So here we are with another one of these parables that leave us scratching our heads. At least, I’m left scratching my head, maybe for all of you it’s totally straight forward and easy to understand. But for me it’s one of those passages where I need to look high and low for anything that could remotely make sense in order to put together some kind of sermon. So I did a lot of reading and research trying to figure out how on earth ripping off your boss could be considered good news.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one with issues here. In my research I found that I’m not the only one that couldn’t make sense of this parable. And I’m not the only one that has completely missed the point of Jesus’ lesson because I didn’t look at the historical and cultural context of the story.
The thing is, with parables in general we often automatically try to figure out who is who in the story. Normally the main character is us, usually learning the error of our ways. And then the more powerful character, the authority figure, usually someone like say, a rich landowner, we’d say is God or Jesus or at very least the Holy Spirit. And then we relate that to our lives in this day and age.
And that is why this parable is so hard to understand. We try to put it in terms that make sense to us, or in ways that only can make sense to us. We hear of this manager (who is us) who isn’t doing the job that was put out before him (which is collecting money for his boss), and so his boss (who is God) fires him. Right away we look at our lives and think yeah, we know we’re all sinners and fall short, and so God has every right to say quite literally “to hell with you all” and fire us, in a way. So we think that makes sense but Jesus isn’t finished with his story yet.
Then the manager, scared about what is going to happen to him after he’s fired, goes and makes friends with those that owe his boss money, at the expense of his boss. He reduces their debt in hopes that he gets in their good books, and then he can call in those favours after he’s unemployed and homeless.
And this is where we get stuck. You’d think the boss would be like, hey man what’s the deal? You’re bringing in even less, I’d fire you again if I could. But he doesn’t. Instead he commends the manager for acting so shrewdly and the story ends there.
So, God will reward us for acting like this? That doesn’t sound right. We should be cheating our superiors and look out for ourselves? That doesn’t sound like something Jesus would tell us to do. We should steal from the rich and give to the poor? Well, maybe that doesn’t sound that bad with the right spin on it, but that isn’t what is happening in this story at all.
Or is it?
This is what I was getting at about knowing the context in which this story takes place. See in those days, “rich landowner” came with its own connotation. In those days in the Judea, the backdrop is the whole Roman occupation thing and those Romans liked their tax. They taxed Judea up the wazoo, and most of the poor farmers couldn’t afford to pay the tax. So these rich folk found a way to exploit that, in that they’d make deals with these farmers, telling them that they’d pay their tax for them in exchange for a percentage of their crops and stuff like that, usually things like wheat and olive oil. And as you’d imagine, the cut was a bit higher than it should be, and people knew this but were in no position to do anything about it. The rich landowners would collect every month or whatever it was, but not in person, as you’d imagine showing up in person to collect your ill-gotten gains wouldn’t be a good idea for anyone. So they would send others to collect for them, called “managers”. It was the manager’s job to do their master’s dirty work, to go shake down the poor for their “protection money”. So it would be dangerous for the manger too, but the rich landowner wouldn’t care, the rich landowner just wanted to get richer. These managers then would have to go and try to get as much as they could out of the farmers, and maybe they’d skim some off the top, because really they weren’t all that rich themselves. They had to what they could to survive.
And so with all of that in mind, suddenly the story takes on a whole new light. The manager, doing what he can to just get by, isn’t appreciated by his boss because he isn’t making the rich as much money as he wants (not needs, by the way, but wants). So underappreciated is this manager, that he gets fired just for doing his job. I don’t know how many of you have been fired from your job before, but I’d imagine that it’d give you new perspective on life, on your own work ethic, and how much you respect your boss. That rejection you get from someone whom you might have given much service to and did your best to please isn’t just heartbreaking, but possibly heart-changing. And I think this is what happens here.
See the manager did what he could to please the corrupt boss. He was willing to look the other way in terms of his ethics, thinking that he’d have some kind of job protection. But he wasn’t taken care of at all. Instead, he was thrown out as soon as it was decided he wasn’t as useful as he’d want.
And so his perspective changed, his ethic changed, his heart changed. He switches sides and instead of batting for the rich, he stands up for the poor. He allows them to pay the rich man the bare minimum, perhaps dipping into his own “commission” and cutting them a break.
Looking at the story this way, we see that the manger is not us nor is the rich man God. Instead, it looks like the manger might be Jesus, and the rich man… is us. Not in that we are all rich and mighty and exploit the poor, but in that we expect Jesus to treat us a certain way without always considering how he might be treating others. We sometimes think that Jesus should favour us because we are the devout, the faithful, the deserving, and the others that we see Jesus helping are those that he really shouldn’t be. And then maybe we think that we should then go and find another Jesus that is better to us.
But Jesus doesn’t stop caring for the poor. Jesus isn’t strong-armed into pandering to those who don’t need and neglecting those who do. Jesus doesn’t turn his back on the underprivileged, the outcast, those on the margins of society, nor does he turn his back on us.
See after the manger is fired, he doesn’t turn to his boss and say something like, “you can’t fire me, because I quit!” while slamming his nametag onto his desk. Jesus continues the work that he is called to, and continues to give to both the poor and rich alike, sharing with all equally the blessing that comes from God.
We are the rich man when we think that Jesus should do what we want Jesus to do. We are the poor farmers when we turn to Jesus in our hopelessness. We are the rich man when we get angry at Jesus for treating us unfairly when Jesus is gracious to the other. We are the poor farmers when we graciously receive all that Jesus offers with humble and contrite hearts.
This isn’t a story about what we should do as we manage things. This isn’t a story about how God wants us to be shrewd and conniving. This isn’t really even a story about us. Rather, it’s a story about how the world is, how the world sees God, and how God acts in spite of all that. And that is, with grace, mercy, and above all, a love that shapes the whole universe and gives us our value and worth.
In this season after Pentecost as we look at church growth and ministry, may we see God’s gracious blessing upon us even when we often don’t deserve it, and may this blessing fuel us in our ministry and service. Thanks be to God. Amen.