Have you ever seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian? The movie is a very funny satire about a man named Brian who lived during the time of Jesus and gets mistaken as the Messiah. Though Jesus is not directly involved in the plot, there is a hilarious scene that takes place during the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is preaching, but the crowd is so large that those on the edges cannot quite make out what Jesus is saying.
When someone asks what Jesus just said, a man says,
I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.
and a woman replies:
Ahh, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Her husband clarifies:
Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.
Later another man, instead of hearing Blessed are the meek says,
You hear that? Blessed are the Greek.
Mmm. Well, apparently, he’s going to inherit the earth.
Did anyone catch his name?
You get the idea. The joke is funny because we do wonder if those who wrote the Gospels got everything Jesus said right. Today’s gospel reading, frankly, is a prime example of a time when we preachers look at a text and wonder, perhaps, if Jesus was a little off his game when he said these things. Or maybe his followers just flat out misheard him. Even the great theologian St. Augustine said about this passage, “I can’t believe that this story came from the lips of our Lord.” We’ll never know exactly what Jesus said, but just because a passage of Scripture is confusing is no reason to abandon it, so let’s dig in.
This is another one of these congregation participation sermons, so let’s all open our Bibles to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 16.
You’ll see the passage has three parts-a long story about a dishonest manager, then verse nine which obscurely reflects on the story, and then verses ten and on, which try to neatly wrap up some aphorisms about money that really have very little to do with the above passage.
These last verses are so neat and tidy; they seem incongruous with the rest of the passage. Remember that the Gospels were oral stories handed down, and then edited into a coherent text. So, it is entirely possible, that Luke or one of Luke’s editors had two separate Jesus stories they combined for our passage today. For now, we will treat them just as that-and focus our attention on the first part of the passage, which presents enough problems as it is!
In this ambiguous passage, a dishonest manager gets fired for cooking the books, and then as his final exit, works some shady deals, possibly cheating his boss-and then is rewarded for this deception!
So, to understand this more deeply, let’s relocate the parable-imagine there was someone, probably Corin Capshaw, who owned all of Old Trail. He owned the land, the houses, and the shops in the Village at Old Trail. Every one who lived and worked in Old Trail rented their property from Mr. Capshaw, but because he is a busy man, he can not manage all the property himself, so he hires a manager.
Keep in mind, this is all imaginary and the Beights family runs Old Trail with the greatest of competence and decency.
In this system, the manager has the authority to rent out not only the property, but also objects to the tenants at a very high commission. So, say you wanted to clean your new coffee shop and you needed a power washer. You could borrow a power washer from the manager, and when you were done with it, you would return the power washer and also give the manager a fee-say a hundred jugs of olive oil. The owner gets some of this fee, but the manager also takes a commission.
So, in this imaginary story, the manager is not only pocketing these fees, but he’s doing something actually bad, too-some sort of “squandering the property”. Perhaps he’s lending things he’s not supposed to lend or skimming money from the rent. We’ll never know.
Mr. Capshaw has it within his rights to have the guy arrested, but instead, he shows mercy and merely fires the manager. The manager is desperate because he doesn’t really have any other skills and does not want to do manual labor or become a beggar so he comes up with a scheme.
He needs other people to really like him, and he needs it to happen stat. If people like him, perhaps they can find him a job or let him live with them. In any case, he gathers all the people that owe him debts from borrowing powerwashers and the like and he goes through the list systematically and slashes their debt. He makes some friends, his boss gets his portion of the money and his property back, and they get a great deal. Everybody wins.
The manager notes this and is very impressed.
And then the passage gets really weird. Jesus says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Huh?
Is Jesus saying if we’re going to make gains from dishonest wealth we should at least make friends out of the deal? So when we’re caught we have some place to go? Whaaa?
Who knows? This passage is messy, the manager is messy, the editing is messy. It’s all very messy.
Now, I want you to keep your bibles open and find the parable that occurs directly before this parable. What is it?
(Parable of the Lost Son)
If you’ll notice, our parable today has a very similar arc to the parable of the prodigal son. A young man acts in a disgraceful way in each, and also experiences some degree of redemption. BUT, where the parable of the prodigal son is all extremes-the complete depravity of the son, the complete forgiveness of the father, our parable today is much more murky.
We’re left not knowing exactly what is going to happen to the manager-or even exactly what he did wrong. We’re not even entirely clear how the owner feels about the manager-is he really angry, does he feel forgiveness or even pride by the end of the story?
While the Prodigal Son is a beautiful and perfect parable, its story of sin and redemption is so extreme, I think not all of us can relate to it very well. Most of us, when we sin, when we hurt ourselves or other people, we do it in small ways. Most of us don’t have the chance to get our inheritance early, turn our backs on our families, and go wild in the big city.
However, even those of us who are “good”, who are more like the older brother in the prodigal son story, screw up. When we screw up, it’s usually saying something before we think, or making a really bad, but not malicious, judgment call. We may be a little greedy, a little unethical. In short, I think most of us are much more like the manager, than the prodigal son. We do our best to support ourselves, and if our livelihoods get threatened, we’re not above engaging in a little creativity to save our necks.
And redemption in our lives is not always as dramatic as the father’s loving embrace in the prodigal son story, either. When we’re being forgiven, we do not often have a huge emotional experience of deep reconciliation with our loved ones or with God. We may just feel the small satisfaction that comes with knowing that a relationship has been repaired and that we are safe in the affections of another.
Yes, the story of the manager and the landowner is messy, but our lives are messy, too. Life is not a fairy tale or a movie-problems don’t get resolved in dramatic sweeps with violins singing in the background. More often than not, we don’t see the easy solution, we don’t understand what God is doing or what God wants from us.
And maybe this frustrating, confusing, messy passage is a gift to us-a reminder that not everything needs to be tied up neatly for life to have meaning. A reminder that grace comes even in the midst of confusion and misunderstanding. A reminder that even our stupid, petty, daily sins are greeted with grace.
And yes, perhaps even the cheesemakers and the Greeks are blessed, for God’s grace encompasses all of us, even when, especially when we don’t understand how.