Harry always insisted on buying the pizza.
He was one of six kids from the neighborhood who would gather each week for a Bible study to see if Scripture had anything to say to their lives.
Even though I knew his money wasn’t exactly honest, I let Harry buy the pizza. He had a generous heart that I admired a lot. But I think there was more going on. It was his way of subverting a system that he could never quite escape.
One day Harry dropped by the community center. He had heard that we had been broken into many times. As I recounted the string of robberies, Harry stopped me. He went out to his car and came back with a .357 Magnum. He laid it on the table, carefully covered his hands with his sleeves, emptied the chamber and handed me the gun. “It’s a gift,” he said. “I want you to have it.” He added with a warm smile. “It looks like you could use a little help around here.”
I’d never held a .357 before, or since. I was stunned at both the heaviness of the gun and the bigness of Harry’s heart. I thanked him and told him that I’d stick to prayer. I returned the gun.
Tragically, a few months later Harry was shot and killed. He owed somebody something.
That was a long time ago. I still miss Harry and his generous heart.
In this week’s text, Jesus contrasts two ways of life: the way of wealth (demanding what is owed) and the way of God (forgiving what is owed).
To make his point Jesus tells the story of a manager who is charged with “squandering” his owner’s wealth. The owner demands an accounting. Fearful of losing everything, the manager acts shrewdly. He partially forgives the debtors in hopes that he might gain favor with them when he is fired. To his surprise the owner (and Jesus) praises the dishonest actions of the manager, admiring his shrewdness.
The manager’s daring act of generosity subverts the entire tit-for-tat system that holds the debtors, himself, and even the owner hostage. It’s a system of death that is incompatible with God’s way of life. This is why Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Lose the Ledger
The way of wealth is transactional. It always keeps score. It demands what is owed, to the last penny. The way of God, on the other hand, is transformational. It throws out the spreadsheet and refuses to play by the rules. If there has to be a loser, then God will absorb the loss.
When Jesus praises the manager for his risky act, he is putting all the pressure back on the owner. In the end, we are shocked and delighted to see the owner (and Jesus) admiring the dishonest and subversive act of the manager who dares to forgive debts in the name of the owner.
Can we see?
Jesus is helping us re-imagine the owner who turns out to be much better than we thought. He is inviting us to do the same with God.
Jesus is inviting us to finish the story and supply the ending that he withholds. We are meant to imagine that the owner forgives the manager altogether and throws a wild party. At least that’s how I see it. This ending frees the manager and the owner from a system that dooms them both. When we risk on forgiveness, we discover that God is not running the divine pyramid scheme we thought he was. He is not employing managers (religious authorities) to exact fees from humanity (us) to build his empire of wealth (the kingdom). He is not keeping record. He gives and forgives wildly and freely, absorbing the loss, even to death. That’s the way of God.
When we risk on such generosity the transactional system of wealth that holds us hostage falls apart, freeing us all. Like Harry and the manager in this story, Jesus is calling us to imitate that generosity.