Throughout the Gospels, Jesus will say things like, “Come to me all you who travail and are heavy-laden, and I will refresh you;”[i] “I will not leave you orphaned;”[ii] and “Just as I have loved you, love one another.”[iii] The counsel, comfort, and truth of each of these sayings is self-evident and immediate. Beyond that, they reflect the Jesus we know, who is the incarnate love of God and always speaks the truth. Preachers love to preach on such passages.
And then today’s Gospel passage crops up in the lectionary. This is a passage no preacher has ever wanted to preach on: “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.”
So what happens in this story? A wealthy man has an account manager who has not been doing his job to collect on his boss’s debts. (Probably because he’s lazy. He’s a dishonest manager, after all.) The wealthy employer gets fed up and in frustration fires the manager. But the conniving manager concocts a plan as he heads out the door. He goes to each of his employer’s debtors and offers to collect only dimes on the dollar. Dishonest as he is, the manager doesn’t intend to help those in debt. Rather, he hopes that by cutting advantageous deals with the debtors he’ll buy their friendship, which may help him when he is soon out of a job. The manager brings his collection back to his boss, and to the manager’s surprise, rather than fire him, the boss praises him. He is restored. The dishonest manager’s shenanigans have saved him.
It’s a story worthy of a Hollywood film like The Wolf of Wall Street, but it’s strange coming from the mouth of Jesus. And what’s even more shocking to Christian ears is what Jesus says after telling the story. Jesus offers his listeners this motto, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal home.”
This is not “Love one another as I’ve loved you.” It is bizarre and troubling counsel from Jesus. We scarcely recognize this Jesus. Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth? What is he talking about? Even Luke the Evangelist isn’t sure. That’s why Luke tacks half a dozen random aphorisms to the end of this parable. Like spaghetti against a wall, Luke hopes one will stick!
The one thing we can be sure of always is that Jesus Christ will not encourage us to be dishonest or unjust, and any biblical interpretation that suggests otherwise must be flawed. It turns out here that Christian people may have long been disserved by a poor choice of translation. (Stick with me here!) One time in this story the manager is referred to as “dishonest,” and this one mention leads us to imagine all of his actions to have self-serving, ulterior motives. This one mention even leads us to title the story “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.” But the Greek word translated here as “dishonest”—ἀδικία (adikia)—actually more exactly means “unrighteous.” And in the bible, “unrighteous” can be defined as “opposed to God.”[iv] It can also be interpreted “devoid of God.” And that, I think, is the key to understanding this story.
You see, I don’t believe the manager in today’s parable is dishonest at all. I don’t think that’s what the original Greek means here. I believe, instead, that Jesus is telling us a story about a manager who is devoid of God. Or said a bit differently, this is a story about a man who has lost his faith. That’s worth saying and hearing again: There is good evidence that is not a parable about a dishonest manager; it’s about a manager who has lost his faith.
So, how does this parable read differently if we give ourselves permission to reinterpret it this way? It reads something like this:
There is a manager—mid-level guy, building a career—who lately can’t get his job done. Maybe he’s young or inexperienced and afraid he’s in over his head. Maybe he’s having a mid-life crisis. Maybe he’s hit the age where life moves faster than he does. Maybe he’s depressed. Maybe he’s struggling with addiction. Whatever his backstory, Jesus tells us that the manager is adikia, “devoid of God.” He has lost his faith. In God. In himself. In goodness. In life’s happy ending. Perhaps all of these. And it has paralyzed him.
The threat of losing his job and becoming destitute jars the manager and makes him realize he must do something. So he gets up and goes—not in dishonesty, but in the midst of a deep crisis of faith—to engage those indebted to his firm. He doesn’t treat them the way he feels: empty and devoid of God. He doesn’t threaten them or demand the impossible. Instead, the manager extends some grace to them that he himself does not feel. He offers them what he can. He meets them where they are. And when he does these things, a miraculous thing happens. With these interactions, somehow, bit-by-bit, his own faith is restored. In the old and tired translation, the parable ends, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” But a perhaps better and more faithful interpretation is, “The master rejoiced at the manager-who’d-lost-his-faith, because, even when he was faithless, he acted faithfully.” And through his actions, his faith was restored!
Jesus’ parable suddenly makes more sense, and it is in complete keeping with the Jesus we know throughout the Gospels. And Jesus’ counsel here is the same for us just as it was in Jesus’ own day:
Sometimes—oftentimes—we, like the manager, lose our faith. Maybe we’ve suffered disappointment; maybe we’ve made grievous mistakes; maybe we battle addiction; maybe life has simply ground us down. Whatever our backstory, some days when we pause to take stock, we may realize that our faith has slipped away. And that can be paralyzing.
What is the remedy? Jesus tell us: Even when faith falters, act faithfully. Even when your soul is empty, act faithfully. Not perfectly or with complete success. That’s never the bar. We need only meet those in need where they are and give of ourselves what we can. Those for whom we act—to whom we extend grace—may be pulled from their own wreckage. And by acting faithfully, we will find our way back to faith, and meaning, and joy.
We have actually seen the icon of this within our lifetimes. It was a shock to many when, upon her death, it was revealed that through much of her life and ministry, Mother Teresa of Calcutta felt devoid of faith. Mother Teresa lost her faith. And yet, each day for decades upon decades, Mother Teresa acted faithfully. She got up and lived her life by giving of herself and extending grace where she could. When her faith faltered, Mother Teresa acted faithfully. And in doing so, she found her way back to faith and joy. One who worked alongside her said of Mother Teresa that in her presence, “There was laughing and giggling and it was all very joyful.”[v]
As for Mother Teresa, as for the manager, so for us. Whether saint or sinner, we all lose our faith sometimes. It can be numbing, terrifying…paralyzing. In exactly those moments, God urges us nevertheless to act faithfully, with grace and kindness: To give what we can of ourselves and meet others where they are. God does not ask for perfection. He will not be checking the accounts. God only asks that when we falter in faith, we still act in faith. And when we do, we will discover that when we extend grace, we receive grace. We and find our way back to faith again.
But then, you, the parish family of St. Mark’s, know this. No matter what you may be going through, whether in a season your faith is waxing or waning, you act faithfully. Each week, you feed hundreds through the Food Pantry. In just a few weeks, you will support St. Francis House through the Shrimp Boil. Every day, you open this house of God to all who wish to meet and know God. You offer words of grace; you act faithfully. And grace returns to you as the master rejoices.
[i] Matthew 11:28
[ii] John 14:18
[iii] John 13:34