Managing Forgiveness and Favors

A Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost*

Texts: Psalm 113; St. Luke 16:1-13

dishonest steward color

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who abundantly forgives. Amen.

Our culture loves Robin Hood stories – complicated heroes who break the law to provide for those in need, risking life and limb in epic feats as they serve the poor. We love the stories of the little person triumphing over the wealthy. It’s why we cheer on characters like Bud Fox in 1987’s Wall Street, who even though he has made a fortune for himself by violating financial regulations, decides to use those same underhanded (and illegal) means to win back his father’s respect, rectify the wrong he’s done, and ultimately get one over on the dastardly Gordon Gekko.

We’re just as likely to tell stories of noble outlaws as we are valiant sheriffs. Wall Street wouldn’t have been as good, wouldn’t have bagged Michael Douglas the Oscar for Best Actor, if it had been the story of a by-the-book Securities and Exchange Commission team investigating alleged impropriety at Jackson Steinem. These myths and legends form part of our collective consciousness, our culture’s shared understanding of the world.

And so we lean in a little closer when we hear today’s Gospel lesson – as a wealthy landowner calls his chief steward, the manager of his vast estate. With a scowl, he says, “Turn in your books. You’re done here.” The steward panics – what’s he going to do? After all he’s done, he’s just shown the door without so much as a “Thank you for your service?” He’s the manager of the estate; he’s worked hard to get where he is now, has gotten used to his position of authority and luxury. He’s too old to start over; he’s too important to go back to working in the fields and way too self-important to beg in the streets.

But then it hits him! He knows just what to do. He calls together all of his master’s debtors. He didn’t get this far in life without learning a few tricks to curry favor. “Eliezer! You owe, what, a hundred jugs of oil? Make it fifty. Joshua, how much is it? A thousand bushels of wheat? Not anymore. But friends, someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me, I hope you remember how generous I’ve been. But until that day, accept this generosity as a gift.”

And we kind of cheer him on as he gets one over on his old boss while extending a helping hand to those in debt.

There’s a tension in this text, an inherent contradiction that starts out subtly. We know something’s not quite right. We know we’re cheering for a rogue; the steward helps those in debt, sure, but he does it in the most conniving way possible. This tension leaves us feeling uneasy, and that feeling grows and grows until it smacks us in the face.

Suddenly, the landowner comes back into the picture. We pause and wait with baited breath for the story to end. He walks up to his steward, his face red. “You!” he bellows. “DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’VE DONE? HOW MUCH MONEY YOU’VE COST ME? You scheming, arrogant, absolute genius. If you’re willing to stab someone in the back and twist the knife like that, I’d rather you do it on my behalf. How does a raise sound?”

Faced with this sudden reversal, we start to remember how underhanded the steward has actually been. He’s not forgiving debts; he’s turning them into personal favors.

And we start to remember that Jesus commands his disciples to do good, but to do it in secret. Not to let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. Not to seek out places of honor or do favors to those who can repay them but instead to side with the oppressed and serve those in need. Then what exactly does Jesus mean about this businesses of making friends “by means of dishonest [literally, unrighteous] wealth?”

We like Robin Hood stories, but today’s parable lesson seems to be something else entirely – and moreover, something at odds with Christ’s teaching. And yet here it is, smack in the middle of Saint Luke’s Gospel.

Today, we hear the story of a man enslaved to wealth. He’s not ushering those on the margins to the places of honor at the banquet; he’s using them to guarantee that he gets to keep his prestigious position. This is not true forgiveness of debts; the dishonest manager’s every action is driven not by his desire to love and serve his neighbors but to obtain a more immediate reward. He’s cunning and shrewd. He looks like a folk hero on the surface, but he’s no better than the wealthy elite at the top, always seeking a way to line his own pockets and provide for himself, no matter the cost.

And that’s exactly Jesus’ point: those who are slaves to wealth will do just about anything and betray just about anyone to earn one more coin, to grow their portfolio that one extra percent. But we are not slaves to wealth; our Heavenly Father is our master, who abundantly forgives and calls us to forgive as we have been forgiven – not for privilege in this life but for the sake of the coming Kingdom.

Our Lord’s challenge to us, then, is this: If we seek out treasure so earnestly now – rewards that can be destroyed by rust and moths and stolen by thieves – how much more so should we seek out that which is in the Kingdom of God?

Sisters and brothers, all you servants of the Lord, give praise! For the Lord our God, high above the nations and the heavens, is lifting the weak out of the dust and the poor from the ashes, enthroning them with the rulers.

Christ has come to set us free from slavery to wealth and the things of this world which are perishing. We are set free to love and serve the Lord. We are set free to love our neighbors – not in hopes that they might later repay us, but that we may live with them in a new creation. In Holy Baptism, we are brought into a new Kingdom, welcomed into a new household, one in which we lay aside self-interest to act out of love and humility. One in which we set aside our fear of scarcity and act out of God’s abundant providence. One in which we come together around the Heavenly Feast with all the saints who have found true forgiveness and give thanks for God’s wondrous acts. And we are sent from here as a forgiven and reconciled people to proclaim this same abundant forgiveness and newfound freedom to our neighbors, seeking nothing in return but the joy of celebrating with them in the new Kingdom.


* I preached a version of this sermon in September 2016 with a slightly different introduction, below:

There’s a letter I hope to receive at some point in January, before Inauguration Day:

Dear Mr. Lewis,

It has come to my attention that I will soon be out of a job. As such, I have taken it upon myself to ensure that all out-standing debts have been taken care of before the new administration is sworn in. As an appointed and confirmed member of the Cabinet of the United States of America, and by their authority, I hereby declare to you the cancellation of your student loan debt. Please find enclosed a check for the amount you have already repaid, plus interest. The matter is now closed.

Signed, your obedient servant,
Dr. John King, Jr., Esquire
Tenth US Secretary of Education

PS: I’m coming through the Twin Cities in a few weeks. Can I crash on your couch for a few nights?”

A long shot, I know, but if that letter ever does arrive, there will be no shortness of my gratitude. Not only could he crash at my place for a few nights, I would organize a flotilla of barges down the Mississippi in his honor! I’d name my first born after him!

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