In Bible Study last week, we learned a definition for a parable. It’s pretty formal and wordy, but here it is in a nutshell: a parable is a story drawn from nature or everyday life, but it includes something unusually vivid or strange that grabs our attention. It has no single, neat explanation. Instead, a parable leaves us in doubt about its meaning. This doubt teases our minds into actively thinking and wondering about what the story means and how it applies to us.
Our parable for this week certainly fits that description. Jesus did draw on common life—what was common at that time, anyway. And it’s certainly strange. What else would you call a story about a rich man who ends up praising the employee who squanders his property and then defrauds him? There’s no neat explanation—it just leaves us with questions about what on earth this story could possibly mean. And, if we’re willing, this story can keep us thinking long after we close our Bibles or leave the sanctuary.
Jesus tells our parable just after he’s finished telling some other stories—stories that seem much easier on the brain. He told about a shepherd finding a lost sheep, a woman finding a lost coin, and a father finding a lost son. All of these stories offer food for thought as well, but all the interpretations fit into our idea of who God is, or what God’s kingdom looks like. They’re not like our story for today, which sounds really odd to our ears. It’s like a discordant note played in a piece of music—a note that doesn’t sound like a mistake, exactly, but doesn’t sound like it fits either.
Jesus had been talking to the crowds (and the Pharisees who were keeping an eye on him). But now he has turned his attention to the disciples. In the gospels, crowds represent potential believers, but disciples are people who have made a decision to follow Jesus. So, Jesus is telling this story to people who have already committed themselves to him.
These disciples wouldn’t have found this story as strange as we do, at least at the beginning. Jesus was a great story-teller, and he told the same kinds of stories other rabbis told, ones his audiences loved to hear. Stories like this one, about crooks getting away with their crimes through resourcefulness and creativity, were always 1st-century crowd pleasers. And, of course,
The parable begins to unfold in a way the disciples would have expected. The manager had squandered his rich master’s property, but word of his shenanigans gets back to his master. The master calls him in. The jig is up, and the master tells the manager to prepare an accounting, because he is about to be out of a job. So far, so good. It sounds like the lousy employee is going to get what he deserves.
But the manager comes up with a plan. Knowing he’s about to lose his cushy job, he sets about ensuring his own livelihood. One by one, he calls in each of the people who are in debt to the master. One by one, he slashes their debts. And these are big debts. We’re not talking about a tab at the corner grocery store. We’re talking huge, commercial quantities—900 gallons of olive oil, 600 to 1200 bushels of wheat, depending on how you count it. So, the debtors are going to be really grateful for this unexpected windfall.
And, voila, the dishonest steward has just ensured that after he is out of a job, he won’t be out on the street, because all of these people will owe him—big time. They’ll owe him business deals. They’ll have to treat him with honor. They’ll have to welcome him into their homes for social occasions where he can see and be seen. They’ll be beholden to him in any number of ways. So, as in those other popular crafty criminal stories, the manager appears to have gotten away with his crime.
The master, whose property has been lost by this spendthrift manager, and who’s been defrauded out of money that is rightfully owed to him, appears to know what the manager has gone and done. And then, things get weird. Instead of punishing this crook, the master commends him! He compliments his shrewdness and seems to diss those who are not so sly. And then, he advises the manager to keep it up—to keep on making “friends” by working the system.
This is where the parable teases our minds into actively thinking about what it might mean. We know that we should disapprove of this dishonest manager who steals from the boss. This is Jesus speaking, after all, and it is the Bible. We know from the prophets that the righteousness God desires from us includes honesty and ethical business practices.
Do you remember all those verses from Proverbs promoting honest business dealings and denouncing shady ones? Through the prophets, God rails against dishonesty. “Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?” God asks through Micah (6:11). “I will never forget any of their deeds,” God declares through Amos about grain merchants who are eager to cheat with their false balances, making the measure small and the price great. Surely, Jesus could not be encouraging us to copy the steward’s dishonest actions!
True to our definition of a parable, there are many interpretations of this story. Some scholars say that the story doesn’t celebrate the steward’s dishonesty but rather his shrewdness. They say that he was wise in the way he used what he had, and that the lesson for us is to be just as wise in using our resources for God’s kingdom. Others suggest that this is a story about a crisis that requires a response. The steward is confronted with his wrongdoing by his master, and this required a response, just as we are required to respond when we face our Master, sinful creatures that we are. Some even suggest that the steward wasn’t the dishonest one in the story—that it was his master who was dishonest, and that by slashing the amounts owed, the servant was actually remedying the injustice inflicted by the master.
