Sermon for Sept. 22, 2019, Pentecost 15C. An audio version will be here for several weeks.
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Sermon The Moral Hazard of Mercy
General Motors is on strike. The company made $35 billion in North America over the last three years, and now the labor unions think it is time to bring pay equity back. GM probably owes its existence to the government bailout it got after filing for bankruptcy in the last recession.
The bailout of the auto industry saved 1.5 million jobs in the United States, according to the Center for Automotive Research. Nevertheless, some economists opposed it at the time. They argued that when you bailout a company you create a “moral hazard.”
I had never heard that term before the recession. It means that when someone, or some business, does something bad, like taking unwise risks or making products that people don’t want to buy, they should suffer the consequences for it, even if it means going out of business. Because, if they are let off the hook, the argument goes, they will do it again. That’s the “moral hazard.”
But isn’t that what every case of mercy is? Isn’t that what every “second chance” is? We are going to look at a story Jesus told that is all about mercy. It is a story about someone doing something bad, and being let off the hook; even being commended.
This is going to provoke us to think about mercy and the moral hazard God is willing to create, according to Jesus’ understanding of God. So, to the story.
The Weirdest Parable
Jesus told his parables in Israel; the Middle East in the first century. It was common for a large estate owner to rent out his land to tenant farmers and to be paid in produce like olive oil and wheat. That is what is most likely going on here in this parable. Landowners were generally respectable people who cared deeply about their honor. This story (all of Jesus’ stories) take place in an honor-shame society. We will see how that becomes important.
The landowners kept careful records of the contracts for renting land specifying the amounts to be collected at harvest time. Often they employed people to manage the business under their watchful eye. The managers had the authority to act in the landowner’s name, writing contracts and collecting the income. In this parable, the estate owner comes to believe that his manager, was being dishonest.
He has options: he can fire him on the spot, or he can have him arrested and imprisoned. The owner decides simply to fire him. He is being merciful. But he demands to see the account books. He says,
“Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”
The manager has to go retrieve the books. This gives him a brief moment of time. Where are the books? How far does he have to go to get them? How much time will it take to retrieve them? Does he have enough time to call in the renters as he does in this story? We don’t know. We have to suspend our disbelief and imagine that he does. Parables often mess with realism.
So he calls them in, one by one, and asks what they will owe at harvest time, and drastically reduces the amount, without telling them why. When they arrive, he rushes them to quickly adjust their contracts and go. They don’t know he has been fired. They think he still has the authority to make or adjust contracts. They probably assume that the owner and he have talked about it.
They are probably thinking, adjusting the rental price downwards would not occur to an owner to do, but the manager must have somehow persuaded him. Both the owner and the manager are now loved by all the renters in the village. Their honor status has just improved. They will both be esteemed with gratitude.
How could the dishonest manager think he could get away with this? When the owner finds out — and he will find out — won’t he have him imprisoned and punished? Maybe so, but maybe not. The dishonest manager is making a calculated gamble. The owner has already shown himself merciful once by firing him without calling in the authorities; perhaps he can bet everything on him being merciful yet again.
Why should he be? Because now that their rents have been reduced, all the village loves him. If he demands the original price now, he will be deeply resented. He will lose honor. And if he tells them that the manager had been fired and had no authority to change contracts, then it will be clear to them that he did not ever agree to the discount; he is not such a wonderful man.
The landowner recognizes that this dishonest manager has been very clever. Everyone will love them both, and this will work out well for the manager after he is let go. So the owner commends the manager. One New Testament scholar said that this is a David and Goliath kind of story; a peasant manager has outwitted the wealthy landowner. Everyone would have loved it.
How Much More?
So this is an example of what we call a “how much more” parable. Like the widow getting justice from an unjust judge and a man getting bread at midnight from a reluctant neighbor, how much more so would God help his children in need? “If this dishonest [manager] solved his problem by relying on the mercy of his master to solve his crisis, how much more will God help you in your crisis when you trust his mercy.” (— Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant, p. 105)
So this is a parable about the God of mercy in whom we trust. And we will look into what it means that God is merciful in a minute, but first a word about the stark warnings that come next. Scholars believe that Luke was perhaps worried that his audience, mostly Gentiles who were city people, who did not grow up in the land-renting farming Jewish communities of Israel might misunderstand this parable and mistakenly think that it commended dishonesty with money.
So Luke inserted here a teaching of Jesus about money, linking it with the parable by the word for money, “mammon” which they share in common. Jesus spoke a lot about money, about riches and poverty. Some say that one in seven verses in Luke is about money. In this context we hear the stark warning that it is impossible to serve both God and mammon.
Clearly, Luke wants us to understand that the dishonest manager who seemed to be serving mammon is not being commended for that. Rather, he is commended for betting everything on the mercy of the landowner.
Mercy and Moral Hazards
So that brings us back to the question of mercy and moral hazards. Didn’t the landowner create a moral hazard? Didn’t he make it more likely that the next manager he hires will also be dishonest? And if this is a parable about God, and how God acts, when God is merciful, doesn’t that create a moral hazard? If God doesn’t punish us, doesn’t that make us less likely to do right?
Well, I suppose that would be true if we assumed that most people operate at the lowest level of moral development, which is the level of fear and punishment. That’s the way children reason, but most people grow out of that. There are different ways of describing how most people grow up morally. Lawrence Kohlberg said we move on from fear and punishment next to “if it feels good, do it” self-interested morality.
From there we grow to become aware of social norms; it’s the good boy/girl attitude. After that, we think in terms of authority; obeying the laws. Many people get stuck there. They think if it’s legal, it’s okay, and if it’s illegal it’s not okay, period. No more questions.
But many people realize that all laws are made by humans, the good is defined better by what the consensus of thoughtful people understand about it. The pinnacle of moral reasoning, according to this structure, is coming to understand that there are universal moral principles that we are obligated to follow, regardless of what society, or the law says, or whether we will benefit or not.
I believe this is how Jesus thought about it. So, for example, “love your neighbor as yourself” is a universal moral principle for guiding behavior that goes way beyond the Ten Commandments, and beyond all the 613 laws in the Hebrew Bible.
Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment
Let’s get back to mercy. The New Testament teaches us that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Jesus told this parable story about a man who risked his whole future on the hope that his master would show mercy, and he did.
The point is that we can too. We can risk everything on the God of mercy. God is not out to punish us. God is not keeping a record of our good and bad deeds to weigh against each other at the end.
Rather, God walks through our lives with us, day by day, luring us towards the good because it is good, coaxing us on towards what is beautiful and what is true because it is beautiful and true. In a non-controlling way, God is there, helping us love our neighbors, encouraging us to be open to others who are different from ourselves, seeking the common good for everyone and for all living beings and for our precious, fragile planet.
Maybe that does create a moral hazard, but that is the risk that the God of mercy is willing to take, for our sakes.