John M Hayes
September 18, 2016
Homily: Luke 16:1-13
Jesus’ parables are nothing like Aesop’s fables – they are not simple tales like the tortoise and the hare, the fox and the grapes that have an obvious morale.
Jesus’ parables are rather more like Zen koans – the linguistic equivalent of landmines – when we take them in, when they get imbedded in our minds they blow up our ordinary ways of seeing and thinking. Like the koan, these parables of Jesus undermine ordinary consciousness until there is a breakthrough into a new way of seeing and understanding. The computer of our mind gets an upgrade, and we get a glimpse of what things look like from God’s view, we get a glimpse of what this kingdom of God that Jesus is always going on about might look like on the ground of lived life.
Did you hear Jesus’ words? – “His master commended him for acting shrewdly, for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light. 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.” Really? What does that mean?
The rich man calls his manager to account and finds that he was squandering his property. The manager fearing his ruin, goes and writes off his boss’s debt, taking the liberty to forgive his master’s debtors so to ingratiate himself to those who owed the master money and in the process regains his master’s trust and good graces. He saves himself by giving away what is not his to give. And this is the guy Jesus recommends we emulate? It makes no sense.
In this parable, everything is turned upside down – the unjust steward winds up teaching the tight-fisted master about forgiveness, perhaps by shaming him into forgiving those debts that his steward wrote off. The extravagance of the steward brings the master to a new level of consciousness.
Some scholars have noted that the unjust steward is a Christ-figure: he dies and rises and raises others in the process, the masters’ debtors and the master himself who is caught in conventional ego-mentality. Grace comes not by respectable effort and good management, but only by failure and disgrace and loss.
Jesus didn’t aspire to respectable bourgeois status; he eats and drinks with crooks and prostitutes. He knew well that conventional respectability often cloaks hypocrisy, cruelty and avarice. The respectable have had the reward. Jesus refuses respectability becoming sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead.
The steward forgives debts that are not his to write off, debts owed to his master. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and advantage and to compensate for past crimes. Does the purity of his intentions matter to the poor peasants getting a break. We might recall that the indebted peasants in the ancient world lived in constant danger of being sold with his wife and children into slavery. More than a Visa bill that’s gotten out of hand was at stake.
Jesus’ kingdom vision is this – none of it matters. All of life is pure gift. All of life’s gifts are pure unmerited gift, given in love, by a God who loves us senselessly, extravagantly, even shamelessly, loves us to his death and beyond. And if we get that what are we holding on to? What are we holding out for?
We are all thrown in this world together, here for a brief time, with one purpose: to find our way home to God, and to walk each other home to our God.
In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive the debts of those indebted to us”.
Who are we who have been given everything we have and who could never begin to pay our debt to God, who are we to withhold forgiveness of a brother or sister?
I need not remind you this is not the way of the world.
The Pope asked the nations of the first world make the year 2000 a Jubilee year, a year of forgiveness of the debts of third world countries locked into ruinous debt to first world governments and corporations. Needless to say that was a non-starter. That request I’m sure was met with indulgent, knowing smiles in many a boardroom. That’s not how the world does business.
Ta’neishi Coates’ article in the Atlantic a made a compelling case for reparations to African Americans to pay the debt owed for the exploitation, heartbreak and labor that built up the wealth of this country, from which they were systematically excluded. The talking classes had a good time entertaining themselves with that idea, but we all know that’s not going to happen, certainly not anytime soon. And if it did happen, there would be massive resentment and rage in some quarters. Can we expect any different from the world?
We are called to live an alternative reality, not just to see things from God’s view, but to be like God. We are called to become by grace what God is by nature, self-emptying love and radical, senseless, extravagant forgiveness.
One bleak, dark winter morning I took the Greyhound and arrived very early in Manhattan, delivered into the bowels of the lovely Port Authority Bus Station. The city that never sleeps, actually does sleep. Hardly anything moved and all the underground shops were shuttered and locked, except this one grimy coffee joint. I blearily got my coffee and sat down. Across from me, an old man who swept up and cleaned the bathrooms was taking a break and having his coffee, when a homeless guy comes hustling with an elaborate story about money he needs for medicine. Most of us customers gave him a dollar or some change, but this old janitor gives him a hard-earned ten-dollar bill that I imagine likely took him a couple of hours of unappealing work to earn. Not a few minutes after the homeless guy made his rounds, the liquor store across the way within view opened its gated doors. No real surprise the homeless guy was their first customer getting his “medicine” for the morning. Knowing glances were exchanged, we all knew we were scammed. The old janitor was the only one really amused, he laughed heartily and generously, and said, “You know, I knew that would happen, you know I was there myself once.”
And who was most like the Kingdom of God?