A Rogue and God’s Kingship

purpleFlower1Can a charming rogue be an example of how to enter the Kingship of God? Jesus’ Parable of the Dishonest Manager invites us to explore that question.

The Rich Man has heard rumors that his Manager is squandering his property and decides immediately to fire the Manager without giving the Manager a chance to defend himself. In a most helpful article on the parable, David Landry makes the Rich Man’s swift action understandable by explaining the importance of honor in ancient society. In an honor system, the notoriety of a delinquent subordinate reflects badly on the pater familias who is supposed to control everybody under his authority. The public rumors about the Manager threaten the Rich Man with social disgrace and he is running scared.

The inner dialogue of the Dishonest Manager shows no honor as his desperate scheming leads to an inventive solution to his dilemma. Generous with the Rich Man’s money, he quickly acts to reduce the debts owed the Rich Man. These debts strengthen the portrait of the Rich Man as a ruthless person who uses economic power to oppress others, a common practice of absentee landlords in Jesus’ time. He is the sort of rich man who the prophet Amos accused of “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” (Amos 6) Although the Dishonest Manager is acting only out of self-interest, he is still helping other people in the process.

The Rich Man’s commendation of the Manager is perhaps the most puzzling turn in the parable. Landry’s discussion of honor is helpful here as well. He suggests that the Manager’s reducing the debts has brought admiration and honor to the Rich Man, something the Rich Man has probably had very little of in the past. The same person who had brought dishonor on the Rich Man has now used his agency to bring the Rich Man more honor than he has ever had.

The act of forgiveness, self-centered as it is, has thrown a monkey wrench into the economic system which up to this time has been one of economic exploitation of the weak. This is what trickster rogues like the Dishonest Manager do. The Rich Man, hard-hearted up to this point, confirms the forgiven debts, which are a fait accompli anyway. What kind of chain reaction might occur out of this action that could transform the economic system into one based on forgiveness and love? What transformation of character might there be on the part of both the Manager and the Rich Man? At the beginning of the parable, the Rich Man believes the accusations against his Dishonest Manager out of fear that his honor is compromised. By the end of the parable, the Rich Man has gained honor for being generous, a challenge to gain even more honor through more generosity, honor that can be enhanced by keeping the Manager.

When we note that this parable in Luke’s Gospel follows directly the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the probability that the Parable of the Dishonest Manager is indeed about forgiveness is heightened. Moreover, there are some significant links between the two parables. Most prominently, each features a man who has squandered the resources of somebody else. Indeed, the same otherwise rare Greek verb diaskorpizo is used both times. The theme of honor plays a contrasting role in these parables. The Rich Man clings to his honor, but he does shift from being a slave to the opinions of those accusing the Manager to accepting honor from those whose debts have been forgiven. The Father of the Prodigal Son, on the other hand, throws honor to the winds throughout, first by allowing the younger son to insult him by asking for his inheritance, then by frantically running out to meet the younger son when he returns. Might the Rich Man eventually take this final step in renouncing his sense of honor out of love for those indebted to him? Is such renunciation of honor what it means to serve God rather than wealth, since honor is a form of wealth? (Lk. 15: 13)

Right after the Rich Man’s commendation of the Manager, Jesus adds: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” (Lk. 16: 8) Here, Jesus poses a powerful question to his followers: Do we actually forgive others even as much as the Dishonest Manager forgave the debts owed the Rich Man? Is there a chance that the Dishonest Manager and the Rich Man will enter the Kingdom of God before us?

How Are We Saved?

yellowTulips1The New Testament and two thousand years of Christian preaching has consistently proclaimed that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has opened the way of salvation for all humanity. Precisely how this mysterious, earthshaking event has done that   has raised more questions than answers. It is understandable that the focus would tend to be on the death of Jesus since the event is so dramatic and creates intense emotional effects in Jesus’ followers. However, understandings of the atonement of Jesus through this route have raised long-standing problems that cry out for a fresh approach. The growing realization that the killing of Jesus was just plain wrong on the part of many Christians, and not just those influenced by the thought of René Girard,  opens a way for a re-thinking of atonement theology that can support a deep spirituality grounded in God’s unconditional love for all people. As article I wrote for the Abbey Letter Saved By the Life of Jesus contributes to this re-thinking that actually reclaims the Gospel for us. It is included in the collection of articles in Come Let Us Adore. You can read it here.

The Prodigal Father and His Sons


The famous parable traditionally known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:11–32) is the quintessential illustration of pre-emptory forgiveness, one that closes the case on Jesus’ teaching on vengeance and forgiveness. This parable is better called “The Parable of the Prodigal Father and His Two Sons.” The opening of the parable draws a triangle: “There was a man who had two sons.” We expect tension out of a triangle, and we get it right off the bat when the younger son asks for his share of the property. The father accedes to his son’s request (demand?) and the younger son goes off with the proceeds. The elder son stays at home with his share of the property, at least geographically. What kind of father would be so foolish? Why would a young man leave a father who would give him whatever he wanted? Was it to get away from his brother? The stories about paired brothers in Genesis predispose us to suspect that the two brothers are mirror images of each other.

The parable goes on to say that the younger son “squandered his property.” Literally, he “scattered his substance.” That is, the younger son, while trying to forge an individual selfhood separate from his father and brother, completely loses himself in dissolute living. Geographical distance has not freed him from continuing to be a mirror image of his older brother. Then comes a famine and the social crisis that comes with it. Chances are that the scarcity was magnified by created scarcity. In such a social crisis, there must be a victim. A foreigner is particularly vulnerable to being a victim in such a crisis. The younger son fit the bill perfectly. He was deserted by everybody, in spite of all the money he spent on his women and carousing friends. Nobody was willing to take him in. He ended up as a servant who feeds the pigs (an unclean animal for Jews) and “no one gave him anything.” In this desperate situation, the younger son recalled how well-fed his father’s servants were, and he “came to himself.” Perhaps it was embarrassment that made him want to return as a servant, but perhaps he also didn’t want to re-enter the triangle with his father and brother.

The father’s ecstatic reception of the lost son and subsequent celebration blows apart the family triangle, leaving no room for mimetic strife. In contrast to the mimetic process that organizes society around a dispensable victim, the indispensable victim who is no longer lost has been found. The elder son, however, wanted to preserve the old triangle. His sour attitude suggests that he still needs to have his younger brother live irresponsibly. The elder brother’s universe would collapse if his younger brother began to play a responsible role in family affairs. No wonder the younger son ran away from a brother like that!

When the older brother keeps his distance, the father runs out to him with the same solicitude he showed the returning younger son. The elder son’s disingenuous accusation of not being allowed to celebrate is shown up for what it is. Apparently, the elder son never thought to celebrate with his friends until his father threw a party for that son of his. What the elder son has done is put himself into competition with his younger brother, when there is no need for competition. This sort of mimetic rivalry creates a stumbling block in the way of forgiveness. It remains to be seen whether or not the younger brother will forgive the elder for his unforgiving attitude.

We are likely to judge the younger brother for his callous irresponsibility and the elder brother for his amazing insensitivity. But if we do that, we find ourselves ensnared in the mimetic struggle between the two brothers, comparing them and taking sides until our own capacity for love is obscured and our capacity for celebration fizzles. The Prodigal Father does neither. He does not upbraid the younger son for leaving; neither does he upbraid his elder son for being such an insufferable prig. He only invites both of them to the party. Most of us have a hard time even wanting to be a father like that!

The parable ends with this challenge of forgiveness and unconditional love: Do we rise to the challenge of the Prodigal Father and renounce our irresponsibility and self-righteousness?