As We Forgive Our Debtors
As We Forgive Our Debtors: Jesus' Parable of the Dishonest Manager
When President Biden announced plans to address the student loan crisis a few weeks ago, reactions were mixed along predictable lines. Most democrats cheered and most Republicans cried foul, while 45 million Americans sighed with varying degrees of relief.
Varying degrees because although this plan will significantly reduce the debt of 30-50% of borrowers, for others it will simply bring their debt down from completely insurmountable to something they can conceivably repay in this lifetime (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/30/opinion/student-loan-debt-relief-biden.html?searchResultPosition=9).
I expected Republicans and Democrats to disagree about all this, but what really and truly surprised me was how divided Christians were in their response. After all, forgiveness lies at the heart of our faith. We all pray together, saying: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And we all claim to follow the same Jesus, a Jesus who preached grace and mercy non-stop.
It has been said that grace is getting what you don’t deserve and mercy is not having to pay the price that you do, but that hasn’t stopped a number of Christians from denouncing Biden’s plan on the grounds that it is unfair…as if fairness has anything to do with the gospel.
A number of Christian commentators see Biden’s decision to provide debt relief as nothing more than a very clever, entirely dishonest, and totally shameless ploy to win votes.
They are quick to point out that the same government that got us into this mess by lending the money in the first place does not have the power to make those debts vanish in mid air. And they are right. Someone must pay, and they are outraged that that someone will be all of us!
Writing for The Federalist, Kylee Griswold writes: “There’s a word for taking someone else’s money to buy stuff for your friends, and it’s called stealing. There’s even a commandment against it.” Kylee is right too.
Unfortunately she also says, “Nowhere does Jesus say that a …con artist, feeling sorry for somebody they have conned, should steal from an innocent bystander to subsidize the con and thus gain the favor of the conned person (https://thefederalist.com/2022/08/26/no-joe-biden-canceling-student-debt-isnt-like-jesus-forgiving-sins/)."
Nowhere? Oh Kylee, Kylee….nowhere is such a strong word?
Friends, today we get to explore Jesus’ parable of the Dishonest Manager, a con artist who absolutely stole in order to gain favor with those he was conning, and in all fairness to Kylee, I must admit this parable is one of the more obscure ones.
Most pastors avoid preaching about this guy because it’s so hard to fathom why Jesus would approve of him at all. So let’s start with a little background and see if we can’t figure out what going on here.
Well the first thing you need to know is that managers like this guy were hired back in the day by the very rich to manage their land and the farmers who lived on it. How did the rich come by all this land and the farmers who lived on it? By confiscating said land from poor farmers as payment for debt and then leasing that land back to those same farmers in exchange for a portion of their harvest.
You see, for most family’s in the ancient near east, land was their most valuable asset; much like a college diploma is today. You needed land to raise crops to feed your family and your livestock.
If you lost your land, you would be impoverished, so “working class” families in the ancient world, hoping for a better life for their children, would accept these high interest loans and then toil and sacrifice as hard as they could in an effort to pay off their debt and hold on to their farms.
Unfortunately, as time passed - even if the crop was good, which was a big if - an ever increasing portion of their income went to cover the interest on their debt as well as rent, leaving less and less for the family to live on and in turn forcing them to borrow even more money from the rich in order to stay on their land. Sound familiar?
Within one or two generations a hard working family would find themselves more indentured than indebted, and finally, for all intents and purposes utterly enslaved, having run up a tab they could never repay no matter how long or hard they worked. Borrowing at interest was a horrible system that only served to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. It still is. And it still does.
So let’s just say that there was no love lost between landowners and their tenants, and even less for the managers they hired. After all, no one loves a collection agent.
But the manager in today’s parable is like the worst of the worst. Not only has he been collaborating with the landowner and profiting at the expense of all the farmers, he has also been “squandering” his master’s wealth. When the rich man finds out about this, he calls upon the manager to open up the books and get ready to give him an accounting of his actions.
Well, realizing that the rich man is about to fire him and that none of the farmers have any reason to help him, the manager sits down and has a little conversation with himself wherein he takes stock of the situation and devises a very clever, entirely dishonest, and totally shameless ploy to win votes…I mean friends. (Sorry, there are just so many parallels here).
He calls the farmers together and tells them that their debts have been reduced from completely insurmountable to something that maybe could be repaid in a lifetime.
The people are thrilled and the landowner and his manger are now celebrated as the most generous and wonderful men in all the land.
There’s just one problem; the landowner knows nothing about this. Imagine his surprise then, when he comes to town and all of his tenants are happy to see him. They are greeting him with cheers and accolades, blessing and thanks. Now imagine his chagrin when he opens the account books and sees just what his manager has done.
Well, now the master is in a bind. He can either go outside and tell his adoring tenants that it has all been a grievous mistake and they are all still in debt up to their eyeballs, or he can suck it up, take the loss, and accept their praise. The landowner wisely takes the high road and commends the steward publicly for acting so shrewdly (I’m indebted to Sarah Dylan Breuer for this reading).
Now it’s possible that the master learned a little something about the importance of generosity here, and actually felt a sense of gratitude toward his manager for teaching him such a valuable lesson.
It’s also entirely possible that he stood beside his manager, smiled at his adoring tenants through gritted teeth and said something under his breath like, “You’ve won this round Horace, but you might want to watch your back.”
We don’t know what happened after that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the manager died soon after under suspicious circumstances, like mysteriously drowning in a jug of his own olive oil.
Because here is the deal: this guy was a con artist, pure and simple; a shameless huckster who bought the goodwill of all the people he’d exploited by paying off their debts with money he stole from the one man who trusted him. Which makes you wonder: why does Jesus seem to like this guy so much?
