September 18

Making a Way

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 16:1-13

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Greetings to you on this international student Sunday! I am very excited that we are able to return to this tradition of recognizing our international student population this year, for the first time in three years. The start of this school year has been a return to more normal operations – as the Dean has said on multiple occasions you can feel a certain buzz in the air that hasn’t been present for a while. That includes having gatherings together, seeing each other’s faces, and having opportunities to connect with one another. As we come together in worship, we have the opportunity to hear the scriptures together, to learn together, and to refuel ourselves to go out into the world and share God’s love with others. 

That being said, this week’s gospel is a doozy. I mean that with all sincerity. If you feel lost having just heard or read it to yourself, you’re not alone. What is going on in this scripture passage? We get a clear “lesson” from the parable at the end of the reading – “You cannot serve God and wealth.” But what is going on in the rest of this story? It seems less clear than many of the parables we’ve heard before. I am not joking when every commentary I read for this week’s gospel said that this was an especially difficult passage to preach on, mainly because we are trying to read something out of context. We aren’t as familiar with the economic goings-on of the first century. We don’t know if there is deeper meaning in why Jesus tells this parable and what the author of Luke’s gospel intended in adding it to the scriptures. In fact, many commentaries I consulted suggested there were up to seven different approaches you could take in trying to interpret this scripture, but that no one is really sure what the original intention may have been. It’s much easier to speculate as to why this story is present in an academic commentary than it is to bring the text to life in our current context, but we’ll find our way through together. 

So, let’s start with a summary because the text is confusing upon first reading. There is a manager who reports to a rich man. His job is to collect what is owed to the rich man, but he hasn’t been doing it. The rich man effectively fires him because he hasn’t been doing his job, which would appear to be a reasonable justification to fire someone. We don’t know why the manager hasn’t been collecting what is owed to the rich man. The thought of losing his job puts the manager into crisis mode, a bad situation. He realizes that if he really does lose his job, he will be required to either do hard labor (which he claims to be unfit for) or to beg (which he is too proud to do). In this crisis situation, he must find a way out. 

The manager devises a plan – if he goes to the debtors and offers them a lower amount of what they owe, they may be more willing to pay it. Not only that, but they may be grateful to the manager for the reduction he has offered them. If he is to lose his job, these people are possibly the ones whom he will need to rely on for his survival. An expectation of reciprocity, a little “I’ll scratch your back if you will scratch mine,” fuels his deal-making. What originally seemed like a dead-end crisis becomes a win-win-win situation. It turns out, even though the manager has not collected all that is owed to the rich man, the rich man is happy with the way the manager handled the situation. Imagine that! The original reason that the rich man had fired the manager was because he was not bringing in the earnings the rich man though he deserved, and the rich man is still not getting all that he thinks he deserves from the situation. However, the rich man seems to better understand what the manager is doing to secure his job. If the rich man were to go back to the debtors and request the remainder of what he thinks he is owed, the debtors might not be so happy with him. The manager has now flexed his own power in creating a situation where the rich man must accept what he is given or else he will look bad to his debtors. In his response, the rich man praises the manager for being a shrewd business person.  He’s proven some level of trust to the rich man. Conversely, the debtors are happy with the manager and the rich man because they owe less money and will perhaps be more cooperative with them in the future because of this gesture. Win-win-win. 

All’s well that ends well, right? I mean Jesus even seems to suggest to the disciples that they can learn a thing or two from the manager about how to utilize shrewd or prudent behavior to their advantage. It’s not what we would expect Jesus to say, given the myriad of examples of how his parables work. What’s strange about this passage is that it’s not like a typical parable from Jesus. Usually when Jesus is telling a parable, there’s clear exemplars of one position or another. They provide examples of what God’s kingdom looks like, what justice and righteousness on earth could appear to be. But here, it almost seems as though there is no exemplar for behavior. If anything, it gives us a view of what everyday human existence looks like. The manager is making a way in a bad situation. The way he chooses ends up benefiting everyone, but it’s definitely not grounded in ultimate justice or righteousness. If anything, his shrewd behavior seems to be motivated more by self-preservation than a sense of what is right or wrong. He is looking toward his future alone instead of being stuck in the present moment in making a plan for himself. 

It is our instinct to protect ourselves in moments of crisis. When faced with the unexpected, it’s often hard to see past the circumstances of the immediate moment to think clearly. Sometimes all we want is to fix the problem immediately, whatever it is so that the crisis will stop. Most times, it’s not that simple to accomplish. Like the manager in the story who weighs his options if he really has lost his job, occasionally we are led on a somewhat precarious path of making the best out of what we’re experiencing. It is often also true that in these crisis situations, we receive help from the most unexpected places or in unexpected ways. For us, we remember that even in those lowest moments, we are not alone, but that God’s grounding presence abides with us. 

