A Parable for the Rest of Us
Whereas a saint might have the greatest difficulty with today’s parable, a sinner might even admit a hint of secret relief that here at least there is some hope for the ones who are aware of awkward and real embarassment in their personal life situations. The puzzle for those who are aware of unresolved difficulties (which I guess includes a substantial proportion of the population) is in finding a way through. In those terms, the parable is pragmatic in what it suggests.
Because this parable has a likely general meaning as well as another which might be seen as aimed at the individual we can learn from it as a people as well as those engaged in an individual personal faith journey.
Luke’s original audience of first century Jews would have been likely to understand the characters as addressing their situation as a nation. For them the master in the story was meant to be God entrusting his servant Israel to take on the extra responsibilities as a chosen people. By the time Luke was setting the story down it was becoming all too clear that the Jews, now facing disaster, had mishandled their stewardship and had become arrogant and high handed with their neighbours. In this sense perhaps Jesus was using an imaginative way to remind the Jews that the realities of their situation meant there would be a day of reckoning which, at the time of writing, had already started.. Since there was no way to undo the past damage, the most hopeful thing they could now do as a people was to pull back from the rigid rules they had set and start behaving in a much more reasonable and responsible way towards the very people they had previously openly disparaged. This may not entirely recover the situation in time to avoid the on-coming calamity but had a reasonable chance of winning them some much needed friends.
This suggests one way we too might start looking at the parable. Among the self- claimed Christian nations there are a number whose past history suggests that like the Israelites they too have had times when they have taken upon themselves the role of a chosen people and in the process gone seriously astray. The common fault is in confusing the difference between assuming responsibility for those being colonised and the alternative of simply using strength to take advantage of weaker neighbours. The history of most colonial powers is one of exploiting subject people for personal advantage. For example, the British and French in Africa, the Spanish in South America and both the Western and Communist powers in the Middle East should have much to confess by way of past domineering exploitation. While it is true that the colonists have enjoyed many advantages as a consequence, it is also true that many of the people, native to the territory being exploited, finish up losing their birthright. Think here of the number of indigenous peoples whose social statistics place them at the bottom of their communities. The aborigines in Australia, the Maori in New Zealand, the North American Indians in the United States, the Palestinians in Israel – the list goes on.
The cycle of history is such that sooner or later a subjugated people builds its sense of resentment to the point where it rises up against its self-appointed masters. The Jews – themselves turned from colonizers to a people being subjugated in turn by the Romans- had a particular problem in that when they rose up against the Romans they lacked the military strength to win the day. What was worse their previous attitudes of superiority over those with whom they had shared their general territory over the years (eg the Samaritans) meant that if anything their plight was even welcomed by their neighbours who had no reason to be grateful to the Jews.
Even strongest nations sooner or later find themselves beseiged. Arnold Toynbee in his Study of History described 17 major civilisations which came and in turn were destroyed – and these were only the major ones. What is more common is territory shared by different cultural and ethnic groups and where some groups assume superiority over others. In this country (New Zealand) by way of example, the British were happy to take land and resources from the indigenous Maori. Recent immigration patterns have brought a much more diverse group of immigrants to New Zealand and each group is not necessarily anxious to preserve past patterns of privilege for those of British stock. Since we can’t pretend past injustices have not been perpetrated, nor that a simple apology will suffice, we have to face the real possibility that our final harvest will be reaping a whirlwind.
Like the Israelites we can expect no better treatment from others from that which has already been done in our name. This may not be judgement in the literal biblical sense but nevertheless it is a reality which has played itself out many times in different regions over the last few decades. Perhaps then the parable still speaks to us through the centuries. This is a time, not for conjuring up a claimed history of mythical perfection, because our predecessors’ past actions tell their own story, but at the very least, as the parable implies, we have little alternative to doing what we can to use the few resources left to us to make friends.
It is true that allowing the parable to speak to our group conscience is likely to leave us feeling very uncomfortable. But it is not only a group responsibility which is addressed. Remember the other standard approach to the parable is to look at the story from our individual viewpoints. Here too there may be discomfit.
