The great Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil told the story of Henry Ford returning to his ancestral home in Ireland. The trustees of the local hospital had high hopes. At a meeting with him they secured a $5,000 donation from Ford for their new hospital. The next morning at breakfast, Henry Ford opened the newspaper to read the headline: “American Millionaire Gives Fifty Thousand to Local Hospital.”
Ford wasted no time summoning the trustees. He waved the newspaper in their faces, “What does this mean?” he demanded. The trustees apologized profusely, saying it was a dreadful mistake on the part of the newspaper editor. They promised that the editor would publish a retraction the next day declaring that the great Henry Ford had given $5,000 to the local hospital, not $50,000.
Hearing this, Henry Ford offered them another $45,000 on the condition the trustees erect a marble arch on the front of the hospital, with a plaque that read, “I was a stranger and you took me in.”
The shrewdness of the hospital trustees reminds me of the manager in today’s gospel story. He too saw an opportunity and used it to his advantage. He seems to walk an ethical line that may be spotty at best. What is Jesus doing praising this guy. On the surface it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Is this one of those moments when we end by saying the Lord works in mysterious ways?
Let’s take the story apart a bit. Begin with two characters, the rich man and his manager. The word on the street is the manager is embezzling funds and taking kickbacks. So the rich man summons him to his office. The jigs up. In serious hot water, the manager realizes he’s not trained for any other job, so he better lay some groundwork for his future. He goes to his boss’ clients, reduces their bills and earns the gratitude of the vendors.
That much we can follow. The manager is trying to make the best of a bad situation, and since he’s already defrauded his boss, he might as well go whole hog and make himself look good by unethically reducing the amount of money the clients owe.
Now, at this point, if you’re like me, you might think when the master discovered this latest scheme he would call for tar and feathers. But no. Jesus said that the “master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
Jesus is completely baffling. This doesn’t seem to be the type of behavior he usually advocates. Can you imagine if this was in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the shrewd, for they shall make eternal homes by means of dishonest wealth.”
If you’re thrown off by this parable, don’t panic. Remember, they are meant to be confusing. They are not for the faint of heart chasing easy answers. They are meant to turn conventional wisdom on its head, to leave listeners scratching their heads and praying for guidance.
At the same time, Jesus hands us stories like this and says, “trust what you know of me and figure this out.”
So, let's give it a try.
What exactly is it the manager does that is unethical or wrong? He forgives the clients’ debts. Ring a bell? ‘Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. Now, can you see it? There is forgiveness in this parable.
But wait, it still doesn’t make sense. If Jesus wanted to talk about forgiveness, why didn’t he just say, “There was this guy who had a lot of people owing him money. He could have been a jerk about it, but he said, OK, you guys don’t have to pay, and everyone lived happily ever after.”
Remember, God does not let us get away with easy answers. Why? Because our lives don’t come with easy answers.
Jesus doesn’t tell simple stories because none of us live simple stories. Think of how the many connections you have to the people you love sometimes get hopelessly tangled and snarled, until you can’t remember what the problem was in the first place. Now you can’t figure out how to fix it.
Think of the times you’ve been between a rock and hard place, knowing that any decision you make will hurt someone. Think of the times you’ve been driven by circumstances to a place where compromising your integrity seems like a small price to pay if it will just get you out of this mess.
Jesus knows that our lives are not black and white. He also knows that we need guidance to live out of our better angles. So he gives us the gift of forgiveness. He offers his forgiveness openly, freely, and without restraint. There is nothing we can ever do that will take God’s love away from us. There is no way we will ever be anything less than God’s cherished children. No matter how many mistakes we make or how many people we hurt. We are forgiven before we know we are going to do wrong, because Jesus loved us even unto death.
Knowing that forgiveness is ours for the asking at every step of the way, how can we not want to try it out ourselves?
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” That’s what happens in this parable. The dishonest manager is forgiven even as he forgives others. And here’s the best part: It’s not neat and tidy and clean cut. There are still loose ends and ethical questions and uncertainty.
Because once again, Jesus knows that this is what our lives like. We are human, and we are always going to have mixed motives and screw things up, even when we’re trying to do the right thing; in part, we really want to have integrity and in part we just want everyone to see us as having integrity.
Jesus knows this better than we know ourselves, and in this parable, he tells us, that it’s OK.
It’s OK to have mixed motives and make mistakes- what’s important is that we keep trying. If we waited to forgive each other until we had perfect charity in our hearts, we’d be here until the apocalypse. Jesus is saying, just haul off and do it. Forgive everyone! Forgive people even if you know they are wrong. Forgive people when you know you are wrong. Forgive people when you don’t feel like it, when they aren’t talking to you, when you aren’t talking to them, when you don’t have the time. Forgive people you’ve never met, forgive atrocities so big you’re afraid to forgive them, forgive faults so small you are ashamed that they bother you. Forgive even if you’ve done it a thousand times; forgive even if you’ve never forgiven before.
So, right now, while you’re sitting gathered around font and table, think of someone who is making you furious. It could be the guy who cut you off in traffic; it could be the guy on the other end of your medicare phone call; it could be your daughter who is “pushing all of your buttons.” It could be your spouse who never remembers to take the garbage out; it could be the sibling who hurt and betrayed you so badly you haven’t spoken in years. Just do it. Say to that person in your mind, “I forgive you.”
It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel anything. You might feel an overwhelming rush of love and grace, or you might still fell cranky and self-righteous and just plain mad. It doesn’t matter. You’ve taken the first step. Whatever else is in your heart right now – anger, fear, disappointment- there is also a little seed of forgiveness that has sprouted. And one day, if you keep practicing, you’re going to find that forgiveness in your heart has grown so great that you can start to forgive yourself. And that will be a great day in the Kingdom of God.
There’s a bit of the dishonest manager in all of us, wheeling and dealing like the hospital trustees. Trying to manage our lives so they look good to the world, our friends, and to God. Jesus tells us today that he sees right through us—and loves us dearly anyway.
Loving not the ideal, but the real- that is the challenge. Loving each other when our frailties and failures are so apparent. That is the struggle.
And when you can’t do it with the generosity and grace we strive for, the Good News is, We are forgiven!