I mean, he’s hardly a poster child for clean Christian living. But maybe that’s part of the point. Maybe we are supposed to look closely at what character like this do, and realize that; “hey, if a dishonest manager could do that, how much more than should I, as a child of the light, be able to do that.” So far so good. Now we just have to pinpoint what the “that” is.
Well, some scholars point to the fact that the steward acted quickly and decisively and say that it wasn’t the content of his actions that impressed Jesus, so much as the speed with which he solved his problems.
For them, the moral of the parable is that we ought to be just as quick and ingenious when it comes to advancing the kingdom of God. In which case, I think we here in Northampton passed that test this week when we stepped up and organized immediately to receive the imaginary refugees we thought were coming. So hey, gold stars all around.
Others believe the steward is commendable because he comes to a point in his life where he finally realizes that money won’t save him but people might, so he makes a last ditch effort to forge a relationship with his neighbors. If these commentators are right, then the real message of the parable is that money, in and of itself, is worthless.
It’s what you do with it and who you help with it that gives money its true worth. “Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth,” says Jesus, because money doesn’t last forever, but people do. And I think that’s an excellent interpretation. But I also think this is about more than speed, ingenuity, or money.
Sarah Dylan Breuer, one of my favorite theologians, points out that the content of the manager’s action is just as important as the decisiveness with which he acts, and I think she is on to something here. With all the back and forth it’s quite easy to miss, but if you look closely you realize that what the steward does, essentially, is forgive. He forgives the debts of the farmers.
Of course he doesn’t have the right to forgive, nor does he forgive for the right reasons. His actions are deceitful and completely self-serving. But all of that aside, forgiveness is what enables him to solve his unsolvable problem.
Forgiveness then, in Breuer’s mind, is the moral of the story. If this treacherous little weasel could find a way to forgive the tenants, then how much more should we, as children of the light, find it in our hearts to forgive one another?
And honestly, if you look at this story in context, I think she’s right. After all this parable comes right after the parable of the Prodigal Son. And if you think about it, the son and the manager have a great deal in common. Both squander the wealth of others. Both find themselves in untenable circumstance because of their bad behavior. Both talk to themselves and come up with a plan to redeem their situation. And both men receive greater mercy than they had expected or even hoped for.
In fact, it has often been suggested that the Parable of the Prodigal Son really ought to be known as the Parable of the Prodigal Father, because the real scandal at the heart of the story is the Father’s willingness to “squander” his forgiveness on a most unworthy child. So forgiveness was definitely on Jesus’ mind at this juncture.
But that’s not all: if we take another step back and look at these two parables in the context of Luke’s writings, we find that the word Luke has chosen to convey this habit of squandering, (diaskorpizo,) appears just one more time. In the fourth chapter of Acts, he describes how the early Christians held all of their wealth in common and then “squandered” it on any who had need.
So for Luke, squandering is not a wholly negative term. In fact, it would seem that squandering - our love, grace, and wealth upon one another - is actually what the kingdom of God is all about.
I think that is pretty cool, but wait, there’s more. From this vantage point, there is one more word that stands out: the word for “debts.” As we have seen, there are a lot of debts in this story, and it is the steward who takes it upon himself to forgive them, which I think is meant to remind us of… the Lord’s Prayer.
Now have you ever wondered why some people say debts and others say trespasses when we pray that prayer? Me too. And I don’t have an answer for you. If you look the prayer up in Matthew it is “debts,” and clearly means forgive us the money we owe just we forgive those who owe us money.
But if you look the prayer up in Luke, Jesus says “forgive us our sins” - that is our ethical wrongdoings - “just as we forgive our debtors” - that is those who owe us money. That’s a little weird, huh?
Unless Jesus is being deliberately ambiguous. In his prayer, sin and debt are all mixed up. It’s not clear whether he is talking about money or morals, and I think he wants to keep it that way.
I think it’s a message to us, just as the steward is an example for us, that we are to forgive in all things, even when it feels like we are squandering our good grace upon one another. Whether you look at it literally or figuratively, morally or financially, God simply wants us to forgive.
So, one more time, if the dishonest manager could forgive the gargantuan debts of his neighbors with such eager efficiency, how much more than should we, as children of the light, be ready and willing to forgive one another’s sins? A LOT MORE!
Only there’s still one more problem. It’s great that the manager who got everyone into this mess forgave the debts so quickly, but we need to remember that the debts the manager forgave were never really his to pardon. The farmers didn’t owe him, they owed his master. By forgiving the debts he was giving away something that wasn’t his to give. He was stealing, and as Kylee pointed out, there’s a whole commandment against that.
Why would we want to imitate that? How could we possibly imitate that? I know we are deep in the weeds now, but see if you can follow me here, because this is where the parable completely blows my mind.
I think it’s possible that we imitate the manager every time we forgive another person.
I think that we are all like the farmers and we are all like the manager. Like the farmers, we owe a debt we can never repay. We owe God for every good thing in our lives, and yet, like the manager, we have all squandered some portion of that goodness.
In God’s eyes, we are all debtors, and yet God has offered us forgiveness for free. God has canceled our debt. God only asks that we forgive one another as we have already been forgiven.
You know sometimes we hold back from forgiving others, as if grace is something that belongs to us, but at the heart of this parable is the truth that grace is of God. When we forgive one another, we align ourselves with the ultimate reality of God’s love and mercy for all people.
We enter into the stream of God’s generosity and find that forgiveness really is the only solution to all the conflicts in this world that seem completely unsolvable.
So may you “give and give and give again as God has given thee.” May you be just like that dishonest manager and scribble and scratch away the debts of others with enthusiasm. And may student loans be just the beginning when it comes to wiping away debt in this land.
For God has given us an unlimited measure of grace and invited us to spend it freely, knowing that even if it is squandered, it will never be wasted. Amen? Amen.