Forgive Us Our Debts
Robert S. Turner
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 18, 2016
It’s dangerous business reading the Bible. Not just because what we read there has the capacity to turn our lives completely upside down and change us forever, which would be dangerous enough, but also because if we’re not careful we can easily read the wrong message there. The culture of twenty-first century America is so profoundly different from that of first century Galilee that without really meaning to, we can easily interpret Jesus’s sayings in ways that are directly opposite his original meaning. We have to be very careful indeed.
Take the parables, for instance. We have been trained, through generations of moral lessons, fairy tales, and fables, to read Jesus’s parables in a certain way. First of all, each one has to have an easily identified moral lesson. Second, parables function in much the same way as allegories. Each character in a parable must represent a person or idea outside the narrative world of the parable itself. Since Jesus was what we would call a “religious” figure, one of the characters has to stand for God, and the moral of the story has to point the hearer in the direction of eternal salvation.
But scholars who have worked hard to get past the encrustations of the past two thousand years to try to understand the Bible in its cultural, religious, and political context rather than their own tell us this is the wrong way to read a parable. As opposed to an allegory, a parable generally has one main point, and it is often a surprise meant to jolt the hearer into a new way of understanding the subject the parable-teller is talking about. James Blevins says that each parable contains a “fishhook” meant to catch listeners who think they already know how the story is going to go, draw them up short, and make them say, “Whaaat?” The reign of God is like a farmer who deliberately plants an invasive weed in her fields? What? God is like a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine perfectly good sheep unprotected in the pasture while he goes gallivanting off after one stray lamb? Who would do something like that?
The allegorical and moralistic way of reading the parables becomes especially problematic when we come across a story like the one Jesus tells here in Luke 16. Typically called the parable of the shrewd manager or something along those lines, it has caused heartburn to countless preachers and teachers as they have tried to get the behavior of the characters in the story to fall in line with the rules of fables.
Their big mistake is that they assume the rich man represents God. It’s not clear exactly who the manager is supposed to be, but in a broad sense he stands in for corrupt religious leaders or for sinful humanity as a whole. The rich man hears a rumor that his manager is playing fast and loose with his property, so he calls the manager to account and tells him to start updating his resume, because he’s fired. The manager realizes the job market is not looking too favorable, especially since he probably can’t count on a positive reference from his current employer, so, shrewd guy that he is, he comes up with a plan that will keep him off both the bread line and the ditch-digging crew and give him a soft place to land once his boss officially hands him his pink slip. He goes to the rich man’s debtors on the sly and has them change their accounts to reduce the amount they owe by a healthy percentage. He figures this will get him in good enough with the debtors that they will be willing to take him in and take care of him.
So far, so good. God-as-the-rich-man is calling the religious leaders to account for their corruption, just like in Ezekiel’s parable of the unworthy shepherds. The corrupt leaders, represented by the manager, demonstrate their despicable natures by piling corruption upon corruption, always looking out for number one and making a mockery of their role as God’s ambassadors. Everybody knows that at the exit interview, which of course represents the last judgment, they are so going to get theirs.
But then Jesus drops this bombshell: “His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth”—what used to be called “filthy lucre”—“so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (vv. 8–9).
It all kind of breaks down at this point. The master commends the manager? Are you sure you said that right, Jesus? You know, “condemns” and “commends” sound a lot alike; maybe you just misspoke.
You can see why this parable has posed such huge problems throughout the history of interpretation. Taken out of its context and read as a moral fable, it just doesn’t work.
So what do we find when we read the parable in its proper context? First of all, if we look at its immediate literary context, we get a significant clue about how to interpret it. That our passage begins a new chapter in Luke may serve to obscure the fact that this scene is a continuation of what has come before. We commonly group the three parables in chapter 15—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost or prodigal son— together, but then we hit chapter 16 and assume we have started on a new topic. When we remember that Luke’s original manuscript had no chapter or verse divisions, however, we have no reason to think the parable of the manager should not be considered right along with the other three.
If we go back to the beginning of chapter 15, we see how Luke sets the scene: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable…” (Luke 15:1–3, emphasis added). It is the scribes and Pharisees’ complaining about Jesus’s fellowship with undesirables that sets him off on three stories in which someone or something gets lost, someone goes looking for it, and when the lost person or item is found, the finder throws a big party. In the prodigal son story, a third character gets added: a sourpuss older brother who disapproves of both the lost son and the rejoicing father and refuses to join the party. Do you suppose the scribes and Pharisees missed getting caught by that fishhook?
