Good, Hard Lessons
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
18 September 2022
“This is one of the strangest and most difficult of Jesus’ parables.” So writes Brandon Scott, one of the foremost authorities on the parables. As you listened I’m sure you thought it sounded weird. Just know that the scholars and commentators feel the same.
Amy-Jill Levine, that other scholar of the parables whom I like to draw upon, reminds us that the stories Jesus tells are often supposed to be disturbing. And that we can get too lost in trying to find their “meaning.” Instead, she asks us to “allow ourselves to be open to various interpretations” because then the parables can become tools “for good, hard lessons learned with a sense of playfulness.”
With a playful attitude then, let’s try to unpack this story Jesus told. Then we’ll try to make it mean something for us today.
Brandon Scott says we run into problems with this parable when we make two interpretative mistakes at the beginning. First, we have a tendency to turn parables into allegories and in this case that means we try to make the master into God. But, clearly, that doesn’t work. Which is one reason we are uncomfortable. So, give up the notion of trying to make this allegory, trying to make it tell us something about God.
The second mistake we make is reading our own capitalist economic system into the story. That wasn’t the economic system of Jesus and his compatriots. They existed in a very different system built upon patronage. So, as Brandon Scott writes, “Capitalist assumptions obscure the social structure implied by the parable.”
What social and economic system, then, is the story operating in?
Scott first points out some facts about the characters in the story. These are men of wealth. Wealth far in excess of anything the average person listening to the story would be familiar with. The debts are also very large debts. The characters can read and write, also not widespread in the time period. These, then, are all wealthy elites and the person listening would have understood it as such. This is a story, then, about how wealthy elites treat and mistreat one another.
Now, the average listener would have been familiar with debts. Usury was forbidden by the religious economic laws of Jesus’ time, but even that society had found ways around the laws and customs.
And as a result, we know from historical sources, that many common landowners had lost their property to the wealthy because they were unable to pay their debts. Many people who had been self-sustaining farmers had fallen to become tenant farmers. Families that had once sustained themselves were now peasants. Some were even sold into slavery. The burdens of debt were massive in first century Palestine, and a wealthy elite had benefited from the system. Brandon Scott reminds us, “The request to ‘forgive us our debts’ in the Lord’s Prayer is not an idle spiritual request, but a peasant’s plea of desperation.”
The manager, then, in this story, seems to be the property manager for the truly rich guy who owns a lot and is gaining even more property because of these exorbitant debts. The master might even be an absentee landlord, and the manager the one doing the real work of overseeing the properties and accounts.
But he isn’t an employee as we understand it in our current system. The master would be his patron, and he would be a client. Any power, authority, or wealth the manager has is because he is in the service of the master. If the master dismisses him, the manager can’t simply go get another managerial job elsewhere, he has lost his patron. And as the manager tells us in the story, if he loses his status, he fears he’ll be reduced to begging or digging in the mines.
Patronage systems work by doing the bidding of those above you in the hierarchy. You don’t have much freedom or agency unless you are on the top of the social pyramid.
So, what is it that the manager does when he loses his position? He goes to the various folks who owe the master money, who haven’t yet heard that he’s been fired, and he reduces their debts to the master. This is a way of getting back at the master, for the master will now lose his profits, and it is a way of currying favor with other potential patrons who might support this shrewd manager who saved them money.
Where the story surprises both its original listeners and us, is that the logical outcome would be for the master to become furious when he learns of this scheme. Instead, in the story Jesus told, the master praises the manager for his shrewdness. And then Luke adds those strange comments to the end of the story.
Brandon Scott writes that this ending makes it difficult for any of us to make sense of the story and what Jesus meant. He then asks us to consider, “what if the strategy of the parable teller is to frustrate our efforts to fit it together, to make sense of it, to relieve its tension?” Amy-Jill Levine would say that any meaning of the story slips away from us, inviting us to use our imaginations and engage playfully in meaning-making ourselves. And in that process maybe learn some good, hard lessons.
From my study and reading of this parable over the years as a pastor and teacher and simply as a faithful reader of the Bible, I’ve come to a way I understand it, that I offer to you today.
Part of what’s going on here is that Jesus is making fun of the wealthy elites and the way they treat each other. But he’s doing more than that. If that alone were the goal, then he’d end the tale in the predictable fashion. Instead, Jesus surprises the listeners with his ending.
Which invites us to think about the entire social-economic system. I think his original listeners were able to walk away puzzling about how strange and weird the patronage economy of their time was. And in that puzzling, maybe begin to engage in criticism and imagination of something better. What might that something better be?
The clue is contained in the story itself. What puzzles us is a strange act of grace. Of unmerited, undeserved favor. Power, debts, greed, shrewdness—those don’t surprise us. What surprises is the strange, maybe even foolish, act of grace that ends the story.
Maybe Jesus’ listeners then began to ponder—what would a social and economic system built around grace look like?
One reason I think this is the direction we can head in listening to Jesus’ story, is that so many of the other stories he told seem to point in the same direction. Many of the parables he tells about rich men, property managers, debts, money, income, etc. have really surprising outcomes. But grace, as opposed to merit, desert, or what one has earned, seems to be a common theme.
What then are we supposed to do with this story today then? Clearly we don’t operate in a patronage socio-economic system. We aren’t, generally, peasants losing our land to greedy landlords.
There’s an old adage that a sermon is best when it models the form of the story you are preaching. Earlier this week I realized that the best way to approach this text, then, would be to craft my own parable that exposes absurdities in our own socio-economic system and invites us to imagine alternatives. But I don’t think I’m that gifted of a story-teller. Especially to write something so clever in just a few days. After all, I’m not Jesus.
But I do think that Jesus’ story can invite us to use our imaginations to think about how absurd our socio-economic system is. Maybe reading about the disputes between Elon Musk and Twitter are a good example—elites treating each other poorly. I invite you to think of your own examples.
Because even if our economic system is an improvement upon the patronage and debt system of first century Palestine, I think we can all agree that our current system is clearly not an expression of the kingdom of God.
There remains too much inequality, too much injustice, too much greed and exploitation. It could be fairer, with more grace and generosity and kindness.
This summer on my sabbatical I read a number of books on climate change. Not about how the climate is changing, as that has become obvious, but more about what we can and should still do if we are to live resiliently and faithfully in this time of world history.
In one of those books, by the British theologian Timothy Gorringe titled The World Made Otherwise: Sustaining Humanity in a Threatened World, he has a chapter entitled “Economics as if the Planet Mattered.” Because, of course, it does. The planet does matter. But our current system isn’t very good at taking that to account.
He wants to return to the most basic sense of the word “economy,” which in its Greek origin means “household management.” What do we need to do to properly manage our household? What all is included in the household? Does our circle of concern expand to all creation?
Gorringe invites us to consider the question “What is it that people need in order to live well?” That seems like a key consideration for us as we try to live in this time as faithful followers of Jesus.
Now, Jesus didn’t tell his story and then lay out a set of economic policies to be implemented. And I’m not either today.
Instead, I believe Jesus wanted his faithful followers to start asking themselves such questions. To begin criticizing what was wrong about the system they lived in. To playfully imagine alternatives. And then to start trying them out. Make those changes in their own lives that they could make in order to further the values of a better, more gracious, more generous world.
And I think that’s what Jesus wants for us, his faithful disciples today. To imagine a better world. And to do what we can in our daily activities to make a better world—kinder, more loving, more gracious. A world where everyone and everything can live well. Those are the good, hard lessons I believe we can take from this very strange story that Jesus told.