting of his life. It asks us to open the books of our life and examine, audit, what we are doing with our life and who we are serving. It raises important questions. What are we doing with the resources, assets, and gifts entrusted to us? Think about all we have. Time. Money. Ideas, dreams, and hopes. Passions and concerns. People and relationships. Love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy. Talents and abilities. Questions and curiosities. What if we were to give an accounting of our management of these? What would our books look like? What do they reveal about us? Where, how, in what ways, on whom are we spending and investing these assets?
These aren’t just questions to be answered individually. There is also a communal or corporate accounting of our management to be given. What would it look like for America to account for its management? Would do the books and balances say about our national life? What about globally and internationally? What do the world’s books say about humanity? At every level people are
trying to serve two masters. And it just doesn’t work. Look at the last couple of weeks: Ukraine, murders in the U.S. Sending immigrants too Martha’s Vineyard, Chicago, New York, Washington,D.C. instead of trying to work together and fix immigration, Lying in government, making decisions on what is best for the party rather than what is best for the people. We can’t go on like this. Something has to change.
Today’s gospel calls us to account for our management of all that we are and all that we have. The demand for an accounting often sounds like someone is in trouble. That’s how today’s parable begins. The manager has been charged with squandering his master’s property. He going to be fired. He will lose his job, income, reputation, and status. A part of him is dying. At some level he will lose his life as he now knows it.
Whether we’ve lived it, heard it from a friend or colleague, or read it in the news, it’s a familiar story. Somebody has been bad. They’ve been caught. Now they’re going to get what they deserve. That’s how the world works. That’s what we expect. But that’s not how the kingdom of God works and parables rarely give us what we expect. So we ought not be too quick to come to a final or definitive interpretation of this parable. We cannot with ease or confidence declare who, if any one in particular, each character represents: God, Jesus, or us. The parable offers ambiguity and tension not a neat resolution and that feels a lot like real life.
Maybe this story in general and the manager in particular is simply a picture of that ambiguity and tension. It is a picture that probably looks very familiar to most of us, a picture of the tension and ambiguity in our own lives, struggles, and decisions. There is even some ambiguity in labeling this man as the dishonest manager. What does that mean, the dishonest manager?
Maybe the label of dishonest isn’t what we think it is. Maybe it is less a declaration about the manager and more a description of his relationship to his master. First, we have no details of what this man did or did not do to be charged with squandering and to be fired or whether the charges are even valid. Second, while the word that is translated as dishonest can refer to a particular action or wrongdoing it can also mean the quality of unrighteousness. In that sense the manager’s relationship with his master is not right. It’s broken, impaired, out of sync. Perhaps the manager has chosen self-interest, self-loyalty, and self-serving over interest in, loyalty to, and service of his master. That can happen quickly and easily to any of us. This manager then is the face and image for Jesus’s words, You cannot serve two masters
Since we don’t know a lot about this guy or what he did maybe we can shift our focus a bit. Instead of trying to audit his books maybe we ought to examine our own books. Instead of being shocked that this dishonest manager is commended maybe we can see precedent, hope, and possibilities for our own commendation. The accounting that should have been the manager’s ruin became the starting point for a new life, new relationships, and a new home. Grace was hiding in the demand for an accounting, waiting to be discovered and claimed. The accounting demanded of this manager was both an ending and a new beginning, a death and a resurrection.
While the master may have wanted an audit of past numbers and transactions the manager saw that his old life was empty, bankrupt. New life would be seen only by looking forward. New life would be found only by being and doing differently. The manager claimed for himself the grace hidden in his master’s demand for an accounting, and he was commended. If the dishonest manager can be commended, why not me? Why not you?
Here’s a crazy idea. What if the accounting asked of us is never complete, the books are never closed and the bottom line is never tallied, until there is new life, until there is a commendation? What if the accounting is not about finding wrongdoing but new life? What if its about grace rather than punishment? That certainly changes our usual understanding of an accounting but isn’t that what parables are supposed to do? They change the way we see and understand. If a parable makes sense we’ve probably missed the point.
The accounting of our management isn’t about numbers, wrongdoing, or punishment but about helping us see and orient our lives in a new direction. It opens us to new possibilities. It points us to our eternal home.
Give me an accounting of your management. What are you doing with your life? Who are you serving?