The “Dishonest” Manager?

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



Sometimes shepherd, sometimes lost sheep

It is a blessing and privilege to be with you this day!  For the past several months, meeting first with the search committee and then with the vestry, finally arriving in Little Rock and knowing more deeply your wardens and parish staff, Jill and I have readied ourselves for this very day.  As many will know, the return to Arkansas is a homecoming for us.  I am from Paragould.  My mother is from Jonesboro, my dad is from McGehee, and all of my siblings still live in the Natural State.  Jill was raised at Trinity here in Little Rock, and we met and fell in love up the road at Hendrix College in Conway.  I became an Episcopalian in this Diocese more than a quarter century ago.  Beyond all that, St. Mark’s has long been a parish that I have observed from afar and admired, as you have lived your faith so vividly and in so many ways.  The first time I walked onto this campus was in 1994, when Jill and I were newly engaged.  Jill brought me here because her father, John Benson, is interred in St. Mark’s columbarium.  If I was going to marry her, she wanted me to meet her dad.  Then and several other times in the intervening twenty-eight years I have sat in that holy garden and talked to my father-in-law.  Each time, I have imagined what it would be like to serve in this inspiring place.  My heart is glad to be your rector.

Today we read the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  As with so many of Jesus’ parables, we’ve heard this one so many times, and it has become so familiar, that as soon as we hear its first words, we superimpose assumptions on the story.  It’s like visiting your grandmother’s house:  Turning into her driveway, you already feel the warmth of the quilt on the bed, the smell of the cookies baking in the oven.  You know the experience even before it happens.  Similarly, we think we know what these parables will tell us even before the reading is complete. 

But Luke’s telling of the Parable of the Lost Sheep is not so straightforward.  We usually imagine that the shepherd is God, and we are the sinful lost sheep.  Our sin has led us astray, and God loves us so much that God will leave all else behind to find us and bring us home.  The words with which Luke concludes this parable support that interpretation: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” 

And yet, Luke’ introduction to the parable suggests not that we are the lost sheep, but that we are the shepherd.  Jesus begins, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Jesus asks his audience to imagine themselves as the one tending the flock.

So which is it? Are we the sheep, or are we the shepherd?  Are we the lost, or are we the seeker?

In 2003, I was ordained and assigned by my bishop to be the vicar of a restart congregation of forty parishioners in Memphis.  Holy Apostles had declined in membership and sold its church building several years before; had been worshiping for some months in a Presbyterian Church fellowship hall; and was searching for yet a new temporary home.  In all that moving of church records and materiel, everything had become topsy-turvy at best.  I spent those early days trying to sort things out and make sense of it all, when one afternoon Holy Apostles’ Cricket pay-by-the-minute cell phone rang.  The voice on the other end of the line asked, “Is this Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles?  We’ve been trying to find you for days.  Marie Daniels is here.  She listed Holy Apostles on her intake history.  We’ve been trying to find you.”

Startled, and furtively rifling through what church records I could find, I responded, “Yes, yes, Holy Apostles…Marie Daniels, you say?”

The nurse exhaled.  “Yes.  Ms. Daniels is unconscious now, but she wanted someone from her church to visit her.”

I could find no written record of Marie Daniels, but within an hour I was in an ICU room at St. Francis Hospital.  Marie was tiny in her hospital bed.  She was clearly in the final hours of her mortal life.  Though she was unconscious, I leaned over and spoke into her ear, “Ms. Daniels, I am so sorry you were lost, but your church has found you.  You are not alone.” 

It was my first pastoral visit as a cleric, and I found myself cast in the role of the shepherd, seeking out one lost sheep in the darkness.

A week later, Marie Daniels’ became my very first funeral.  Graveside on a windy day, as I walked over the berm to the gravesite—with its blue tent and three rows of velvet-covered chairs—I saw that the only attendees were Marie’s out-of-town nephew, who was also her executor, and his wife.  As if to telegraph that they were present only by duty, they—the lone worshipers—sat stony-faced in the back row corner seats.  They looked at me, and the funeral home attendant looked at me.  I couldn’t hold my place in the Prayer Book due to the wind.  I felt entirely lost.  I feared I was not up to the task, and I couldn’t see the way forward.  As I barely suppressed the urge to cut and run like a dullard sheep, my senior warden, Diane Reddoch, walked over the berm and took a seat in the front row.  She smiled up at me in encouragement.  Diane knew that I would be lost, and she would not allow me to wander alone.  I found myself in the role of the sheep, and Diane rescued me from the darkness.

Sometimes we are the shepherd.  Sometimes we are the lost sheep.  Sometimes we know the way, but other times we wander to the very precipice and find ourselves teetering on the edge.  Sometimes we shine the light, and sometimes we look in desperation for a beacon.  And that, I believe, is why Jesus tells his parable in this way.  That is why the Church—the Beloved Community—is so vitally, essentially important.  It is here that in our strength we rescue one another.  It is here that in our weakness we can trust to be found. 

It’s been a strange few years.  In our splintered society and through the long coronavirus pandemic, we have each surely found ourselves sometimes lost.  Our patterns of practice, relationship, gathering, and engagement—all those things that make us whole and bring us joy—have been upended.  So many of the old and trusted roadmaps and guideposts are obscured or gone.  We sometimes feel like the lost sheep, trying to find our way back to what is known. Do you know that feeling?

Beyond our own lives, there are so many, within our orbits and throughout our broader community, who are lost and whose needs are both spiritual and tangible.  There are the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, and the lonely.  There are those just beyond our sight who find themselves teetering on the precipice, who need someone to reach out with the shepherd’s crook and pull them to safety.

This is, then, the perfect Gospel reading for today.  Here we are, gathered in this sacred space.  So much of what we have collectively lost can be found right here, anew and renewed, at St. Mark’s: Our relationships with people we have not seen in a long while, our community of caring—of shouldering one another’s burdens and doubling one another’s blessing—our joy in singing, and praying, and eating potluck dishes, and seeing the Christ in one another’s eyes…Here we can find and be found!  Today is the invitation for us to restore our patterns of engagement, our embrace of the Gospel, and our care of our neighbors on the precipice.  So many of our programs and ministries are rebuilding post-pandemic, and each needs shepherds to tend the flock.  It is a new year at St. Mark’s.  Whatever we may have lost, here, together in the heart of God’s love, we will find.  I’m so excited to be here with you, in this place, at this moment.  Like the sheep in Jesus’ parable, I am glad to be found here.  Like the shepherd in Jesus’ parable, I call you my new friends and neighbors, and I say on this Kick-off Sunday, “Rejoice with me!”