The Lost Employee
As we begin to untangle this parable, two initial points.
1. Many Bibles title this passage “the parable of the dishonest manager.” A better title would be the “parable of the lost employee.”
2. The final sentence in our passage, “You cannot serve God and wealth” also shows up in Matthew’s gospel, tucked into the heart of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
We’re going to hold the first point for a moment and flip over to Matthew 6:24. Here, we find the inability to serve both God and wealth tucked in among teaching on divorce and prayer, humility and forgiveness. Through his sermon Jesus calls his followers to embrace a life of radical spiritual practice. We not only proclaim our faith, we also live it. We not only strive to be good, we strive to be pure. Thus being angry at our neighbor becomes as sinful as murdering them; and we really should strive to love them. Accepting God’s forgiveness is not enough. We also must forgive as we have been forgiven.
Hold that thought on forgiveness as we flip back to our parable in Luke. Jesus’ story of a rich man and his estate manager follows three other stories – the story of a shepherd who loses a sheep, the story of a woman who loses a coin, and the story of a man who loses a son. Our parable describes an employee who loses a job – or perhaps is lost himself.
Years ago I worked with a colleague who was perfectly nice, impeccably honest, but absolutely stank at her job. Partly she was lazy. Partly she didn’t care and partly she felt entitled. Year after year our boss set goals for her and made continuing education opportunities available. Yet she never improved. Eventually she became too much of a burden on everyone else and was fired.
The manager in our parable finds himself in a similar predicament. He hasn’t stolen from his boss, he’s just squandered his boss’ wealth – a series of bad management decisions have led to a marked decline in his boss’ net worth. Finally the boss can’t take it anymore and dismisses his useless employee. At which point, seeking to increase his job prospects, he sets about forgiving the debt owed his boss.
And here is where this story gets tricky. If I worked for you, and somebody owed you $10,000 and I collected only $5,000 you’d probably be angry at me. Yet in the parable the boss praises his manager for his actions. While business acumen may suggest a hardline approach to debt collection, the boss seems to value forgiveness.
Forgiveness, both of sins and financial obligations, stands out across scripture as a core spiritual practice. The manager, in attempting to enhance his prospects for a new job, stumbles into the Sermon on the Mount. “forgive our debts,” Jesus has his disciples pray, “as we forgive our debtors.” And this added piece of commentary: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
As the manager collects the partially forgiven debts he wins both the praise of his neighbors and the praise of his boss. When he was managing according to the rules of business he was squandering his boss’ wealth. Now, managing with an eye to the welfare of his neighbors, he earns praise for his shrewdness. We don’t know if the manager keeps his job; but we do sense he might get a better recommendation.
With the manager restored to his boss’ good graces, Jesus tacks on a confusing summary:
“Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful in very much; and whoever is dishonest in very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”
Where does the money in your pocket come from? Have you, over your working life, been completely honest in your business dealings? If you worked for a company, was that company beyond ethical reproach? We live in a corrupt and corrupting world. We live emmeshed in dishonest and sinful systems.
Eric’s been practicing This Land is My Land for the Dixon Veterans Day ceremony. Did you know Woody Guthrie borrowed the tune from the Carter Family who learned it from a black guitar player named Leslie Riddle who’d grown up singing an old spiritual called “O My Loving Brother.” Guthrie made tens of thousands of dollars off that song. The Carter Family made thousands. Leslie Riddle was famously never credited for the tunes he taught the family and the original composer has been completely lost in history.
Our worldy systems come with the injustice built in. Every dollar in our bank account carries with it the past sinful dealings of a sinful world: slavery, corruption, child labor, environmental destruction, war profiteering. usery and simple blatant greed. Worldly wealth is dishonest wealth. In the parable the rich man’s wealth was dishonest wealth.
In seeking to save his own skin the manager stumbled upon the secret to holy living. Like all of us he was enmeshed in worldly systems. When he lived by those systems he was lost. He was bad at his job and he had no friends outside his workplace who could help him in a time of need. Yet when he began practicing holy living in the midst of the corrupt systems he became found. As he forgave the debts of those who owed his boss, he not only found reconciliation with those who owed his boss money, he reconciled with his boss as well.
Which brings us back to the question I shared with you before we read the scripture. If you could get away with anything, how would you act? Would you give into the lure of the dishonest and corrupt systems in which we live? Or would you strive to live a life of radical spiritual practice, remaining faithful to God despite the latitudes of our broken world?