“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”
In today’s gospel, and in the gospel we’re going to get next week, Jesus talks about money. In fact, Jesus talks about money a lot, especially in the gospel of Luke. Why? Because he knows that how we manage our money has an awful lot to say about our priorities, our values, our relationships and our faith.
The parable we just heard is often called the parable of the dishonest manager. But that’s actually a poor translation of the Greek text. A more literal translation would be the ‘manager of injustice’. Because this parable is not so much about honesty as it is about justice. Economic justice.
I saw a movie this year about economic justice. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that it was a movie about economic injustice, and the managers of that injustice. Maybe you saw it, it’s called The Big Short and it tells the story of the Financial Crisis of 2008. It’s about managers of injustice: bankers, bond fund managers and mortgage dealers who package up bad mortgage debt and sell it as triple A rated bonds, making hefty commissions and profits in doing so. But as this is happening there are some other managers of injustice who figure out what’s going on, and realize that there’s going to be a massive default. So they essentially bet against these bonds, which in the language of finance is called shorting them. These renegade managers of injustice are proved right in 2008: the bonds fail, the financial system collapses and there is a huge financial crisis. But because they had bet against the bonds and the banks, these renegade managers of injustice made millions of dollars at a time when others were losing everything they had. They acted shrewdly, wouldn’t you say?
Managers of injustice, commended for acting shrewdly. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it!
Jesus tells a story about a rich man. He’s not a fund manager, in those days he would have been a landowner, a landlord who makes his money by charging rent to tenant farmers and loaning them money. Obviously he’s done well out of this arrangement – he’s rich! So rich that he has a manager who works for him. The manager’s job is to deal with the people who work the rich man’s land, the ones who pay the rents and borrow money. These would be poor people. The manager in our story sets up the deals, signs the contracts and collects the payments. It’s a good job, no physical labour involved and it pays well. But there’s a problem. Apparently this manager is not managing his portfolio very well. He’s squandering the rich man’s property and somebody’s ratted on him. We don’t know exactly what the problem is. But the rich man hauls the manager into his office, tells him what he has heard and asks to see the financial statements immediately. And, the master tells him, if the poor performance is confirmed, you’re fired.
As you might imagine, the manager is desperate. He knows his performance won’t measure up. He’s in a state of crisis. After years of working for this master, he knows that he’ll never get a job anywhere else. But then, in the midst of his desperation, he has an idea. “I know what I’ll do. I’ll go and forgive the debts of all my master’s debtors, so that when I’m fired, they will welcome me into their homes, and at least I’ll have some place to eat and live.” And so he goes to each one of the debtors, takes out their contracts and reduces the amount owed to the master. A hundred jugs of oil, which might be several years of production for a small olive farm, is reduced to fifty jugs. He does the same with all the debtors.
But when the rich man finds out what the manager has done, you can imagine the rich man’s reaction – or can you?
This is where the story takes an unexpected turn. We expect the rich man to condemn the manager for what he has done. We expect him to say “you had no right to fiddle with the contracts.” We expect him to tell the debtors that the original debts still must be collected, that the manager had no authority to change them. We expect the master to have this dishonest manager thrown into prison.
But that’s not how the story ends. Instead the rich man commends the manager because he had acted shrewdly. And Jesus himself concludes his story by praising the manager and holding him up for us as an example.
Why does Jesus praise the dishonest manager?
Now, if you have a hard time figuring our why Jesus praises the manager, don’t feel bad. Many commentators and scholars have said that this is actually the most difficult of all of Jesus’ parables to understand.
What’s going on here? Surely Jesus isn’t advocating dishonesty, is he? Surely he’s not advocating breaking the rules or fiddling the books? The dishonest manager is basically self-serving isn’t he? What is it about him that makes him a model for the disciples, a model for us?
It’s a bit of a dilemma isn’t it? We’ve been taught all our lives to be honest and to play by the rules.
But what if the rules aren’t just?
One of the reasons that this parable poses such a dilemma for us is that we operate out of the assumption that the economic system with its associated rules and practices, and the court system that backs them up, is basically good and just.
