The Dishonest Manager: Turn a Loan into a Gift

A Sermon for Eighteenth Pentecost

This parable is so troubling. It is one of a whole series of parables that deal with the competing demands of wealth and relationships. Right after the parable about the prodigal son and his upset older brother, Jesus tells his disciples this story that the NRSV titles "The Dishonest Manager". It is very difficult to figure out who is supposed to be the virtuous one in this parable. What is Rabbi Jesus teaching us by commending the manager who garners some good will by altering the debt due to his employer before he gets fired from his position? We cannot be sure what model of behavior we are supposed to emulate or avoid. The rich man? The dishonest manager? The people in debt? And when did being shrewd with dishonest wealth become an ethic worthy of mention? Is there a difference between shrewd and faithful?

There is one aspect of this parable that we are all familiar with — debt. We all have some debt. In fact, if you have never had any debt, you won't have a credit report, and you don't really exist as a viable member of our economy. Debt is an integral part of our modern economy and unless you're Amish or Mormon, you are carrying some debt. The more I think about the way that we live, owing others in a fragile balance of income, interest, and payments — the more this parable began to resonate with me. So, let me recast Jesus' story in a way that might hit home with us given our most recent economic crisis.

Then Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a wealthy bank who had a mortgage loan manager, and charges were brought to the bank owners that this loan manager was refusing to offer any more high—risk "No Income, No Asset" verification mortgage loans.

So the bank owner summoned him and said to him, "What is this that I hear about you? We are going to lose all of these mortgages to other banks because you aren't willing to encourage people to take on a mortgage they cannot afford. Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my mortgage loan manager any longer.'

Then the loan manager said to himself, "What will I do, now that the bank is taking the job away from me? I myself have my own debt and bills to pay: multiple mortgages and car payments and alimony that I cannot afford unless I am making these large commissions on the backs of the poor. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes  . . if they still have homes."

So, summoning the bank's mortgage clients one by one, he asked the first, "How much do you owe the bank?'

He answered, "Five hundred thousand dollars with a balloon interest that will hit me in two years."

He said to him, "Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it two hundred and fifty thousand with a fixed interest you can afford for 30 years."

Then he asked another, "And how much do you owe?"

He replied, "Two hundred thousand, but I've just lost my job and entered into cancer treatment."

He said to him, "Look, stop paying your mortgage, you have no income and you are about to have lots of medical bills. Let your house go into foreclosure and walk away from this debt. Soon, there will be so many homes in foreclosure that the bank is not even going to worry about your small home. You probably won't even be evicted for a very long time."

And the bank owner commended the mortgage manager because he had acted shrewdly and alerted the bank to the mortgage crisis that was about to hit and they quickly sold off all of their high risk mortgages to other investors who were hungry for money and slow to get the news that the housing bubble had burst; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

Does this parable sound more familiar? Aren't we all well acquainted with the characters that I have described? I think, what makes this parable so troubling for us is the fact that no one in the story has actually done anything illegal. The rules of right and wrong in our economic story are so ambiguous that we cannot figure out who to blame. Looking back on 2006—2008, we have learned that the guiding principle was only accumulating more wealth. The bank lending laws got looser and looser — because the desire to buy up bundled mortgage backed bonds got bigger and bigger — so more and more people who had no business getting into debt were offered mortgage loans by institutions they trusted to be guarding the wealth, not giving it away. The whole system was shrewdly legal and also, when it collapsed, highly damaging to the folks at the bottom of the loan chain  . . the people in debt who were supposed to be making monthly payments with interest. They are the ones who end up homeless, bankrupt, and scarred by toxic debt that sticks to their credit records for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile the shrewd bank owners get bailed out because they are too big to fail.

The children of this age are shrewd, clever, and always looking for the legal loopholes to take care of themselves  . . perhaps, at the expense of others. But hey, they have done nothing wrong, nothing illegal. It's just good business management. It's winning at the game of wealth.

But, as Jesus points out, the children of the light are not so shrewd. The children of the light may even understand the clever machinations of our crazy debt encouraging economy, but they are not willing to leverage their neighbor's need to earn a nickel in their own pocket. Something else drives their behavior towards being faithful at the expense of being shrewd and ultimately at the expense of their own worship of wealth. The children of light are more interested in being faithful to their relationship with God and their neighbor. They might even give their wealth away if it would serve their sacred relationships.

I know that there are mortgage loan managers who had ulcers, heart conditions, and suicide in 2008 because their faithful conscience howled in protest every time they offered a high risk client debt they could never dream of paying off and the client eagerly signed the paperwork. The cost of being shrewd was at war with their desire to be faithful and their bodies took the damage hits. You cannot serve God and wealth; the stress alone can kill you.

So — what is Rabbi Jesus trying to teach us today? In the recovery period after a deep recession created by unbridled greed and economic shrewdness. In a current economic culture that causes us to question the prospects for our children's futures with college debt growing higher, employment becoming harder to find, and salaries that are not keeping pace with the cost of living. Jesus, teach us to be faithful!

I think it comes down to this  . . what do you believe will save you in this life? Is it wealth? Or is it God? Wherever you believe your salvation comes from, that is what you will worship and that is what you will learn to serve.

Being faithful to God is an extremely counter-cultural choice. Maybe it has always been so. Much of our American identity and culture is built on a belief that economic power and expansion is limitless and it belongs to us. We rest easy when we are the global super-power because we believe that our economic, military, and GDP will save us. But if we are faithful to God — economic power is no longer our salvation. We are no longer looking for loopholes to get ahead in the game of wealth. Instead, we are investigating the well-being of our neighbors and asking God to show us how to love one another.

If we are children of the light, we are called to be faithful with our wealth. We are called to use our resources in the service of sharing God's love for the world. We are called to be in deep relationship with God and our neighbor so that our salvation comes from the resurrecting love we share, not the economic fortress we have built. You do this at All Saints' when you share your wealth with the Religious Coalition, Advocates for the Homeless, and recovery efforts in Ellicott City.

At the end of the parable, Jesus even challenges us to be faithful with the dishonest wealth. I wonder if that is debt forgiveness? A jubilee year of erasing all debt and restoring people to a position of economic health. Wiping away the toxic predatory debt that destroys the lives of those who can least afford it and giving them an economic freedom that resurrects instead of punishes. Have you ever forgiven a debt owed to you? Turned a loan into a gift so that the one in debt could be set free?

Jesus also asks us to be faithful with what belongs to others? I believe this is the definition of stewardship — to care for the resources that are not your own. If we are faithful, then we recognize that nothing in this world really belongs to us anyway. It is all a gift: my life, my family, my health, my community, even my wealth. I didn't earn any of it all by myself and the whole gift could disappear in an instant. Our challenge is to be faithful stewards of the resources that never really belonged to us in the first place. Here at All Saints' you have been faithful stewards of these buildings handed down from generation to generation over the last 274 years. You have used the resources put into the endowment by others in order to faithfully restore and tend to the steeple and replace the organ that will continue to bless generations to come. You have understood that the resources of your common life at All Saints' is not to be hoarded and increased by cleverness and at the expense of others. That is not God's economy. This whole enterprise of being church is a gift, freely given to us. And from our faithfulness we give of ourselves so that the true riches of God's economy might grow and develop to serve all people.

—The Rev. Adrien Dawson
September 18, 2016