“The Problem Child of Parable Exegesis”

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18th Sunday After Pentecost; Year C; September 22, 2013

Amos 8.4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Three years ago I preached my very first sermon in this space of worship we call, “Hope Chapel.”  The day before I preached I thought that God must think it to be a funny joke that I would have to preach on this particular Gospel reading in my new congregation.  Why couldn’t I have had the text where Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary,” or the Scripture in John where it is written, “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people,” or “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  Instead, on my first Sunday as your pastor, I was stuck with Jesus saying, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.”

Three years ago this parable (or story) Jesus tells was the most confusing and complicated Scripture I have encountered; and now three years later, after all my time with you, books I’ve read, conversations I have had, and even Peder’s enthusiasm for difficult texts…I can say with confidence that this is still the most confusing and complicated Scripture I have ever encountered.

Theologian Rudolf Bultmann says that this story Jesus tells is “The Problem Child of Parable Exegesis.”  In plain language he really means that this story of the dishonest manager is more difficult than any other to extract meaning or to clearly understand the point Jesus is trying to make.  In fact, every commentary I have read on this text says something different, except one thing…that this story is confusing.

Therefore, my first conclusion this morning is this: There are times that Scripture is hard to understand or confusing and this is okay.  We as human beings are not meant to understand everything about God.  There is always mystery to who God is and the story Jesus tells today reminds us of this.

I do have a second conclusion this morning, however, and it primarily comes to us in the form of a question:  What does this story have to say about the character of God?  In other words: How can we comprehend what God is like through this parable Jesus tells?

In the story there is a rich man who has someone to manage his possessions and all the people who work for him.  More than likely this rich man is a landowner who has people working in his wheat fields and olive tree groves.  We hear from some of these workers who go to the rich man that the manager is being wasteful and reckless with possessions and property that are not his.

The rich man goes to the manager himself for an account of how his property has been managed.  Guilty, yet acting quickly, the manager gets street smart and starts reducing the debt people owe his master without his permission in order to save his own skin.  If the manager can make “friends” with others by reducing their debt to his master, then when the master fires him and puts him out in the street he can then knock on the door of the one he reduced the olive oil debt by half, for example, and say, “Remember when I reduced your huge debt…how about a bed for the night, or the next year of my life.”

Essentially the manager robs and cheats the rich man twice over.  So, I ask you: What are we to expect the rich man to do?  What happens in the world, in our country, in Bismarck/Mandan when a manager squanders the owner’s property and possessions?  Managers get fired!  The rich man would be just and right to can the guy, and then also go the extra step to make sure he doesn’t get a job anywhere else either.

But what happens in the story Jesus’ tells…what does the rich man do?  Knowing everything, he doesn’t fire the manager.  Not only does he not fire the manager, he very surprisingly praises him for responding quickly to immanent judgment by lessening the debt of others and making friends for himself through the means of dishonest wealth.  It is here in the story in which we can take a step back and scratch our heads and say, “What is this rich man thinking?”

We need to remember that by telling the story, Jesus is trying to help us understand something about what God is like.  Let’s assume that the rich person in the story is really God.  So what is God like?

Some might say, “foolish,” because apparently God doesn’t care about financial gain when the manager squanders what really belongs to God, losing twice over.  Perhaps we might even say, “unjust,” since God did not punish the manager like he deserved.

I can hear echoes of Isaiah 55.8 where God says, “Your thoughts are not my thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”  This parable can be so confusing because it is not what we expect to happen.

What I am convinced of about God through the story Jesus tells, which is my second conclusion, is that God is merciful.  God is free to act how God chooses, and God chooses to be merciful to the dishonest manager.  The manager in the story, then, could be you, could be me, could be anyone else you know.  When we come to the end of our lives and must give account, all we are left with, all we are left with, is the mercy and love of God.

It seems like so many people go through life afraid of a God they don’t really know.  People say certain things like: “If you don’t believe in Jesus you are going to hell; You can’t go to heaven if you kill yourself; God doesn’t love homosexuals.”  You know what I say to that?  “I do not know this god you are talking about.”

The God I have come to know and love is the God Jesus speaks of in this parable.

It is the God, the shepherd, who leaves 99 sheep to go and look for the one that is lost.

It is the God in Christ who eats with sinners and the homeless and hangs out with all the people society pushes aside.

It is the God who is most present in suffering and loneliness.

It is the God who lifts the poor from the dust, who stoops to raise the weak and low, like Mary sings in the Magnificat in the first chapter of Luke.

It is the God who claims us as sons and daughters through water and the cross on our foreheads in baptism.

It is the God who dies on the cross in Jesus Christ because he loves you.

It is the God who bestows mercy when there should be punishment.

It is the God who promises you and me an eternal home.

It is the God who is making all things new.

It is the God who doesn’t make any sense from a rational point of view, but makes all the sense in the world when seen through the eyes of mercy and love.

If you think you’ve done too many bad things to have God love you, forgive you, or have eternal life, you might be surprised by God’s mercy and love for you.  In the end we will all be left with what the dishonest manager was left with…the tender mercy and compassion of God.

Sometimes I get too wrapped up in the dishonest manager or the ways I think I fall short, and I forget to ask myself: “What is Jesus trying to say about God by using this story or that story?”

When we know what Jesus is saying about God, we let the Spirit move it from somewhere out here, to somewhere in here (the head), to deep down in here (the heart).

Three years ago it gave me joy to speak to you about this merciful God who profoundly loves you, and still, three years later, this is sill the truth.