The original Greek for household manager is “oikonomos” – from which we get our word “economy.” Literally, oikonomia – economics – is managing God’s household. To forget that the household is not ours to do with as we like is another way of saying our personal management risks selfish distortion.
One concern we should have today is that what was initially identified as dishonesty by Jesus is now common practice in our world of commerce. Perhaps it is also worth noting that there is also touch of that arch swindler Bernie Madoff in the manner in which the manager tries to cover up the degree of the mess he has got himself into by sharp practice.
Although Jesus states the manager is dishonest, perhaps we might remember that the main cause of dishonesty is that he has been charging interest on loans, which under Jewish law, was forbidden. In that sense there is probably not a bank or finance company in our nation that is not guilty of the same offence. Individuals working for such institutions under our law are only guilty of a crime if they go beyond the set agreed rates of interest – and unfortunately, year after year, the court records show that many in our community have been guilty of taking more than their entitlement.
The notion of partial forgiveness of debt has an interesting connection with Christianity when we remember the place in the Lord’s prayer where the words –” forgive us our debts as we forgive others” is often loosely translated as “forgive us our trespasses” or just as vaguely “our sins“, yet the original Greek seems to have retained the original sense of forgiving debts as financial obligations.
On a personal note, I find this is helpful in giving a hard and realistic edge to what might otherwise be an empty expression. It is easy to use expressions like “I forgive you” when no consequent actions are required, but since financial obligations can only be forgiven by releasing the debtor from their debt, the forgiveness has real meaning.
A single parable should not be expected to make too many points but it is hard to dissociate the judgement of the business owner from the notion of a final judgement. Here we don’t need to stray too far into the highly contentious issue of what judgement might or might not involve. At a much more basic level the meaning might simply be that, since after death, or even in old age, we lose the ability to use our money and tactical advantages wisely, we might as well make use of what time we have left to restore what can be restored in whatever compromised situation we find ourselves to be.
And modern life is inevitably compromised. There is no guarantee that even those who tithe for Church offering have made their money by entirely honest means and entirely ethical investments. Retirement savings are often invested with large organisations who may well be looking after shareholders and management ahead of the interests of the customers they serve. For those of us paid what we consider to be a fair wage for a fair day’s work there is also the shadow hanging over us that much of this income can be traced back to trading practices in a world where there is anything but a level playing field for third word nations.
The phrase attributed by Luke to Jesus “You cannot serve God and Mammon” may lose something in the complexity of modern society, yet the basic ethical dilemma remains. There would be few even in the Church who are sufficiently pure in their motives to have set aside personal desires to focus entirely on serving their God and their neighbours but where the balance has gone too far in the other direction Jesus’ words suggest we can be in danger of losing any genuine claim on discipleship.
Realistically it is unlikely that we are ever able to free ourselves entirely from the attraction of Mammon. Yet to the extent our money and possessions offer us advantage over our fellows there is potential for long term trouble. Again some idealistic solution is probably out of reach. Jesus in his parable seems to be suggesting that when we find ourselves compromised we should at least use all our ingenuity to find ways of making it easier for those who we have made our debtors.
This is why at the most basic level we should be seriously concerned at those who now find themselves most seriously in debt to society. Those who have had to borrow to survive, those who struggle to subsist, let alone progress, those who exist on a pittance that we might have cheap clothing and imported produce in our shops are all dependent on our present and future choices.
There are real sins in the shadows of our world. I guess many will know the Greek story of how Zeus gave his wedding present of a box to Pandora with instructions that it never be opened. Pandora’s husband, unable to resist a peek, opened the box and all the evils of the world escaped and have bedeviled every society ever since. Yet even there all was not entirely lost. The last to emerge from the box was not an evil – it was the spirit of hope. It might be foolish indeed to pretend that the evils are not present, either as characteristics of our society or as personal characteristics. When however we see the hope along with the evil, perhaps this is when we should begin to act.