Thank you, Glenn, for your insightful response to today’s parable! Glenn and I had four or five little chats about this text that went something like this: It’s confusing! It’s so difficult! Does it even make sense? Did Jesus really tell this parable? And why are we still reading it?
Well, there is a principle that scholars use when trying to figure out if a saying is authentic to Jesus. The weirdest, most offbeat stuff in the New Testament is probably stuff Jesus actually said. Because why would anyone make it up? Notice that once again, here in the Gospel of Luke, the subject is economics (three weeks in a row!). Beginning with Mary’s Magnificat, transforming the world’s unjust material conditions is perhaps the major theme of Jesus in Luke. Mary sings of a great reversal—the poor being lifted up and the rich thrown down, the hungry fed and the overfull sent away empty.
Glenn, I appreciate your sense that we need some historical and cultural context as we read this parable. Specifically, “debt” is a key concept to unpack. In ancient Israel, charging interest was discouraged. It was absolutely forbidden when lending to a fellow Israelite, or to an impoverished neighbor. (See Exodus 22:25–27; Leviticus 25:36–38; Deut. 15:7–11; 23:19–20.) Additionally, those first hearing Jesus’ parable lived under the economic oppression of Rome. New Testament professor Barbara Rossing paints this picture:
Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. The rich man or “lord,” along with his steward or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants.
Rossing explains that wealthy landlords deceived illiterate folks, wrapping hidden interest rates of 25–50% into the principal. The manager would have taken a cut on top of that. And there would have been an additional payment to Rome. Today’s payday lending and student loan schemes seem like a good analogy.
So . . . how does this parable sound if we hear it as a challenge to a system of indebtedness through which the elite were crushing the life out of most ordinary people? I think we have work to do to divest ourselves of the image of Jesus that has been handed to us by an empire-washed Christianity—a blond-haired, fair-skinned, and blue-eyed, Christ, for sure, but also a Christ of bland “niceness” who endorses conventional morality, who plays by the rules, who lives by platitudes such as “honesty is the best policy.” The real Jesus, the decolonized Christ, has a very sharp edge. He’s asking us questions like: What does honest behavior even look like for those trapped in a system of dishonest wealth? Amid the legally sanctioned exploitation that gnaws at the bodies of the poor and destroys the souls of the rich shouldn’t there be some deeper moral compass that guides us? Are we ready to be part of God’s creative transformation that is beckoning us to bust open new possibilities for the wellness of creation? Do we have the shrewdness—the guts and brains, skill, and savvy—to plot this bold and dangerous path forward?
This week, I was fascinated to hear about the decision of Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, to give his company away. The Seattle Times article says this:
Rather than selling the company or taking it public, Chouinard, his wife and two adult children have transferred their ownership of Patagonia, valued at about $3 billion, to a specially designed trust and a nonprofit organization. They were created to preserve the company’s independence and ensure that all of its profits—some $100 million a year—are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land around the globe.
Chounaird said about the decision: “Hopefully this will influence a new form of capitalism that doesn’t end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people.” Perhaps Chounaird’s refusal to follow the rules of capitalism unleashes a similar sort of offense and discomfort that we feel hearing Jesus’ parable. And hopefully this move also opens space to recognize that the way things are is not the way they have to be.
Immediately before today’s parable, Jesus tells the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and then the lost son. Biblical scholar Jo Bailey Wells points out that the story of the dishonest manager and the story of the lost son are tied together through the repetition of an unusual Greek verb. The lost son “squandered his [father’s] property in dissolute living.” And in today’s parable, “charges were brought to [the rich man] that [the manager] was squandering his property.” However, this same word that is translated “squandering” is also used in the New Testament to describe the “broadcasting” or “scattering” of seed—in the parable of the sower, for instance. Wells concludes that through this squandering, the dishonest manager is practicing a principal that the biblical scholar Ched Myers would call “keeping money moving.” She explains:
Money is a resource so long as it is given or spent . . . especially for providing to those in need and releasing people from debt. Thus it builds the kingdom of God, whereas a privatized account that protects against all forms of dispersal stands in the way of growing the sort of relationships and serving the kind of purposes that matter.
I had a conversation with someone this week that reminded me that our systems of unjust indebtedness have emotional and spiritual dimensions, as well as financial ones. One message I hear in Jesus’ parable is that God does not intend for people to spend their lives crushed by loads of debt they can never repay—whether that’s a debt of money, a debt of guilt and regret, or a debt of trauma passed from one generation to the next. This piling on of debt is extortion of the worst kind. It is an actual squandering of the life God gives with such generosity and kindness. Instead, God is interested in, as you put it, Glenn, “reducing the burden of indebtedness in the community.” God is an advocate for the type of squandering that is creative and liberating, that disperses the load, that shares the responsibility for health and healing. God is a seed of release and restoration. God is a sower who disperses love, who scatters resources, and who broadcasts as many second chances as we need to achieve our collective liberation. Amen.