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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 09/18/2016

Have you followed the case of John Saatio on the local news? He’s been the lead story on the TV 6 evening news a few times, opening as they do most every night with the latest crime news, trial or drug bust. Anyway, he’s the guy who was arrested up in Houghton a couple of years ago I think, for home invasion and destruction of police property. What’s kept him in the news though, is they keep losing him. When he was first arraigned in Houghton District Court as they were returning him to jail, Mr. Saatio escaped. Apparently he stole a car and got as far as Green Bay where authorities found the car but still couldn’t find him.

He was off the radar for awhile and got as far as Costa Rica where local police identified him about a year later. He was placed in a detention center down there, but he escaped again. 48 hours later, they caught him again and extradited him to Florida accompanied by United States Marshalls so you figure he’s safely in custody. In Florida however, they were transporting Saatio to prison when he asked if they could stop so he could use the bathroom. They did, and he escaped a third time and at that point, if you haven’t already, you start to wonder about the law enforcement people, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me; fool me three times, I don’t know. They did capture him a day later and as far as I know he’s still in custody.

I assume though, that ultimately John Saatio will have to again appear in court in Houghton for further arraignment if he doesn’t escape for a fourth time on the way to court. According to today’s parable though the judge could say to him, “John, I want to commend you and give you credit; I admire your determination and perseverance in the face of a difficult situation. I’m going to let you go.” That’s what the parable would suggest.

What I’m trying to do is to show the absurdity of this parable, the Parable of the Unjust Steward or the Dishonest Manager. It is one that has mystified people, probably since the words left Jesus’ mouth. From the early church fathers all the way down to today’s commentators there have been efforts to explain it although not with much success. Some want to make it about repentance on the part of the manager or the master or both. Another angle is that the manager is a Robin Hood like character, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, others want to make him a likeable con man like Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the Sting, or the crew in the Oceans 11, 12, 13 movies, nice guys like George Clooney and Matt Damon.

The trouble is that none of these explanations are very convincing; we’re still left with dishonesty being praised and even acknowledging that this is not to be taken literally as behavior to be admired we’re still left with, I’m still left with the question of just what is this supposed to be about? I talk about how in parables there’s always a hook that turns you in a direction you didn’t think you were going, but when the hook is dishonesty being praised when you would expect it to be condemned, what’s the message? What truth is being revealed by the manager wasting property that’s not his and then having that behavior commended?

There’s nothing commendable about this guy. Let’s review here; first he squandered the master’s money. Then, knowing that for good reason he’s about to lose his position, he shows no sign of repentance about what he’s done. Instead, because he’s too weak to do manual labor and too proud to beg he concocts a self serving plan to curry favor with folks who might be able to provide him with a place to stay when he loses his job; but it’s all about him; no thought of anyone else. There’s no sense of repentance, so sense of being aware of wrongdoing on his part as the plan he comes up with amounts to reducing debts that he has no business reducing. Having cheated the master once, he proceeds to do it again and for that, the master commends him. Is it the parable of the Dishonest Manager or is it the Parable of the Incredibly Naïve Master and either way, what’s the point?

I’m going to take a shot here, I might be wrong but I’m going to take a shot and suggest that this parable is the sequel to the Prodigal Son parable. In Luke’s gospel, today’s parable does immediately follow the Prodigal Son, so in that sense it is the sequel. Making that connection, it seems to me that this parable is not so much about the manager or the master but it’s more about us cast in the role of the older brother in the Prodigal Son story.

In the Prodigal Son, you remember that the younger brother takes his inheritance early, which is an insult to his father, and then proceeds to squander it. Reduced to taking care of pigs and eating the same food the pigs were eating, the younger son decides to go home and ask for forgiveness, but before he can even ask, his father welcomes him back, kills the fatted calf and throws a party for him.

And then there’s the older brother, the older brother who is upset by the graciousness and forgiveness of the father. To him, it’s not fair when he has been the good son, doing everything he was supposed to without his father ever throwing a party for him. It’s one of Jesus’ best known parables and, if we’re honest, all of us can identify with the feeling of the older brother, we’re sympathetic toward him because what happens isn’t fair. What Jesus then cleverly does in today’s parable is to keep us in big brother mode, bothered as we are by the unfairness of the manager being commended rather than condemned.

The manager cheated the master not once but twice, everything he does is self serving with no regard for anyone else; he’s not a likeable con man and still the master finds good in him and in big brother mode we’re left saying, “Wait a minute, this isn’t right,” and with that Jesus has hooked us.

In the reality of this world, it’s not right. In this world, the view of the older brother would prevail; there would be consequences for the prodigal son and there would be consequences for the dishonest manager. But Jesus was always trying to move people beyond the reality of this world and into the reality of his world which is centered on grace. The prodigal son didn’t deserve forgiveness and a party; the dishonest manager didn’t deserve to be commended, quite the contrary, but for Jesus it’s not about what you deserve. In older brother mode though, this bothers us. Jesus catches us in the hypocrisy of saying we believe in grace but only for those who deserve it in which case it’s no longer grace.

When Jesus tells this crazy parable with its apparent praise of dishonesty and then ends it by saying you can’t serve God and wealth he’s saying that we’ll never understand grace as long as we’re limited by a worldview that sees everything through the lens of its economic value, a worldview in which you do get what you deserve and in which you feel cheated when that doesn’t happen, especially when you feel like someone got away with something. That contrasted with a worldview that sees everything through the lens of grace, which means it isn’t always about what you deserve but that there is always another chance even for prodigal sons, even for dishonest managers, even for others who don’t deserve it, others that includes all of us. In this world there still will be consequences, but in the Kingdom of God there is grace.

With parables like this, you sometimes wish there was a follow up. What did the prodigal son do in response to the forgiveness and welcome of his father? What did the dishonest manager do in response to the commendation of the very one he had cheated not once but twice? Jesus however, leaves these things open. Having made known the difference of his kingdom, especially the difference that grace makes, he tends to leave it up to us to sort things out, to figure out what that gift of grace means to us. Through the lens of grace, the world should look different as the joy of new life and new possibilities replace the bitterness and envy that consume us when we’re trapped in the role of the older brother.

I don’t know if I’m right about this interpretation of this parable but I’ll take my chances, because I do know I’m right about God’s grace.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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