Luke 6: 1-13
The gospel reading is one of the most confusing yet gripping stories Jesus tells. Confusing, because it’s hard to understand what he’s telling his disciples to do, gripping because it’s an entertaining story that we recognise: There’s a rich man who has a manager run all his finances. Only the manager gets greedy. He fiddles the books, steals the money, lives the high life. Until he gets found out. Until the moment he gets called in to see the boss, and told he’s fired. As he walks back to his office, his life in ruins, wondering what he can do to avoid ending up on the street, he realises that until the boss puts out an official announcement he’s the only one who knows he’s fired. So he picks up the phone and makes a few quick calls. Within half an hour, all the people who owe his boss money have had their debts slashed in half and know they’ve got him to thank for it. When the boss heard what he’d done, how he’d turned personal disaster into a chance for a new future in half an hour, he laughed his head off and offered him his job back. Anyone who could do that was the sort of person he wanted working for him.
We can understand what’s going on in this story very easily. The corrupt manager in his desperation, the ruthless way he turns even the worst situation to his advantage. The way that being under pressure pushes him to switch from extorting extra money from people for himself to giving away his master’s money to help the very people he’d been cheating. Even the way that the master, hearing about how his far-too-crafty manager managed to wiggle his way out of any punishment he’d tried to give him, changes his mind and congratulates him instead. It’s a funny story. I expect it got a bit of a laugh from the people who heard it.
But what are we supposed to make of Jesus saying now you all go and do the same thing as the dishonest manager: make friends for yourself with corrupt money, so that when it runs out you’ll be welcomed by them into heavenly homes?
I think the thing we need to bear in mind with this parable is that Jesus isn’t saying the manager is a good man. He’s very clear this is a bad man who finds himself in a tight spot, and the only way out is to do something he’d never normally consider doing. And that’s the point. This is a story about someone changing the way they do things. This is someone who has never tried to help people in their life. In fact, he’s gone out of his way to help himself at the expense of everyone else. But when that stops working, he’s got no choice but to help as many people as he can, as quickly as he can. The bad man has to act like a good man, because in the end it’s the only thing that will save his skin. When the chips are down, the dishonest manager realises something: all the scheming and cheating and swindling he’s done all these years have ended up getting him nowhere. He’s going to end up with nothing: with a choice between trying to get work as an unskilled labourer after years of sitting behind a desk or begging on the street. He has to change. When Jesus tells us to imitate him, this is what he’s asking us to imitate: someone who is changing the way they live completely.
I want to say three things about the sort of change we see in the parable. Three things that I think will help us understand what Jesus is asking us to do.
First, the parable is about change that happens in a place of vulnerability and opportunity. The parable is all about what happens when the manager is in a particular sort of place: a place where extreme vulnerability and extreme opportunity meet. This is a man with nothing, who has lost everything he has worked for, who is seriously seeing begging as one of the options he is weighing up. He is incredibly vulnerable, probably more vulnerable than he has even been before. But this is also a man presented with a moment of opportunity: the window he has between being told he’s fired and an announcement being made. To be clear: he has always been able to do the things he now does, but until he was in this place of vulnerability it never occurred to him what an opportunity he had. In this place, he has all the power he once wielded as the rich man’s manager, but he now has nothing to lose.
Jesus wants to talk about what happens to people in that place of vulnerability and opportunity because it’s the place we’re all called to be. It’s the place where we realise our need of God. The place where we realise we’re not coping. We haven’t got all our ducks in a row. We’re at the limit of our resources and we need to do more.
Realising how much we need God is something that I think most of us struggle with. It’s not very comfortable. It means being vulnerable: admitting that we are not sufficient in ourselves. But I’ve always found that that vulnerability brings with it an opportunity: the opportunity for God to work in and through us to bring change. My own experience of vulnerability [give example] is that I can be more fully who I am and do what I am called to do when I feel I am utterly dependent on God. This has come round many times in my ministry. I’m sure many clergy would say the same.
Second, the parable is about change expressed in repentance. Repentance is about change not just for change’s sake, but change that aims to actively reject the way we did things in the past. To repent means to turn away from past mistakes. Clearly, this is not a story about traditional repentance: the dishonest manager doesn’t have a change of hear, he doesn’t stop being dishonest. But he has to act in a way that is opposed to all he has previously done. The dishonest manager is put in a position where he realises what his mistakes have cost him. He is made vulnerable, but with the opportunity not simply to lament his vulnerability, but to take action: to do things differently.
Repentance is something we do every Sunday. Every day that we say ‘forgive us our trespasses’. It’s second nature almost. But there’s a world of difference between saying the words and actually changing. The dishonest manager never gets to saying he’s sorry. But what he does demonstrates the repentance he doesn’t speak: he transforms the way he acts. I wonder if we sometimes do it the other way around? Do we say we’re sorry but never actually change? Do we just go through the motions? I wonder what it would mean if we were less concerned with looking sorry than we were about actually making the changes we need to reverse the harm we’ve caused? Would we be a better church if we acted more like Christians even if we seemed to speak less like them?
Thirdly, the parable is about change expressed in showing mercy to the needy. The parable goes into some detail about the state of the debtors. They owe a lot. Some owe more than they might be expected to pay back. Perhaps it was the dishonest manager himself who had piled their debts ever higher and higher, extorting more money out of the already vulnerable to line his own pockets. Perhaps not, but whether it was through his greed or his master’s harsh terms, these people were in great need, carrying debts that would take years to repay, or might lead to them and their families being sold into slavery in payment. And in this place of vulnerability and opportunity, the dishonest manager does the thing he’s been avoiding doing all this time: he shows mercy. He writes off debts instead of piling them on. He uses the skills and influence he’s got to make friends rather than enemies. I wonder how you’ve been treating the needy people around you? Are there people who over the years you have treated as a means to an end? People you’ve valued more for what they can do for you than for themselves? Who are the people you have sought to better yourself through? And what would it mean to try to make them better instead?
That’s the sort of change Jesus is trying to get us to imitate: change that comes from a place of vulnerability and opportunity, change that expresses itself in repentance and mercy to the needy. We might think it’s too late to try and change now. The dishonest manager has left it to the last minute to even try and change. But that’s all that’s needed. A few moments of showing mercy more than make up for a lifetime spent cheating people. The dishonest manager becomes a symbol of grace in action: the forgiveness of debts that turns enemies into friends. One moment of that grace outweighs a lifetime of sin.
So don’t think it’s too late. Not for you, or for others. And don’t think it’s too hard. Because in the end, what Jesus wants more than anything is for us to recognise our need of God. If we don’t do that we won’t be able recognise the needs of others.