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September 18, 2022
We’ve talked about Wordle before, the game where each day you try to guess a five-letter word. You get six guesses, with some hints along the way about which letters you’ve gotten right or wrong. I had a pretty good streak going – until Friday morning. After two guesses I had all but one letter figured out, but I kept guessing the wrong word – again and again until I was out of guesses. The word was “parer” – as in a knife you use to peel things, I guess? I guessed everything but the right answer – pager, paver, paler, pacer. So that was that. Streak broken.
I was bummed about it at first, but I soon discovered that I was not alone. Everyone started sharing their Wordle despair online, and suddenly friends and family from all over the country were reporting their own failure to figure it out. I later learned that only 41% of Wordle players that day had solved it in six tries. The usual percentage is close to 99%.
I couldn’t figure out, but I was not the only one. Most of us couldn’t figure it out, and I found that comforting.
As it turns out, that’s a helpful parallel for our approach to this morning’s gospel. No one really seems to understand this story of the dishonest manager. My colleagues and I struggled in our weekly Bible study to make sense of it. The scholarly commentaries on which I often rely to inspire some wisdom mostly said, “We don’t really understand it either.” There were some educated theories among them, but I’m not sure any of them were that enlightening.
It was comforting to know I was not alone in being tied up in interpretive knots. So let’s give ourselves permission not to understand the story with utmost precision and instead to wonder about it, to try out some reflections, and to let the story be as strange as it is.
The so-called dishonest manager ends up in his predicament by being bad at his job. He squanders the rich man’s wealth, and when the boss demands an audit, the manager realizes that he’s about to be fired. Give the manager bonus points for self-awareness, though. He knows that he’s too weak to do hard labor and too ashamed to ask for help. So he starts wheeling and dealing. He makes some bargains with the people who owe his boss money: “You owe the master 100? Let’s make it 50…You over here…you owe 100? Let’s say 80 and call it even.”
It’s hard to know his exact motivation, but there’s a good chance he’s doing all this to curry favor with his neighbors. That way, when he’s out of a job, they might invite him to dinner or let him crash on their couches. His manipulations seem self-serving in this way. He’s cultivating relationships not because he feels a genuine sense of connection with these folks, but because they might prove useful to him later.
There are so many unanswered questions about this story. Why does the rich man commend the manager for apparently reducing the man’s profits? Why does the rich man celebrate the manager’s “shrewdness”? Why does Jesus appear to recommend this practice of manipulating others with “dishonest wealth”?
The short answer: I don’t know. I don’t know for sure. I’ve wondered this week if Jesus is using this story to highlight the way the world works. If you want to get by in the world’s terms, you better wheel and deal. You better look out for yourself, and that means cultivating relationships that are self-serving. People are only as valuable as the favors they owe you. Maybe Jesus is deliberately setting up a contrast between the world’s economy and God’s economy.
In this regard our first reading is a little more straightforward. The first reading comes from the Hebrew scriptures, from a prophet named Amos. Amos lived somewhere around 760 BCE during the reign of Jeroboam II over Israel. Amos did not grow up with wealth but was called by God our of a humble life of tending the flocks into a life of telling the people some hard truths about their corrupt values.[i]
The time in which Amos lived was one of relative peace and prosperity in Israel. Neighboring empires weren’t strong enough to invade, and things seemed to be going well. But a lot of that prosperity came directly at the expense of the poor. We can hear Amos’ outrage: The wealthy are “trampling on the needy” and “bringing ruin to the poor.” These abuses are not accidental. The merchants are deliberately defrauding those with whom they do business. They’re manipulating the scales and measures so that the poor always come out on the bad end of the bargaining. Basically, the wealthy are selling smaller amounts of grain for far more than they’re actually worth, lining their own pockets while others struggle and starve. Amos is clear that God despises this behavior.
The business people don’t even want to observe the sabbath, even though the sabbath is a central practice of Jewish law. It annoys them to have to suspend their wheeling and dealing even for a day. So it comes as no surprise that they also want to ignore the Jewish laws about ethical business practices – the mandates we hear in other parts of the Torah to use honest weights and measures and to maintain honest balances (Leviticus 19:36; see also Deuteronomy 25:13-16).
Amos is calling the people back to a faithful observance of Jewish law, which reflects the will of God. Everyone, God says, deserves a sabbath rest – from the wealthiest landowner to the poorest worker in the field. Everyone deserves to be treated fairly rather than being exploited for someone else’s profit. One of the most consistent refrains in the Torah is care for the poor and welcome for the foreigner. Because the Israelites know what it means to struggle as strangers in a strange land, they are obligated to make sure that others don’t suffer in the way they have.
Let’s be clear. Being a business person in not wrong. Being wealthy is not wrong. But building wealth by exploiting others is wrong. Ignoring the needs of others when we have the capacity to help is wrong. What the dishonest manager in our gospel does is manipulative, to be sure. But it ultimately helps out the people who owe a lot of money, even if it helps himself too.
I wonder sometimes if we might be more shrewd about the profound challenges that face us in our country and in our world. We all know our immigration system is broken – deeply broken. Leaders of both parties have failed to reform that system. If we want a system with biblical foundations, those of us who call ourselves Christian hope to build a safe and sustainable way to provide welcome to those who are fleeing unimaginable dangers in their home countries. I don’t say this as a political statement. I say it as a theological statement – it’s one of the most fundamental truths throughout the Bible: love your neighbor, welcome the stranger.
What we saw this week, where asylum seekers were flown from Texas to Massachusetts with promises of housing and work – only to find that they had been lied to – it broke my heart. These folks had already been threatened by drug cartels, had watched many of their fellow travelers die in the muck and mud of the journey, had been robbed and abused. And then, after being processed in Texas and given times for their immigration hearings, they were lured on to a plane with assurances that they would receive what they need. They soon discovered that they had been deceived. In the immediate crisis, it was church people who gave them shelter. I’m willing to bet that those church people represented a variety of political beliefs, but they shared a belief in the Savior who teaches us the greatest commandment – love God and love neighbor.
I hear the voice of Amos imploring us not to trample on the needy. I hear the voice of Jesus reminding us that he gave himself as a ransom for all – all of us, rich and poor, those with power and those without it, long-time citizens and new arrivals. All of us.
For all the confusion about that shrewd manager, Jesus makes things fairly simple in the end: How we live does reflect what we value. Our faith is embodied in the choices we make, day in and day out. Think about where you are invested, Jesus is saying. Not your stock portfolio, but your heart. Think about how you can give your heart and your treasure to the places that need them the most. Build relationships that matter, not to your bottom line but to your capacity to love and be loved. Build communities and countries based on that love and compassion, and soon you find yourself in a world where everyone can thrive.
Maybe it’s not so confusing after all. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
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