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By Any Other Name, Would Smell As Foul

This parable about the dishonest manager is no easy thing to wrestle with. We could probably spend several hours talking about it, verse by verse, in English and in Greek, and still come out not much further ahead in our understanding of what Jesus was really on about, much less what it means for you and I today. The bad news is that I don’t have a good, clever analysis that ties it all up for you. The good news is that we’re all going to go home with a great deal of food for thought about this parable. Whether we like the flavours in the dish will probably vary significantly between us.

One question worth spending some time with seems to be: To whom is the manager responsible? Loyalty, responsibility, and honesty are all things that have some variation depending on the context. Most of us would assume, quite naturally, that he is responsible to his master. After all, his master pays him or, if the manager is a slave, feeds and shelters him. The manager has been charged with managing his master’s resources fairly, in the best interests of his master. Indeed, the manager has been accused of not living up to this very expectation and is being dismissed on account of it. This work includes collecting on debts.

But the manager also has a responsibility to God and, following God’s commandments, to his neighbour. If the economic system in the parable is not a just one, when does the manager’s responsibility to his neighbours override his responsibility to his master? Or, put another way, if your boss or your parent or your spouse instructs you to break the law, where does your responsibility lie? There is no easy answer, everything depends on the details of the situation. So, if the manager can fulfill his greatest responsibility, whatever that may be, while taking care of himself in his sudden unemployment, it all seems so much the better.

The manager sets about seeking to settle as many of his master’s debts as he can before his last day of work ends. He does this by slashing the amount owed in exchange for immediate payment from debtors. What was 100 is now 50. What was 60 is now 50. And so on. At the end of the day, rather than being upset about being shorted on these debts, the master describes the manager’s work as “shrewd” and quite clearly intends it as a compliment. Jesus seems to suggest that because dishonest wealth is fleeting and has few redeeming qualities, if one must use it, one might as well use it in service of one’s neighbour and Godly work. Perhaps it is less philosophical than any of this and the master is simply pleased to see debts repaid. In Jesus’s day, as in ours, money in the hand is preferable to a promise to pay later, even if the promise is for a greater sum.

But surely the master would be upset at being cheated out of his profits. After all, moneylenders do so to make a living, not out of the goodness of their hearts. This is why, so often, moneylenders and tax collectors fall into the same caricatured category of sinner in our faith’s stories. Exploiting people without money by appearing to help them but truly squeezing even more money out of them is not an honorable thing. Indeed, we call this usury and the sinfulness of charging and earning interest on loans has been a hot debate since before Jesus’s day and continues today.

In Jesus’s world, charging interest on loans was understood as a failure to honour the duty of care for one’s neighbour. If someone needed money and you could afford to loan it, you ought to do so and expect to be repaid, but only for the amount given. This was a way of caring for one another. We know that in first century Judea, men like the master in this parable did not charge interest on the loans they made. At least, not in the way that our banks and credit unions charge us interest today. The lenders made a profit through hidden interest, assessed as different kinds of fees and penalties. Obeying the letter of the law but entirely missing its spirit. Or, to misquote Shakespeare: “That which we call interest, by any other name would smell as foul.”

Back, for just a moment, to the manager’s responsibility and the idea of an unjust economic system. When we first hear this parable it seems that the manager is dishonest, has failed in his responsibilities, and is going to continue to cheat his master right up until the end of his last day so as to benefit himself. Part of this is in the telling of the parable, but part of it is also in what we have been taught to expect. Our assumption, one that has been taught to us again and again, that certain kinds of economic exploitation are normal and reasonable. It seems that the manager giving discounts on his master’s loans is the one cheating, but what if the prices being charged to the debtors were unjust to begin with?

In this scenario, the debtors are almost certainly illiterate. The master and his manager must be able to read because they are setting the terms of these loans. But on the debtors side is a line of illiterate peasants who were signing contracts that they knew would get them the money that they needed for crops or equipment or trade goods. But they did not have the skill to read all of the terms of the contract themselves. They had to take the moneylender’s word that all in the contract was as they understood it to be.

Hidden interest was worked into these as a matter of course and your loan for 50 dinarii to plant this year’s crop was suddenly worth 80 dinarii when it came time to repay. You had no recourse to fight the master for you had signed a contract. This sounds suspiciously like predatory loans to students who have been told their economic survival depends on a university education. Or perhaps it sounds like a set of contract negotiations between two groups: one who seek to share their land, water, and medicine with new people from far away and the other who seek to strip bare the land and water of their resources to take them back home, leaving a tilled and hewn wasteland in their wake. In the negotiations, which are tense, words like “reserves” and “surrender” and “rights” are used, but the two sides cannot come to a clear understanding of what these mean. Is a loan contract or a land treaty fair or just when one half of the agreement does not truly know what they are agreeing to?

The manager in today’s gospel certainly does not seem to think so. Neither does Jesus.

A photo of the signatures on Treaty No. 1 in what is now called Manitoba

Jesus’s teaching in the final verse of today’s Gospel reading warns about the impossibility of faithfully serving two masters. Faithfulness in caring for what belongs to another might be a reference to the manager’s treatment of his master’s money. But, just as most of us jumped to the conclusion that the manager was the one at fault for writing off hidden interest charges, is it not possible that Jesus is referring to the rightful land and possessions of the peasants who were being deprived of their livelihood by the usury of money-lending profiteers?

I said last week that being a Christian in this world is no easy thing. Here we were listening to a Gospel passage about welcoming in the outcast and the last at the same moment that a homeless person was being asked to move out of the churchyard. This compromise between Christian values, civic law, our resources to love our neighbour, and our neighbour’s own safety and willingness to receive aid did not leave any of us feeling good. But it was the best that we, collectively, could do last week.

This week we are confronted with a parable that challenges us to think about our economic relationships with one another again. With how we have and have not been good stewards over the gifts God has given us and, in particular, the blessings in this creation that we have agreed to share with our neighbours. This parable calls us to examine many of our assumptions about what is just, what is fair, and both what is and what ought to be normal in our economy and our society. It reminds us of our sacred call to care for our neighbours as though they were Christ themselves. And, most importantly because it is the Good News, it reminds us that when we are pulled in two directions, made to struggle with unpleasant compromises between the world we live in and the world we see now through a mirror, dimly, God has seen and knows our struggle. God knows what it is to live in two natures as one person and to be caught up in unjust systems. As we wrestle with this parable and the uncomfortable realities on which it casts light, we do so with God’s help.

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