There’s no one right interpretation of this or any parable, so all of these interpretations bear thinking about. But, none of them has ever satisfied me or answered the questions I have about this story. They don’t help me understand how a story that celebrates deceit can tell me anything about God, who detests falsehood, no matter what you call it or what purpose it serves.
As I wrestled once again with this story, something occurred to me. If it doesn’t make sense that the rich man represents God, then maybe the rich man doesn’t represent God. Maybe the rich man represents something else—something that is not God. Maybe Jesus wants to show us what it looks like when our sense of security and belonging and self-worth doesn’t come from our relationships with God, but from our relationship with the rich man or, rather, what the rich man represents. It occurred to me that what the rich man represents is any system that promises us that, if choose it as our master and play by its rules, we’ll get what we need.
Father John Keating, a monk who is known for developing and teaching the practice of centering prayer, wrote in one of his books that each of us begins life with three essential needs: the need for security and survival, for power and control, and for affection and esteem. If those needs aren’t met, they become what Keating calls “programs for happiness.” In other words, in our adulthood, they will be the forces that shape our behaviors and our allegiances as we pursue the happiness we desire.
Let’s rethink the parable, this time picturing the master not as God but as something other than God. Picture the “rich man” as a system that offers financial and social rewards—all the things Father Keating days we need—based on who you know and what resources you have access to, whether they’re yours or someone else’s. The rewards include social acceptance and financial opportunity. This system—this “rich man”—values position and wealth, and it heaps shame on those who don’t buy into it. The rich man tells the steward that his value is determined only by his connection to the system and the power it gives him. He’s been playing according to the rich man’s rules, and he has every reason to expect that being connected to the rich man will continue to benefit him.
But then, something goes wrong. The rich man’s rules say that the manager will be nothing—have nothing—if the rich man he’s depended on cuts him off, and the manager believes it. He’s also convinced that he has no other options—it’s this system or nothing, this “rich man” or no one. The rich man has trained the servant to think that his gifts and abilities are only worthwhile if they serve the rich man’s goals. the steward has bought into the idea that he’s incapable of other kinds of meaningful work. And, he considers himself too good to join the ranks of those whom the system has failed.
But he’s smart. He figures out a way he can still make the system work for him. If he can’t be attached to someone above him, he’ll attach himself to people below him—people who will be beholden to him. His plan is dishonest, but so what? It will get him what he needs, and the rich man has taught him that that’s all that’s important.
When the “rich man” finds out about the scheme, he’s not angry. He’s impressed. The manager has played the system perfectly. His ploy has confirmed what the rich man in the story observes: that “the children of this age (the people who are willing to be part of the system) are smarter than those who can’t—or won’t—play along. In fact, the “rich man” encourages the steward to keep up the good work: “Keep on playing by the system’s rules, and you’ll keep on reaping the rewards.”
There are lots of “rich men” in the world today that we may find ourselves attached to. The social systems of our day, represented by the rich man in Jesus’ story, can take various forms. Think of all the advertising devoted to convincing us that our value is determined by what we own or how we look. Think of the businesses that wink an eye at getting around safety regulations or misusing the environment or neglecting the interests of employees or even customers, if it will improve the bottom line. Think of the sports teams that have to humiliate their opponents rather than just beat them to maintain their national rankings. Think of the social media that create such expectations about what it means to be accepted that social media use is linked to depression in children and adults of all ages.
These “rich men” seek to define us by their standards. They promise to fill those needs that Fr. Keating spoke of—safety and security, power and control, affection and esteem—but only if we play by their rules, live according to their values, and accept their view of the world. If we challenge those rules or values or views, they can cut us off—declaring us too dumb or too naïve to succeed in the world as they define it. They’ll scoff at us as the Pharisees, who were apparently eavesdropping, scoffed at Jesus after he told this parable. Luke reports that “the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed Jesus.”
The rich men of our world want us to believe that theirs is the only option we have, and if we have to cheat a little here or lie a little there to remain in their good graces, well, so be it. They want us to accept that we’re not worth much without their backing, their resources, their products. They work hard to convince us that if we’re not plugged into their system, we are insufficient and deficient, and we lack what it takes to make it in their world.
These systems—these “rich men”—don’t exist only in the world of adults. They reach right down into the lives of children. Do you remember what a terrible place the playground or school cafeteria could be for anyone who didn’t fit in? When my daughter was in grade school, she had a classmate I’ll call Sam. My daughter had known Sam since they were toddlers in Sunday School together. From the time he was very small, Sam was different, in lots of ways. Sometimes his behaviors were strange. His appearance was a little odd. He had virtually no social skills. When they got to 5th grade, a group of kids began to bully Sam. They called him names. They made fun of his behaviors. They excluded him whenever possible. They encouraged others to treat Sam the same way, if they wanted to be part of the in-crowd.