But what if the economic system is not good? What if it is not just? What if it is an oppressive system by means of which the rich are able to exploit the poor so that the rich get richer and the poor are oppressed? What if the usual way, the rules by which society operates, simply perpetuate injustice? Would this change our perspective on the actions of the manager?
Why is the rich man so rich? Well, it’s because he seeks out poor people in distress and exploits them by providing loans which enable them to feed their starving children today, but at interest rates they cannot afford to repay. When they default on their loans, he takes possession of their land, and they become tenants on the ancestral lands of their own families. It’s an economic system called sharecropping, and it existed in Jesus’ day, and it still exists in many parts of the world today. And the manager who worked for the rich man was supposed to play by the rules and make the system work, work that is, for the benefit of the rich man. He is the manager of injustice. This parable is not about honesty. It is about economic justice, or more precisely, economic injustice.
We don’t need to go back 2000 years to find examples of economic injustice. Starting in about 2004, commissioned salespeople at financial institutions all over the U.S. and elsewhere realized that they could take advantage of relaxed lending rules and a housing boom to convince people who really couldn’t afford it to buy houses and take on mortgages. These were called sub-prime mortgages and they boomed between 2004 and 2007 and the interest rates and the profits were high. The people selling these mortgages knew in many cases that the customers wouldn’t be able to make the monthly payments for very long, but these same salespeople simply pocketed their commissions and moved on to the next sale.
And the bosses of the salespeople didn’t worry about it too much either, because they figured out a way to bundle all these sub-prime mortgages together as derivatives called Asset Based Commercial Paper and they sold them to the big investment banks who were always looking for ways to get bigger returns for their customers. And because the investment banks were making these higher returns, they were able to borrow lots of money from the big banks where you and I deposit our money.
As you know, all of this came crashing down 8 years ago. Homeowners defaulted on their mortgages. The housing market in the U.S. and other countries crashed. Asset Based Commercial Paper was frozen. Lehman Brothers, one of the big investment banks went bankrupt on Sept 16th 2008 and the entire global financial system came to a grinding halt. It was only saved by the fact that governments handed billions of dollars of taxpayer money, including $750 billion in the USA alone, over to the banks to prevent them from collapsing. We are still dealing with the after-math of the 2008 Financial Crisis: prolonged economic recession, job losses, high unemployment for young people, and high government debt loads which we will have to be repaid by the next generation.
And you know what? Nobody committed any crimes. People didn’t break the rules. In fact, the main players followed the rules, and they obeyed the incentive systems that had been put in place, and they made big commissions from 2004 to 2007 and almost all of them kept them because according to our economic system, they had earned them.
But God has another vision of economic justice.
God’s vision of economic justice is revealed through Moses in the law given to Israel, where every fiftieth year was to be a year of Jubilee, and in that year of Jubilee, all debts were to be forgiven, all property which had been taken as collateral was to be returned and all people who were oppressed because they were unable to pay their debts were to be freed.
God’s vision of economic justice is revealed through the prophets. Amos, in today’s first reading, declares God’s judgment against those who commit economic injustice: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land, and tremble.”
God’s vision of economic justice is revealed in today’s psalm: “God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes.”
God’s vision of economic justice is revealed in Jesus, who in the first public declaration of his ministry declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor and to proclaim the year of Jubilee.”
God’s vision of economic justice is revealed in the gospel of Luke, from which we can distill the following basic economic principle:
Everything you and I have actually belongs to God and has simply been entrusted to us for a time and a purpose. I do not own it. I have not earned it. I have no right to do what I please with it. I am simply a steward, a manager, a caretaker who has been entrusted with both a gift and a responsibility.
Despite what the laws of our society say, despite what our economics tells us, despite what it says on our employment contract and the deed to our house, wealth and possessions don’t belong to us. They belong to God and they are given to us so that we can use them in accordance with God’s purposes.
Homily: Yr C P25, Sept 18 2016, St. Albans
Readings: Jeremiah 8.18-9.1; Ps 79.1-9; 1 Tim 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13
Image by MyEyeSees, Creative Commons