Jesus' parable in this morning’s gospel is notoriously one of the more difficult to understand. Is he commending dishonesty? Is he just talking about forgiveness? Just what is Jesus saying in this parable?
First of all, a word about parables. Parables are not one thing. “Parable” is a broad category. All parables use metaphor to mess with your imagination to reorient it toward Jesus and the kingdom of God. Some of them are allegories in which one thing stands for another. Others are more like stories with a moral. Others are similar to proverbs. Still others are like riddles, or even like Zen koans, that leave you pondering. Many, including today’s, have an element of humor. And some are more like a joke in which the point is not so much the set-up as it is the punch line.
The parable before us today is of the last variety. It is like a joke with a punch line. The story itself is not really the point. People get hung up when they try to turn it into an allegory in which "the rich man" represents someone and "the manager" represents someone else, etc. It is not that kind of parable. People also get hung up trying to figure out why Jesus seems to commend this scoundrel of a manager as morally exemplary. But, it is not that kind of parable. The story itself is just a somewhat ridiculous and humorous set-up for the punch line. And the punch line packs quite a punch.
And what is the punch line? It comes in verse 9: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “ I told you it packed a punch. The manager dealt shrewdly with what he had in a worldly way. If we are children of light, we will deal wisely with what we have to make friends who will welcome us into the eternal homes. What does that mean?
1.Dishonest wealth: I think the King James Version has it better when it translates the adjective as “unrighteous” rather than “dishonest”. We have come to think of money and wealth as a good thing or at least morally neutral. But, it has not always been so. Jesus, and a broad and long tradition following him, sees money with great ambivalence. It has spiritual power and that power is dangerous. You cannot have much of it without that spirit starting to work on your soul. So, the best thing to do is have as little has you can. So, what to do with it?
2. Make friends: It is deep in the tradition that giving alms to the poor is basic to faithfulness. Give and give and give. It is not only a faithful thing to do. It might just be salvific.
3. They may welcome you into the eternal homes: Shaped as we are by the Reformation, we are used to thinking that all you need is faith. But, it is hard to pay attention to Jesus (or to Paul for that matter) and come to the conclusion that it does not matter what we actually do. And the early church was clear that what we do matters and matters eternally. Giving alms to the poor is one of the things that matter. You all know I am big on grace. Grace is indeed the fundamental reality for Christians. But, Jesus will not allow us the complacency of cheap grace. Who will welcome us to our heavenly homes? The poor whom God loves. We would do well to make friends with them now.
Everything before verse 9 is set-up for that discomforting punch line. Everything after is an elaboration of the point.
Brothers and Sisters, let us make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome us into the eternal homes.
I did not include this in Sunday’s sermon, because I’ve shared it at St. Barnabas several times before. It is a story attributed to John the Merciful (early 7th century). It makes the point well:
There was a certain man, Peter Telenearius, who, in order to get rid of the poor, threw rocks at them. One day when he was again surrounded by them, he had no stone handy, so he grabbed a loaf of bread and threw it at the head of one of them. Later he became sick and saw a vision in which his deeds were being weighed in the balance of divine justice. All his sins were on one side of the balance and on the other side was the loaf of bread thrown at the head of the poor. It had become acceptable to Jesus Christ as an act of mercy.
Of course, alms alone are not enough. We must also address the moral and systemic issues that cause too many to be poor. But that must never let us off the hook of giving of our own wealth for the sake of the poor. And for the sake of our own souls.
[Addendum: Here is a follow-up post on Caring for the Poor as Redemptive Liturgy]