A Scandalous Story
By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
The Great Litany in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer contains these memorable words:
“In all time of tribulation;
in all time of our prosperity . . .
good Lord, deliver us.”
This request reminds us that we need help, not only when we are beleaguered by hardship, but also when we are blessed by mercy. To illustrate this, let’s compare two stories that Jesus tells.
The first appears at the end of chapter eighteen of Matthew’s Gospel. A king shows enormous generosity by forgiving a debtor who owes him an astronomical sum. But this former debtor hasn’t even left the palace when he comes upon someone who owes him a far more modest amount. He seizes his debtor by the neck and demands the money, refusing the debtor’s entreaties for mercy. The king finds out about this injustice, and, so to speak, there is hell to pay.
“In all time of our prosperity, good Lord, deliver us.”
It is entirely possible for one of us to be on the receiving end of abundant mercy, and then to show cruelty to someone who is desperate for mercy from us. Someone befriends us by kindness, yet we refuse to do the same in turn for our needy neighbor. It happens all the time.
The second story is today’s gospel, and is found, not in Matthew, but in Luke. It is more perplexing and obscure than the story from Matthew. Indeed, this story has embarrassed Christians for centuries. Luke himself appears to make several tries at applying this story in a way that he will find acceptable. Let’s see where we can go with it.
A rich man hears from somebody or other that his manager, his trusted manager is squandering his property. The rich man apparently makes no effort to investigate these charges other than to demand an accounting from his manager. At the same time he does this, he fires the manager. This is not a rational way to behave. Perhaps the manager is not dishonest or even irresponsible. He may be a victim of false accusations.
Now what’s the manager to do—dig ditches? He’s not strong enough. Beg from people? He’s too proud for that! The manager decides on a plan. Before he has to hand in the key to his office, he invites in his master’s debtors and has them change the records. He allows them to get out of big portions of their big-time debts. Naturally they are grateful. And as people of influence, they find work for this former manager that befits his background and experience.
Is it underhanded—what the manager allows the debtors to do? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Commentators on this passage offer various explanations.
• Perhaps the manager has overcharged these debtors and is now reducing their bills to what they should have been in the first place.
• Perhaps the manager is cutting out his fee, an amount customary perhaps, but certainly substantial.
• Perhaps he is deducting interest payments which, according to Jewish law, are strictly forbidden in the first place.
We simply do not know how to interpret the manager’s action, except that what he does makes his master’s debtors into his friends. He is doing them a big favor, and they know it.
Perhaps to appreciate fully this story we need to look past the possibly dishonest activity of the manager to recognize a different aspect of what he does, something else which in its own way appears to us irregular.
The manager is out of a job—whether justly or not is unclear. Yet in his moment of crisis he reaches out to others to relieve their burdens.
Put aside for a moment that the business with the records may have been unethical.
Put aside also how his new friends are well equipped to help him out in return.
Concentrate instead on how the manager does a favor for somebody else. He looks pretty good by comparison with the debtor in the first story who, once relieved of an enormous debt, refuses to let someone else off the hook regarding a far smaller sum.
However implausibly, even his former master commends his behavior once he catches on. At this point, the text calls the manager “dishonest,” but it also has his former boss—who is perhaps his present victim—commends him for acting shrewdly. Sometimes we just can’t help but admire a really clever crook.
In the first story I mentioned, the one from Matthew, there are in effect two scenes of judgment. In the first scene, the king forgives the debtor. In the second scene, the forgiven debtor refuses to forgive someone who owes him money. The conclusion is tragic.
In the second story, the one from Luke, there are also two judgment scenes. In the first, the manager is judged guilt and condemned by his master, apparently on hearsay. In the second judgment scene, the manager in effect acquits the debtors of much of their debt. He shows them mercy, even though mercy had not been shown to them.
The first story reminds us that when people treat us well, we ought to pass on the favor to others who are in need, and woe to those who do not.
The second story presents a more demanding ethic. We are invited to respond to misfortune or ill treatment by showing kindness to others. If possible, we’re to let the grief stop with us.
Like the manager, we can get moving and make friends for ourselves. Rather than simply pass on mercy when it is shown to us, we can generate it ourselves when it is conspicuously absent. In the eyes of the world, this production of mercy may seem as scandalous as a case of cooking the books. But it is gospel goodness.
At some time or other, each one of us is treated unjustly. That’s beyond our control. Where we have a choice is in how we respond to this.
Do we believe that God is at work, even inside our worst circumstances?
Do we continue to believe that the Lord’s intention for us remains good?
The injustice is still an injustice, and those responsible for it will have to answer to God. But within that injustice there may be a blessing for us or for other people.
This may be far from apparent when our eyes are still wet with tears, our heart feels heavy in our chest, our stomach is tied up in knots. The blessing may even be apparent only later, or to people other than ourselves. But it is the blessing that prevails.
The bad news is that sometimes we act like the forgiven yet ungrateful debtor in that story from Matthew.
The good news is that Christ behaves like the manager in the story from Luke. Christ suffers unjustly, but what he does is set us free from debts we can never pay. The whole business of the cross looks like a scandal, yet it is a bestowal of life and freedom. Christ asks that as he absolves us, we go forth in turn and forgive the debts of others.
Copyright 2010 Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.