September 22, 2019 — Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Alison Quin
Economic Justice or Spirituality?
Once there was a bank manager who was doing a terrible job. His student loan portfolio was full of high interest loans to students who didn’t understand the terms and didn’t realize they would never earn enough to pay them back. Many of the loans were paid to for profit colleges that were not accredited and did not give the students the education they promised. One day, his boss audited his portfolio and was aghast.
The manager knew he was going to be fired. And he was afraid because banking was the only thing he had ever done—he had no other skills. So he quickly contacted all the borrowers and on behalf of the bank, offered them all a repayment plan at a reduced amount. That way, he thought, he would at least have a few friends when he was fired.
When his boss found out, he called him in and commended him on the shrewd way that he handled the situation.
Even when you try to translate this parable into a contemporary context, it still makes no sense.
What boss would fire a manager for squandering funds and then commend him for cancelling debts owed to the boss in order to secure his future?
Clearly this parable is not intended as a guide to succeeding in business, or a primer on business ethics. What then? Is it a commentary on the unjust economic arrangements of Jesus’ day? Or is it intended to be read only on a spiritual level?
The beauty of Jesus’ parables is that they speak to different levels of reality simultaneously. Jesus brings our worlds together—the spheres that we tend to hold separate, like politics, economics, social life and spiritual life. He brings wholeness to our fragmented lives.
On an economic level, this parable speaks to injustice. The economy of Jesus’ day involved the exploitation of peasants by landlords and by the Romans. Many peasants had lost their land through exorbitant taxes, and paid high rents to their landlords.
So the poor people listening to Jesus would have appreciated the manager’s action in reducing the debts owed to his master. “I may be busted for being a bad manager, but at least I can do some good and make a few friends before I’m escorted out of here.”
People in the US today might appreciate hearing about a bank manager who settled student loan debts with those paying 8% interest for 30 years. The bank manager was squandering resources, but the whole system is problematic as well.
This parable invites us to consider what kind of managers we are. What are we doing with the resources God has given us? Have we used them for the greater good, or have we squandered them?
Are we part of an unjust system that places a higher value on money than on people? If so, what are we doing to change that system? Are we being called to subvert it in some way?
Are we merciful and forgiving in our dealings with others, as God is with us? One clue to this parable is that normally, in Jesus’ time, a dishonest manager would not simply lose his position, but would be forced to repay the funds he mismanaged or face prison. His family could even be imprisoned. So simply being fired was an act of mercy on the part of the owner. Perhaps the owner commended the manager because he turned around and was merciful to those lower down in the hierarchy.
God is always at the center of Jesus’ parables—it’s like hunting for treasure to discover where. Perhaps God is the shrewd manager, subverting the unjust debt structure that was hurting so many people. Perhaps God is the merciful owner who forgives and is pleased when the manager turns and forgives the debtors a portion of their debts. The letter of the law is never as important to God as mercy and forgiveness.
No matter how you read this parable, one thing is always clear: money is never as important to God as people are. You cannot serve two masters. Either you love money and hate God, or you are devoted to God and despise money.
God calls us to reflect on all the parts of our lives, and try to bring them into congruity with our deepest values. Our spirituality is reflected in all the different dimensions of our lives—our work, how we spend our time and money, our politics, our treatment of other people and the environment. Jesus came into the world to reveal to us what a whole human being looks like—a human being at one with God and with all the parts of himself. He came into the world to make us whole.