September 22, 2019
On Tuesday morning, as I drove into town, there was a huge cluster of cars and trucks by one house on my road. The driveway was overfull, cars lined the street 25 feet or more in either direction. I wondered at it, but not for long. Later, Don Tikander mentioned seeing it on Facebook, only then the crime scene unit was on site. By the time I drove home it was clear, but I hadn’t been home for very long when Lisa Jones texted to see if I was okay. Her sister had texted her that she’d heard a body had been found buried in the yard of a home on the Harrison Road.
Over the next 24 hours, I heard from many people—it didn’t help that NewsCenter, the first to report the story, used a photo from Google Earth to indicate the location, and there was MY HOUSE in the middle of the picture! I spent time trying to reassure people I was fine, no, no one had been murdered on my property, or even next door. I thought I was calming people down when I said I doubted it was foul play. More likely Social Security fraud: Grannie died and the family buried her secretly so the checks would keep coming.
If you’ve followed the story, you know the outcome was something quite different—a really rather tender story of friendship and promise-keeping. The woman who lived there had taken in a friend who had become gravely ill. The friend had made the woman promise to bury the friend right there on the property after she died, so that they would always be near. The woman who lived there spent two days slowly digging a hole, despite her COPD. She didn’t know there are laws about burying bodies in your yard. She was trying to do something good and kind and loving.
I felt a certain shame in realizing how quickly I—we—jumped to some conclusion of misdoing, some secret being covered up. I had patted myself on the back for not assuming it was murder; but I was just as guilty as the rest for not even considering that the only law broken was regarding the disposal of a corpse, and that done in innocence.
We are so quick to assume the worst.
That jumped out at me this week as I looked at this utterly perplexing parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel reading. I had been prepared to say, “If you’re confused, that’s okay. It’s been around two thousand years and no one has come up with a satisfactory explanation of it yet. So let’s look at the reading from Amos…”
But what I noticed is that the parable Jesus tells never actually says the manager is guilty. It says that a report came back to the rich man that the manager had been squandering his property. The rich man doesn’t give the manager a chance to defend himself or prove the charges false. His guilt is assumed—by both the rich man and every person who hears the story Jesus tells.
Perhaps everything that follows is less about the details of the story, and more about how quickly everyone believed the worst of this man. Perhaps Jesus keeps pushing, making it more and more absurd, to point out the underlying injustice of the situation. It actually begins to make sense, if you look at it that way. The manager knows there will be no true justice for himself, so he takes matters into his own hands. He makes arrangements with the debtors that will provide him with safety once he is thrown out of the rich man’s house. He does what he can within a system that is broken. He uses what resources he has. The rich man calls him ‘shrewd’—or at least that’s how the word, phronimos, is translated here. This is one of those cases where we have passed a bad translation down through the ages. Only here is it translated “shrewd.” Elsewhere it is “prudent, discreet, thoughtful, considerate, sensible wise.” Even our translation makes an assumption of guilt that just may not be there. This week I have read this as a criticism of our human willingness to think the worst of people, a test to see if any of the disciples can ask the question, “But did he actually do the thing he was accused of doing?” The text doesn’t indicate that they passed that test. Our relationship with this text over the years tells me we haven’t, either.
There is one other phrase where a bad translation really skews the meaning: ‘eternal homes.’
The word is not homes. It’s tents. A temporary dwelling. I believe Jesus is being sarcastic when he makes this statement about gaining wealth through dishonest means, concluding with this oxymoronic image of eternal tents. He’s pointing out that there is no real security in that. And suddenly, what Jesus says next flows naturally out of what has come before.
Jesus is criticizing the existing power structures, where the “ins” need only say a word in the right ear to destroy a person. He is warning them that trusting in wealth—be it money or good reputation or family connections—will not serve you well in the long run. He is walking in the footsteps of prophets throughout the ages. Amos was making the same arguments 800 years before.
That takes me back to one more thought about that weird parable Jesus told. Amos was calling on people to challenge the social and economic structure that favored the wealthy. They gave lip service to their religious values, but really just complained that the holy days got in the way of making money. They overcharged the poor and then cheated them by mixing chaff into the wheat. Then, when their dishonesty left the poor owing more than they could pay, they’d buy and sell people with as much concern as if they were shopping for shoes.
The man in the parable is accused of ‘squandering’ the rich man’s property. We make assumptions about what that ‘squandering’ looks like. But there is one more thought that occurred to me as I wrestled with this text this week. The manager went to people who owed the rich man money. One assumes part of his job was to collect these sums—so why were they still owed? What if the ‘squandering’ was actually compassion, a willingness to extend the credit until they were in a better position to repay? What if the rich man’s complaint was that he wasn’t getting rich fast enough, no matter the cost of human life? What if his direction to lower their bills was not cheating the rich man, but actually setting them closer to what was really owed?
At the end of Tuesday’s Bible study, someone asked, “Where is the Gospel in this parable?” I didn’t have an answer then. I’m not really sure I have one now, either. But as I have squeezed and prodded and poked these words, hoping for them to offer some easy answer, it has been I the back of my mind as I moved through these days. Perhaps the Gospel isn’t in the parable itself, but it the way it stayed in the back of my mind, poking at me to consider another possibility.
In an attempt to confess my sin of pre-judgment as gently as possible, I wrote this on Wednesday: “The story about the body ends up being one of friendship and promises.” Someone commented that he had forgotten about the context for a minute, and thought I was giving a preview of my sermon.
Turns out, he was right.