Now we turn to chapter 16, and we have a landowner who wants to fire his manager because some unnamed accusers have charged him with “squandering his property” (v. 1). What would you think if I told you that Jesus uses almost exactly the same three words to describe the prodigal son? Luke 15:13 says the boy “squandered his property in dissolute living” (emphasis added). Could that similarity possibly be significant? I think it very definitely is. I think it provides the key to a more appropriate interpretation of the parable of the manager. The Pharisees and scribes have been accusing Jesus of, in essence, squandering God’s love on the tax collectors and sinners. And what does Jesus do when he hears these accusations? Does he clean up his act and join the selfrighteous bean counters who want to parcel out God’s love by the teaspoonful, and only to those who meet their demanding criteria? No! He squanders it all the more! Just like the manager who forgives his boss’s debtors, Jesus is not above breaking the rules to lavish God’s grace on anyone and everyone willing to receive it. Even the bean counters, if they would only take off their green eyeshades and join the party.
That’s what we see if we consider the parable’s literary context. But what about its historical and cultural context? Let’s look at the accusation against Jesus a little closer. The scribes and Pharisees complain that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Everybody knows what that means: Jesus is the friend of sinners, he saved a wretch like me, and all that. But the definition of “sinner” was very different for them than it is for us. For the scribes and Pharisees, who each in their own way were sticklers for the Torah, a sinner was one who did not meet the requirements of the law, especially those regarding the sabbath and the purity code. Their contempt for “sinners” did not necessarily contain a moral edge to it; for them, a sinner was one who was ceremonially impure. For a so-called rabbi like Jesus to associate with such ilk was a scandal. He was squandering God’s favor on those who had spurned God’s law. Outrageous!
But had they really spurned God’s law, or were they ceremonially unclean because circumstances prevented them from observing the purity rituals? We’re talking about peasants and laborers—people who were living hand-to-mouth, working from sunup to sundown every day for their measly denarius just to keep soul and body together. They were toiling away on the bottom level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; when you’re not sure how you will feed and clothe your family, the manner in which you wash your hands becomes a matter of less vital concern.
The cruel twist in this situation is that it was very often members of the scribal class who owned the big estates where these folks had to work after being pushed off their own land. They had created the conditions in which the people had to work seven days a week to survive, and then blamed them for not observing the sabbath. It’s like affluent people in our time who have benefitted from a system that keeps poor people from getting a decent education or a good job and then berate them for being on welfare.
The way it worked in Jesus’s day was that the large landholders would manipulate debt in order to take over their neighbors’ lands. Peasant farmers who had a bad crop year still had to pay their taxes and tithes, so they would turn to their wealthier counterparts for loans to get them through the lean times. Despite clear instructions in the Torah that the people of Israel were not to charge interest on loans, these creditors did just that. And, like coal miners who owed their souls to the company store, the peasants could rarely climb out of debt once they were in it. Eventually the owners of the large estates would foreclose on their debtors and take their land. The now landless peasants very often became sharecroppers on land that was once their own, or else they turned to day labor, begging, banditry, or some other unsavory alternative.
That’s another reason to doubt that the rich man in this parable represents God. He is working the machinery of debt, collecting interest from his neighbors in the form of jugs of oil and bushels of wheat, patiently awaiting the day when the debt will become so burdensome that these hapless peasants’ only recourse will be to hand over their land. He calls his manager “shrewd,” and he ought to know, because much of his wealth has been amassed through a diabolical kind of shrewdness. He is preying on the vulnerabilities of his neighbors, violating the Torah right and left in the process. How could we ever think he stands for God?
So when the manager outfoxes his boss by at least partially forgiving the debts owed him, we can well imagine Jesus’s audience of outcasts and “sinners” laughing and cheering him on. The Pharisees and scribes, meanwhile, fume and sputter all the more.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We tend to spiritualize this to mean sins or trespasses, but in its original form it almost undoubtedly had to do with real debts like the oil and wheat in this parable. This was a prayer the communities that made up the “Jesus movement” enacted in their lives together. To fight the corrosive effects of the unjust systems arrayed against them, they needed to take practical steps like sharing their daily bread and forgiving one another’s debts.
At the conclusion of the parable of the manager, Luke adds a series of interpretive comments that may or may not have originated with Jesus. In one of them, Jesus says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (v. 9). In another, he says, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (v. 13).
If we put these two thoughts together, Jesus seems to be saying that money is only as good as the use we make of it, and that we must be on our guard lest our money make use of us instead of the other way around. He talks about wealth—in old-time language, Mammon—almost as a rival god, and his declaration, “You cannot serve God and wealth,” sounds like a reiteration of the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). We may not often think about money in these terms, but who among us cannot attest to the alluring power of wealth, both for those who have it and those who don’t? Those who don’t have it will often go to extraordinary lengths to get it, and most of those who do have it will do almost anything to keep it.
But here comes Jesus, like the wasteful manager in the parable, writing off debts, welcoming sinners, and generally splashing God’s love and grace around like it’s going out of style. Like it’s infinite, indiscriminate, foolishly prodigal. Because it is. Like there’s so much grace that it doesn’t matter who you offer it to—sinner, saint, seeker, whomever. Because there is. Like this story about a crazy manager who uses the wealth at his disposal to give some poor schmucks a little relief and let them know that God sees them and has taken note of their plight—like that’s actually some kind of good news.
Because it is.