Restitution, Welcome and the “Unjust” Manager

[A sermon on Luke 16:1-13 preached at Wine Before Breakfast, 11 February, 2020]

“Once there was a rich man …“
let’s just stop there,
because how you respond,
viscerally respond,
to that introduction will shape
your whole sense of this parable.

“Once there was a rich man …“
And, of course,
how you hear these words
depends entirely on where you stand.

Imagine that you are an upper-middle class
male university student in Canada:

“once there was a rich man”
might sound pretty good:
once there was a man who worked hard,
who was respected because of his wealth,
and had power because he was rich,
who had power because, to put it bluntly,
he was a man who was rich.
This is a promising beginning.

Imagine you are a typical white
churchgoing woman in the diocese of Toronto.

“Once there was a rich man”
sounds pretty good to you, too.
It is the rich who keep the church afloat,
the wealthy who fill our newsfeeds
and our instagram.
We might even have a delicious thrill
“what did the rich man do now?”

Imagine, and this might be harder
for some of you,

easier for a few,
that you are a young black man
who grew up in Regent Park in Toronto,
but had to move when the city redeveloped
that housing project.
What do you hear when
“Once there was a rich man”
is the first line of a story?

You know who those rich men are;
they are the developers who bought up
the land your apartment was on,
they are the ones who displaced your community,
they are the ones making Toronto unaffordable
for you and your family.

Or imagine that you are an indigenous woman
from Grassy Narrows,

where the mercury flows in the water,
and in your breast milk.

“Once there was a rich man”
doesn’t exactly inspire trust.
The rich men you know
poisoned your land,
your waters,
your children’s blood.

Now, how do you think that Jesus’ listeners
heard this opening?
Many of them knew rich men,
the men who loaned them a bushel of seed
when their crop had failed due to drought,
and demanded 10 bushels in payment
whether the harvest was good or not.

Some of them knew the rich men who rented them land
and demanded 2/3 of their harvest in payment.

They knew the rich men
who had repossessed farms
that the villagers had tended
with care and affection
like their fathers and mothers before them,
and their fathers and mothers before that.

“Once there was a rich man”
was not the beginning of a story of good news.

When Jesus begins the parable,
they aren’t expecting the rich man
to be the good guy.
Especially since some of them
had already heard Jesus tell the story
of the rich fool,
who built bigger and bigger barns,
until he lost his soul (Lk 12.13-21).

They had already heard Jesus
urge his followers not to invite
the rich to their banquets,
but to invite the poor and the
most vulnerable instead (14.12-14).

They had already heard Jesus
tell his followers twice to give up
all their possessions (12.33; 14.33).

When Jesus begins with a rich man
they have a pretty shrewd idea

of where this might be going.

Except that there isn’t just a rich man,
there is also a manager,
who was not managing
his master’s property
in a satisfactory manner.

The english translation uses the word “squandering”
for his actions
but the Greek is actually “scattering” or “dispersing”
the master’s property.
It is the same word used for the prodigal son
in the previous chapter,
who had dispersed his inheritance
in dissolute living.

We don’t have a reference to where the property went
in this case.
No reference to dissolute living.

How was the manager dispersing or scattering
the master’s property?
Was he not foreclosing on property
that he should have?
Was he refusing to charge as much interest
as he should have,
thereby allowing property to slip
through his master’s fingers?
Was this only property that the master felt
he was entitled to
because of the usual outrageous interest rates
that the wealthy were entitled to charge?
Was it really the master’s property,
in that case?

(Just as an aside, charging interest was
forbidden in the torah.)

If the manager was indeed trying to act
with more justice than was expected of him,
he was being very, very careful.
For it was clear that he wasn’t sure that
the villagers who owed money were willing
to welcome him into their homes
should the axe fall.

Which, of course, it did.
The rich man heard
(from who? Jesus doesn’t tell us.)
that the manager is dispersing property,
and so he calls the manager on the carpet,
tells him to get the books to him asap,
because he’s being fired.

The manager is in a tight spot.
He’s losing his job.

He’s pretty sure that he doesn’t have the stamina
to work as a day labourer.
He’s doesn’t want to lose face
by begging for his food.

What could he possibly do?
His only option is to try to rebuild the relationships
that have been broken by his association
with the rich man.
Only by somehow making things right,
does he have a hope that the villagers
might welcome him into their homes.

Notice that his goal isn’t first of all
to find another job.
His first goal is to seek to be welcomed
into the community once again.

Because when community is restored,
welcome is made possible,
and homes are opened.

But how to begin restoring relationships?
The manager has a pretty clear idea:
the wrong inflicted on these villagers was monetary,
restitution can only be monetary as well.

So he makes the rounds and asks those
who owe the rich man money to come and see him.

