I happened to be at the paint counter of a local big-box DIY store when a fellow walked up with a paint-stained ice chest. One of the fellow’s children has spilled paint on the ice chest while working on a school project.
The fellow asked the clerk at the paint counter what could be done to remove the dried paint from his favorite ice chest. The paint counter clerk shook his head and said he couldn’t think of a solution. Then, the customers at the paint desk offered their suggestions. One by one, the customers suggested solvents or other solutions and, one by one, the paint counter clerk pointed out the unlikelihood of success. After hearing all the inadequate proposals, the fellow looked in my direction. I asked him, “Do you still have the remainder of the paint that spilled on the ice chest?” He said he did. I said, “Paint the whole ice chest.”
A few seconds elapsed before the fellow realized I was joking. He laughed and returned home. I was joking, but only in part. Often, the best solution to a difficult problem is found only after looking at the problem from a new perspective. I saw that same fellow a few weeks later; he had purchased a new ice chest.
The rather unusual parable in today’s Gospel reading presents a difficult problem. The parable looks as if it recommends that Jesus’ disciples imitate the manipulative behavior of the dishonest steward who is the principal character in the parable. If taken literally, we are to be self-serving, untrustworthy, materialistic, and wasteful. As these are clearly contrary to Jesus’ teachings, we must look at this parable from a different perspective.
Luke’s Gospel was written for a church congregation composed solely of gentile converts to the Way of Jesus. Jesus’ original disciples, and their first converts, were Jews who used synagogue gatherings as the logical places to preach about Jesus’ resurrection. As a consequence, the first congregations of Jesus’ disciples were entirely or predominantly composed of Jews. Eventually, some gentiles were attracted to Jesus’ teaching. The congregation for whom Luke’s Gospel was written was an instance of what Christianity would become eventually, that is, a strictly gentile phenomenon.
The transition from its Jewish beginnings to its gentile future raised some questions and problems. Luke’s Gospel was written to address these questions and problems. This perspective helps to explain the parable in today’s Gospel reading.
In the parable, a whistleblower accused a manager of being dishonest. The manager’s employer demanded an audit in order to determine the truth of the accusation. While the audit was being performed, the dishonest manager took the opportunity to look after his own self-interests one, last time. He met with his employer’s debtors and reduced the payments they owed to his employer. His goal was to guarantee their good will for him in the future, but his actions had an unforeseen consequence. Having their debt payments reduced, the debtors came to have increased good will for the employer, as well. The unforeseen consequence of the employee’s actions was that he made his employer look good in the estimation of his employer’s debtors. The moral of the story is not that we should imitate the actions of the dishonest manager but rather, that we should imitate the consequences of the dishonest manager’s actions.
In the first few decades after Jesus’ death, the principal objection raised against gentile converts to the Way of Jesus was that they were outsiders to the Sinai Covenant. This issue proved very divisive and gave rise to numerous possible solutions. (Acts 11:1-18) The eventual decision about gentile converts was that they did not need to convert to Judaism before becoming Jesus’ disciples. Today’s parable in Luke’s Gospel explains this decision by pointing out that the conversion of gentiles, while unforeseen by Jesus’ first disciples, was a positive development for the Church because it proclaimed publicly God’s mercy. Just as the actions of the dishonest manager made his employer look good in the eyes of the employer’s debtors, the conversion of gentiles makes God look good in the eyes of other sinners.
As I said above, the lesson of this parable is not that we are to imitate the dishonest actions of the manager in the story; rather, we are to imitate the unintended good consequences of the dishonest manager’s actions: we are to make God look good in the eyes of others.
There are compelling reasons for the bad reputation that organized religion has gained over the past few centuries. Organized religion has been misused to support economic injustice, political oppression, and a whole host of other inequities. The common reaction to these events, on the part of religious believers, has been to argue or deny the truth of the accusations; these, however, are not our mission to accomplish. Our mission as Jesus’ disciples is to live in a way that makes God look good.
Human nature’s typical reaction to hurt or insult is to retaliate. In contrast, God’s reaction to sin is to forgive and redeem. As we have been forgiven by God, it is our life’s vocation to proclaim that forgiveness publicly so that all can know and experience the depth of God’s mercy. Today, and every day, you and I have the opportunity to make God look good in the eyes of non-believers by showing the same forgiveness to others that God has shown to us.