One day my daughter came home from school, very upset at how Sam had been treated that day. She was just as upset by the fact that she had been afraid to stick up for him. Some kids had tried, but they became the bullies’ next targets. “I wanted to speak up, Mom,” she said through her tears. “But I knew that if I did, they’d treat me the same way.”
The rich man, in the form of a bunch of mean 5th-graders, had made it known that to be safe, to be accepted, meant playing by his rules, and it didn’t take much for the rich man to turn against you. The smart money was on being one of the shrewd children who played along, not the children who refused and suffered the consequences. In the words of the rich man, “Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes”—or else.
Buying into the rich man’s system can seem like the only way to get by. But it’s not. Jesus offers another way. The way of Jesus tells us that our value isn’t based on how well we play along with the rich man’s rules. Our value is based on the fact that we are God’s children, made in God’s image. We are the ones Jesus loved enough to die for and who are loved enough that Jesus’ Spirit lives within us. As Henri Nouwen said, our value is not defined by what we have or what we do or what other people think of us. Our value is determined by what God thinks of us, and what God thinks of us is that we are God’s beloved children.
The rich man’s promises are empty ones. “Play by my rules, and you’ll be happy,” he says. But this is false. It’s impossible to be happy when you know that the rug can be pulled out from under you whenever the rich man decides you’re no longer useful to him. You can’t be happy when playing the game means cutting ethical and moral corners. You can’t be happy when you know that your wins depend on someone else’s losses. But Jesus keeps his promises. Jesus welcomes us into his eternal home, and also into his earthly home—the community that is the Church. Jesus offers us the rest and peace and joy that come from experiencing his forgiveness. Playing by his rules isn’t the price of admission, it’s just the after-effect—our grateful response to the love we’ve been given as a gift.
The suggestion that playing by the rich man’s rules brings eternal security is a lie. Whatever rewards the rich man doles out are fleeting ones. We find eternal security only in Jesus—the one who was sent by God not to condemn the world but to save it, who came so that everyone who believes in him may have abundant life, and that eternally.
The systems represented by the rich man can become so powerful that it may seem like there’s no other choice. But we do have a choice. We can be children of light. We can use our earthly resources faithfully, according to kingdom values, to further God’s causes of compassion and justice. We can offer what we have, knowing that it is truly not our own, but God’s to be used for God’s purposes. As we are faithful in that, we are blessed with spiritual riches—not because we’ve earned them, but because the natural result of aligning our will with God’s is the peace that passes all understanding and a love that grows more perfect day by day. We may seem naïve to others when we speak of the kingdom we envision and work for, but in fact we are the true realists. We know what God has promised, and we know that God is faithful.
The more I think about this parable, the more convinced I am that the rich man is not a stand-in for God. The rich man in the story is the opposite of God. I think that Jesus told this story to expose what is not God—the systems that capitalize on unrighteousness, that try to hijack our sense of identity and worth, and yet are incapable of providing true happiness, now or eternally. Jesus tells this story to warn us away from choosing any master other than God.
But, there’s still one thing that puzzles me about this story. Jesus was telling it to his disciples—people who were already his followers. Presumably, they had rejected the way of the rich man to follow the Master who is the way, the truth, and the life. Why warn them about the impossibility of serving two masters?
Jesus knew just how powerful and persuasive the rich men of the world can be. He knew that even his own followers can suffer bouts of insecurity or doubt, especially when life gets hard. It’s tempting to call yourself a Christian on Sunday while living according to very un-Christ-like values the rest of the week. So, Jesus warns his followers—including us—about the impossibility of trying to serve two masters.
He may have been speaking to another group as well. The “rich man” himself was listening in that day: the Pharisees. The laughed at Jesus when he exposed the underbelly of the system that was working so well for them. But Jesus had a warning for them as well: he said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your heart, and what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”
All of Jesus’ parables invite us to enter the story from different angles and to discover their multiple meanings. His parables force us to ask questions, like “What is God like?” and “What does God want from me and for me?” The parable of the rich man and his servant raises many questions, but perhaps none are as important as this one: “Who is your master?” The rich man would have us believe that he is our only option. But, we know that we have a choice. We can choose the rich man, who dangles the lure of success and acceptance if we play by his rules. Or we can choose the divine Master. We can choose the Master who meets all our needs—the Master who offers us true happiness, simply because we are loved. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young