When the first person shows up he asks,
how much do you owe my master?
“One hundred jugs of olive oil.”
One hundred jugs.
Each jug of olive oil held 400 litres—
this is an enormous amount.
The manager reduces the amount owing
to 50 jugs.
A debt of 40,000 litres of olive oil,
reduced to 20,000.

The next person owes 100 containers of wheat—
enough food to feed 150 people for a whole year.
The manager reduces the amount owing
to 80 containers of wheat.

Let’s be clear,
these are enormous amounts.

What kind of rich man demands these kinds
of payments from people?
The same kind of rich man
who buys up social housing
and turns it into condos.
The same kind of man
who poisons people’s water
just to make a buck.

The actions of the manager, however,
are saving whole villages
from hunger.

The manager is using what power he has
to enact a measure of justice

for these villagers.
He is literally, forgiving their debts,
not entirely, but as much as he is able.

What is startling is the response of the rich man.
On the one hand he realizes he’s been had
and that he’s lost money.
That’s why he describes the manager as
“dishonest” in the text.
Or, to be more faithful to the Greek,
the rich man describes the manager as “unjust.”
This means, of course,
that he is “unjust”
only according to the standards of the rich man,
who defines justice in terms of
his own oppressive actions.

On the other hand, of course,
the rich man realizes that there is nothing
he can do now about these debts.
He himself probably doesn’t have any idea
what anyone originally owed.
He has to accept the accounts as presented to him.
Hence his description of the manager as shrewd.

Most surprising to us
is the way that Jesus interprets this parable:
make friends for yourself with unjust wealth,
so that when it is gone they may welcome
you into eternal homes.
Or, more accurately,
into homes from generation to generation,
for the Greek word that is translated as “eternal”
is literally “into the ages.”

Two interesting things here:
the parable assumes from start to finish

that wealth is rooted in injustice.
Every mention of rich men and riches in Luke
is in a context of giving those riches up,
and giving them away.

But what if you find yourself caught
in an economics of unjust wealth,
like so many of us are?
What do you do with it then?

Wealth, or “unjust wealth,”
is to be used to make friends,

to restore relationships,
to build community,
to make restitution.

And when you find that you have used it all up,
when there is no wealth left for you to use
for restoring community,
then those with whom you are restored will
welcome you into their homes.

Except the word for homes is not oikos,
the word for house,
but skēnas,
the word for tent,
or tabernacle.

You will be welcomed into tents
down through the ages.
The tabernacling God,
the Word who became flesh and
pitched God’s tent among us
(as John literally puts it in chapter 1),
assures us that we will be welcomed
into the tents of the tabernacling people

It is only the wealthy who build stone houses,
places of solidity and security
and permanence on the land.

Those who practice justice
live lightly on the land,

dwell in tents,
move according to the seasons,
and amass only enough to live.
They never possess so much that they need
a whole household
to store it.

Do you know anyone like this?

“For if you have not been faithful
with unjust wealth,”
Jesus continues,
“who will entrust you with true riches?”

Notice that Jesus isn’t asking us to be faithful
to dishonest wealth,

but to act in ways that are faithful to God
in the midst of that wealth.

We are not to be faithful to the rich man,
we are not to be faithful to an unjust economic system.
We are to be faithful to God’s call
to disperse wealth,
use it for restitution,
and when we have used even the unjust wealth
that we have because of our privilege
for restitution, for justice, for restoration,
then we will be entrusted with the riches of the kingdom.

So what does this look like?
What would the young man
who grew up on Regent Park
imagine that such faithfulness would look like?
Or the woman, nursing her child in Grassy Narrows?
Or the women who come to the drop in at Sanctuary?
Or the men who fix bikes at Switchback?

What would it look like to take our privilege,
our wealth,
our property,
and use it for restitution,
for the healing of community,
for the healing of the land,
for the building of relationships?

Would it look like pouring our talents
into the empowering of others?
Would it look like
downsizing our living space,
in order to enable housing for someone else?
Would it look like
spending time building relationships
with people who need welcome into community?
Would it mean using our skills
to give voice to those who have no voice?
Would it mean what the parable literally tells us to do—
giving money and giving land back
to those it was taken from in the first place?

For Jesus is clear:
it is only when the wealth is gone,
only when we have no wealth demanding our service,
that we can truly serve God,
and be welcomed into that sojourning space,
that place of tents and tabernacles,
where Jesus came to pitch his tent,
and be at home among us.


Sylvia Keesmaat
Sylvia Keesmaat is a biblical scholar-activist whose passions are teaching the Bible, heirloom tomatoes, and permaculture. She explores radical discipleship and resilience on an off-grid permaculture farm with her husband Brian Walsh and a fluctuating number of people and animals.

Sylvia is the author of Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire and Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, both co-authored with Brian Walsh. In her down-time she teaches part-time at Wycliffe College and Trinity College in Toronto.

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