Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost by Suzy Jeffreys

Sept. 22, 2019

Lessons:

Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Do you know what a grappling hook is? Most of you probably have a vague enough notion that if we launched into a congregation-wide game of Pictionary, you could sketch one out well enough that someone in your pew would guess correctly. Or you would do what I did, when my five year old asked me, “Please please please can I have a grappling hook like Batman,” Google it, and then wisely answer “Maybe for Christmas,”…and hope he forgets.

A grappling hook is – no surprise – a hook with multiple prongs attached to a rope and it’s used to grab objects. Its original use – by the Romans, who invented it around 300 BC – was actually as a way to catch the rigging on an enemy ship so that it could be brought close and boarded. And hence we have verb, “to grapple,” to be engaged with the complications presented by something. While you will leave here today knowing exactly what a grappling hook is, I cannot promise you’ll leave knowing exactly what the notoriously tricky Parable of the Unjust Manager is all about. And this is, in fact, what Jesus intended for his listeners – and now for us – when he spoke in parables. Had he wanted to be crystal clear and singular, he would have chosen – and often did choose – a different means of teaching. In choosing to speak in parable form, Jesus was inviting his listeners to engage, to be surprised, to question each other and themselves.

So, picture your grappling hook, and imagine throwing it at today’s unwieldy parable, gripping it tightly and bringing it close so we can grapple with it.

The rich man finds out that his household manager has been either untrustworthy or incompetent. Whichever it is, he seems to have lost his master some money. The rich man makes it known to the manager that he’s on the chopping block. The manager, while he still has some power and in the hopes of securing some friends who he can turn to when he’s fired, does a favor to some of the families who owe money to his master and forgives part of their debt. We are not told, but we assume, that they are elated and relieved to be out from under the burden of some of their debt. What is surprising is how elated the rich man is. He commends the manager for being savvy and for making friends by dishonest means. Luke follows the telling of the parable with a number of sayings, ending with one very familiar to us – “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Grappling is, I think, the right approach with parables, because not doing so is fraught with pitfalls and temptations. And I want to talk about a few of those and how to avoid it.

First is the temptation to allegorize parables. This reminds me of an old church joke – A pastor was talking to a group of kids in her congregation and said, “I have a riddle for you. What’s brown and has a big bushy tail and eats nuts,” to which one little kid raised his hand and said, “I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel.” When we allegorize a difficult parable to bring meaning to it, we assign a character as God, another as Jesus, maybe another as “us.” The problem, of course, is that many of Jesus’ parables’ characters are morally complicated, so we find ourselves manipulating and twisting a parable to fit the tidy allegory. Instead of this approach, what if we identify the place where the allegory starts to fall apart, recognize that as the “surprise” of Jesus’ teaching and start our search for meaning right there. In this parable, that spot for me is when the rich master praises his manager for going behind his back to protect his own interests over his masters’. We don’t know for sure, but the master could be responding to any number of things – the basic morality of the managers’ mercy toward the debtors, his pride at hiring a clever manager, his realization that the debtors are more likely to be able to actually pay him back, thereby bringing more wealth into his coffers. When we stop at this point in the parable, this point where it becomes trickier to identify the manager as Jesus or the master as God, it may be because we find ourselves asking if we’re called to act shrewdly and, if so, feeling uncomfortable with that. But this concept of acting shrewdly is not isolated to this parable or to the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew when Jesus sends out his disciples, he says, “See I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