In our existence as human beings on this planet, as social creatures who must make their way through ups and downs in the context of other people’s behaviors, we have complex matrices of negotiation and decision making that we must undertake. Not one of us operates in the extremes of good and bad. Instead, we are constantly negotiating the realities of our lives. Our own needs, our commitments to others, and our faithfulness to God. It’s messy and complicated and a lot harder to live out our values than it is to claim them. Our interactions with others are never 100% neutral. Even though we might not want to think of ourselves as been shrewd in how we deal with others, there are times when the expectation of reciprocity motivates us to act in certain ways. We do favors for others, sometimes selflessly, but sometimes with the knowledge that the favor will be returned. “You owe me” we might say to a friend or a colleague upon assisting them in a crisis situation. Or we feel indebted to others for the favors or kindnesses they’ve shown to us and are more willing to assist them when they need it in the future. In crisis situations, it’s good to know who your friends are. 

Similarly, we might try our best in a situation that’s difficult to negotiate, but feel our efforts weren’t enough to solve the problem. There have been many times in my life when I’ve felt that I could have done so much more in a tricky situation. Upon review with a friend or a loved one, the refrain of “you did the best you could, given the circumstances.” There are many big-picture issues in our world today which might make us contemplate whether we are doing enough to meet the moment. Global issues, like the suffering created by the war in Ukraine, climate change, and participation in exploitative economic practices create anxiety and worry. We may feel like Jeremiah in today’s Hebrew Bible reading, crying out in the grief we feel about our earthly situation. When God is not centered in the community, all hope of establishing the kingdom on earth fails. 

An important thing to remember in this story is that we are talking about two different economies. The economy of earth, the children of this age, and God’s economy, the children of the light. As has been reiterated by so many of the parables Jesus has told during his travels to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel, the kingdom of God is quickly coming, but it does not operate under the same systems which human beings have created for themselves. What the disciples can learn from the example of the manager is that they do not have to be victims of circumstance. They can change the systems that exist in order to establish new patterns of relationship. Essentially, that is what Jesus is teaching them to do through his ministry. God’s kingdom is all about dismantling the human-created patterns of behavior that cause harm and oppression to establish justice and righteousness. Even if the manager is not setting out to completely overhaul the economic system he is beholden to, in his small way he has altered the relationships that exist within that system. By making friends with the debtors and reducing what is owed, he establishes a relationship of trust and reciprocity with them, not merely a transactional relationship. 

We return to the lesson we are supposed to be learning from this parable, that one cannot worship or serve both God and wealth. This phrase might evoke a sense that Christians are not to be concerned with money; an idealized version of discipleship in which one is not tied to the economic practices of this world. However, for most Christians that’s not possible. We are human beings who exist in the world and we have vocations that require us to operate in the economic systems of our communities. However, as Christians, we should understand that the wealth, power, or privilege we might possess in any given situation are to be met with humility and generosity of spirit in witnessing to the needs of others. For as quickly as wealth or power can come, it can also be lost just as quickly. Our understanding of wealth must rest in a deeper commitment to justice. Rev. Verity A. Jones, in a reflection on this passage from Luke states this: 

Despite all the potential ethical and practical pitfalls and dangers of wealth accumulation, Jesus is suggesting in this reading that it is possible to manage possessions and money in ways that can lead us into life with God. The key, the starting point for knowing how to do this, is to know the endpoint — to know what life with God is like. And if we use possessions to gain that life with God, Jesus may commend us, as he did the dishonest manager in the reading. Being shrewd, in this case, means using what we have for God’s purposes, rather than squandering what we have for no gain at all.1 

Although the manager’s motivations for why he helped lower the amounts owed may not have been purely aligned with the mission statement that Jones puts forth in her assessment of what we are to take from the text, the point is that even small actions like these can help in moving toward what God’s kingdom looks like. 

You probably heard the news story this week about the asylum seekers who unexpectedly landed in Martha’s Vineyard after being sent north by the Governor of Florida. Viewing Martha’s Vineyard as a beacon of wealth, this attempt to either embarrass or prove a point about sanctuary communities for immigrants not really being prepared seemed to backfire. Even though the summer population of the island does tend toward wealthy, in the off-season, the island is populated by a small community used to supporting each other through the winter. The community, gathered around St. Andrew’s Episcopal church where the migrants were housed, provided aid for the mostly Venezuelan group at a moment’s notice. A situation in which no one was prepared for what was to happen – not the immigrants themselves, who had been promised housing, jobs, and help with immigration when they arrived in New England, nor the community who had no advanced knowledge of the immigrants arrival. However, they were able to make the best out of the situation that they could. It wasn’t perfect; the community couldn’t guarantee the asylum that the immigrants were searching for, but they provided for the basic needs of this small group in a moment of confusion and desperation with what they had. It may not have been perfect, but it provided relief and aid in a complex situation. 

Today’s gospel teaches us about the patience required for us to make a way that leads us toward justice in our complex world. When crises arise, we do the best we can with the situation at hand, remembering our faith and acting prudently. Our faith in God provides the only relationship which requires nothing from us, but we cannot live our lives with the expectation that all actions we undertake will be completely selfless. We should feel called to reflect on what we have; what wealth, what power, what influence we can muster in shaping the relationships around us toward God’s purposes. If we can find ways to make our systems more just, so that people and our world are not exploited, we can inch toward the reality that Jesus foretells in God’s kingdom.  


-The Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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