20 January 2020
Henry Ford, the inventor of the Model T, was visiting his family's ancestral village in Ireland. Two trustees of the local hospital learned he was there, and got an appointment to see him. They talked Ford into giving the hospital five thousand dollars (this was the 1930's, so five thousand dollars was a great deal of money). The next morning, at breakfast, he opened his newspaper to read the headline: "American Millionaire Gives Fifty Thousand to Local Hospital." Ford wasted no time in summoning the two hospital trustees. He waved the newspaper in their faces. "What does this mean?" he demanded. The trustees apologized profusely. "Dreadful error," they said. They promised to get the editor to print a retraction the very next day saying that the great Henry Ford had given not fifty thousand, but only five. Hearing this, Ford offered them another forty-five thousand, under one condition: that the trustees would erect a marble arch at the new hospital entrance with a plaque on it. It was to read, "I was a stranger and you took me in."
In this story there is a subtle undermining of the wealth of Henry Ford for the good of those in need, the sick of Clonakilty, Co Cork. We appreciate the trickery and also the wry acknowledgement of it by Henry Ford. Things have been turned over for the benefit of everyone. He gets the honour, the hospital the money they need, and an archway they don’t need.
And in this strange parable of the dishonest manager, there is this same overturning of the order of things but in a setting that is far grimmer than the Ford story.
Remember that this parable follows the story of the lost son who returned home to his father’s forgiveness and the older brother who sulks outside and refuses to join the party. Its not right, its not fait but God’s love seeks us regardless of where we are and turns things upside down. .
Jesus tells the story. Lets retell it in its own social setting.
A wealthy man lives in a big city off the income of his country estate. . He's hired a manager (steward) to run it, and all of the work of planting and harvesting is done by peasants. Their grandparents probably owned the land but lost it in payment to a debt.. The harvest is never quite enough to pay the rent plus what the family needs, so they are slipping further and further into debt, working harder and harder to pay what can't be paid. And the landlord’s representative is the steward .
The landowner fires the steward because of rumours that the steward is squandering the landowner's resources. So the steward is no longer authorized to do anything in the master's name. . He is literally faced with death. The farmers aren't about to take him in, he has ripped them off for years. HE has no job prospects and no good references. He can’t beg or dig. He wouldn’t be able to compete in the market for hard labouring jobs, he’ll be dead within a year [on the stats of the time]. These are grim times. So what does the steward do? He wants to live. He has the small window of opportunity before the landowner returns and the farmers know he is fired. So he acts.
He quickly calls in all of the farmers who owe money, and he declares that their debts have been reduced from the rough equivalent of "a million billion dollars" to something that could be repaid. He gets them to change their accounts with a few strokes of the (forger's) pen . Owe 100 jugs of olive oil, today you are lucky – make it 50, 100 containers of wheat? quickly, make it 80.
The steward lets the tenants believe the landowner has authorized the discount.. The landowner is now a hero in the farmers' eyes -- and the steward basks in reflected glory.
The landowner arrives and gets a challenging surprise. The road is lined by cheering tenant farmers. The landowner finds out what the steward has done and now he has a choice to make. He can go to the crowd -- those people shouting blessings upon him and all his family -- and tell them that it was all a terrible mistake, that the steward's generosity was an act of fraud and they still have to pay a whole lot more..
Or the landowner can take credit for the steward's actions, in which case he'll continue to be honoured by the farmers. Not losing face - is very important in the first-century Mediterranean world! As it is in many parts of the world today and even for Henry Ford..
But he'll have to take the steward back who brought such good news of the lord's generous forgiveness, otherwise the crowd might turn on him. And even if he doesn’t, the steward goes from scab to hero. At least the farmers will take him in, if the landowner won't. The Landowner has little choice but to commend the steward for his shrewd actions.
The problem, for most commentators on this passage, is that what the steward does is clearly dishonest. He's guilty of all charges, taking the landlord's property and squandering it -- even after he was fired. So the question is what, precisely, is it that the steward does, even although it is without authorization and with deception?
The steward forgives debts. The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that's the decisive action he takes to redeem himself from a position where he’d fallen foul of the landowner as well as the tenants.
Luke is emphasising to need to FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all. Luke’s version of the "Lord's Prayer" includes the helpful category confusion, "forgive us our sins as we forgive (the monetary debts of -- it's clear in the Greek) our debtors" (Luke 11:4). Many times Luke says that the arrival of the kingdom of God is no occasion for score-keeping of any kind, whether monetary or moral.
• Why forgive someone who's sinned against us, or against our sense of what is obviously right? We don't have to do it out of love for the other person, if we're not there yet.
• We could forgive the other person because of that whole business of what we pray in Jesus' name, and because we know we'd like forgiveness ourselves.
• We could forgive because we've experienced what we're like as unforgiving people, and so we know that refusing to forgive because we don't want the other person to benefit is, like eating rat poison hoping it will hurt the rat.
• We could forgive because we are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus' power to forgive and free sinners like us.
• Or we could forgive because we think it will improve our odds of winning the lottery.
Whether its: deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena -- financial and moral -- can only put us more deeply in touch with God's grace.
We face this as Presbyterians in working out the consequences of the debates on sexuality, or if a person in a congregation is experiencing conflict. What's a good reason to remain in fellowship (or "in communion," if you want a more technical term)? What's a good reason to be gracious toward those who think differently? What's a good reason to give up any and all scorekeeping?
Pick one of the above, or none, or all. It doesn't matter. If a guy who was a scab and a rogue can forgive to save his job, or give himself a safety net if his firing proves final, then we have who experienced real grace have better reason to forgive. We who believe that "the earth is the Lord's, and all that is in it" (Psalm 24:1), find forgiving debts is simply telling someone else that scorekeeping is up to the only one to whom anything of value belongs.
We've got more important things than scorekeeping to think about. We need to both forgive and know that we are forgiven. Its not just how we feel but its an action of doing the work God has given us to do, to love and serve Him, with gladness and singleness of heart, through Christ our Lord..
With thanks to Sarah Dylan for the format
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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