So finding the surprise in the parable, and not shying away from it, leads us to this idea of shrewdness. We might be tempted to immediately ask what shrewdness looks like for us as Christians. But before we answer that question, we need to make sure to avoid a second temptation in interpreting parables – to start looking for the lesson for us today before understanding what was going on then, the context. Have you ever Googled a really remote place? For example, Christmas Island. On Google Maps you have to zoom out six times from Christmas Island before catching sight of any other land, in this case Java, before you’re able to place where exactly Christmas Island is located. Without that context, it would be foolish to set out in a boat looking for Christmas Island. When we look at Jesus’ parables, one of the most important and constant pieces of context for us to remember is Jesus’s Jewishness. Jesus was a Jew. He would have been familiar with the words of the prophet Amos we heard this morning. He would have known that during the time Amos was active many Israelites were living prosperous lives built on deceitful practices and enslavement, just like the rich master lived in Jesus’ time. Jesus would have also known that in this setting the manager was likely an enslaved person as well and therefore himself indebted and without options had he not acted shrewdly. He also would have known that there’s a strong possibility that the portion of debt the manager forgave was actually his “cut,” the amount he’d added to the debt to line his own pockets…hence Luke’s reference to “dishonest wealth.” Finally, for us as readers of Scripture, there’s also the context of Luke’s gospel, which includes a great deal of attention to wealth, poverty, and the reversal of fortunes. So now, we can see the commendation of shrewdness not in isolation or for its own good, but in the context of the inequality, enslavement and corruption of the day, set against Luke’s emphasis on the forgiveness and mercy of the Kingdom of God

So by zooming out to capture the context, the question becomes something different, not just should we be shrewd, but what would it look like to be shrewd with our wealth – even with our dishonest wealth – in the service of the Kingdom of God? By invoking “dishonest wealth,” I’m not suggesting we all have made our living at the expense of others or through corruption. But many, I’d reckon most, of us benefit from dishonest wealth – from the land we live on gained through the genocide and destruction of Native Americans to the privilege and power afforded to those of us with white skin, because of the unjust underpinnings of the concept of race. When faced with our own complicity in this dishonest wealth, we may be tempted to throw up our hands in helplessness, smash all our electronics, get off the grid and hide our money under our mattresses. But this parable calls us surely to something else – to grappling, to wrestling with the complicated and nuanced aspects of living in our world and asking how we can use those aspects to bring about the Kingdom of God – free of oppression and debt, full of mercy and forgiveness – here in our world.

Finally, especially for the preacher there is the temptation to come up with a single, pithy lesson that ties up all the loose ends neatly. Amy-Jill Levine, a scholar who describes herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist,” writes about the surplus of meanings that abound in parables. She says that not only can many meanings emerge from parables, but to reduce parables to just one meaning destroys their potential, that parables work because not in spite of the fact that multiple meanings emerge. She cautions that if we read a parable and think, “Oh yeah, that’s it, I got it!” and move on, we probably don’t, that we should go back again and again, even to the “easy ones,” and search for more meaning. Upon another reading of the Unjust Manager, for example, I noticed something about intention and impact. Jesus includes in the parable the fact that the manager was primarily motivated by self-interest, by making sure he had people to rely on in his upcoming period of unemployment. Does the manager’s selfish intention change the positive impact on those whose debts were partly forgiven? No. Does it change how we view the rightness or morality of that manager’s debt forgiveness? Maybe, maybe not. On Friday, people around the globe participated in the Global Climate Strike, demanding climate justice for all. Sixteen year-old Greta Thunberg is one of the young people behind the Strike, and when she was asked by Trevor Noah of The Daily Show, “Why do you think young people are so focused on climate change now?,” she said, “I think it is because we know that these consequences will face us during our lifetime.” Sixteen year-old Isra Hirsi, the co-founder of the US Youth Climate Strike and daughter of Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar, talks about how the turning point for her own advocacy around climate change was when she – a young, Black, Muslim woman – became aware that climate change threatens to affect communities of color the most.

In these two cases, Ms. Thunberg and Ms. Hirsi are saying that it is because they have the interest of their selves – and others like them – in mind that they have become such passionate and committed activists for moving away from the age of fossil fuels. When they attest to this self-interest, this doesn’t make me see their actions as any less moral. In fact it fills out my understanding of why they protest, because the interests of their planet, the interests of their fellow humans, the interests of their particular communities, and the interests of themselves intersect.

And so we come to yet another, deeper – not final – layer of meaning in this parable: In grappling with how to use our wealth to bring about the great reversals of the Kingdom of God, we too will be set free…and the desire to see ourselves included in those who are set free is a powerful, valid and commendable desire.