Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Rotten System Gamed

Thursday, May 30, 2013 -- Week of Proper 3, Year One
Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc), Mystic and Soldier, 1431

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today's scripture readings.]

Today's Readings for the Daily Office
     (Book of Common Prayer, p. 968)
Psalms 37:1-18 (morning)      //     37:19-42 (evening)
Deuteronomy 4:32-40      
2 Corinthians 3:1-18      
Luke 16:1-9

Do you ever feel that things have just fallen apart?  The system is rotten.  You can't trust government; you cant trust business; it's all corrupt.  Disappointment and cynicism is creeps over you.

Jesus' parable of the unjust manager may be just the parable for you.

The system was broken in Jesus' day.  Money and power were concentrated at the top in the hands of a few vastly wealthy aristocrats, absentee landlords.  In his region, the elites controlled nearly all of the land and received two-thirds of the annual income.  (Not that far from today's circumstances.)

They delegated the management of their land to managers who were expected to exploit and bleed the resources for a very high rate of profit and income.  Pressured from the top to bring in high rates of return, the managers were cruel and heartless.  The peasants hated them. 

All of the income would belong to the landowner.  The manager was expected to get his cut on-the-side through a system of graft and kickbacks.  Everything on paper belonged to the landowner; the manager's cut was off the paper.  Say a manager and a peasant family agree to a fair price of 50 jugs of oil for $1,000.  (I'm making up the numbers.)  The manager writes down on the paper 75 jugs, giving the landowner his expected 50% hidden interest.  The peasant then shakes the manager's hand and passes along a gold coin, the manager's cut.  And the peasant is a debtor, owing 75 jugs for the fair price of 50.  It was a rotten system.

So Jesus tells a story.  It sounds like some peasants got mad at a manager and accused him.  The landowner says he'll fire him and demands the books.  So the manager re-works the books -- changed the 75 jugs to 50 jugs.  Those peasants are now happy and also beholden to the manager.  They praise the generosity of the landowner.  The landowner sees what has happened and thinks its shrewd.  He takes his short-term loss.  Now he knows the problem was with the complainers and knows who they are.  He figures the manager will really be able to stick it to the peasants next time.  They owe him.

Here is William Herzog's commentary (Parables as Subversive Speech, p. 257): "The parable began with the usual social scripts: owners distrust managers; peasants hate managers; managers cheat both tenants and owners.  But by means of his outrageous actions, the manager manages to reverse all these scripts so that, at the close of the parable, peasants are praising the master, the master commends the manager, and the manager has relieved the burden on the peasants and kept his job." 

Out of this sad story of wrong-doing, came something that looks almost like a piece of the kingdom of heaven, because the master had wiped off the debts and relieved the burdens of the debtors.  "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."  It is a glimpse of another order -- one in which forgiveness of debt would be more than a petition in a prayer.  A sorry and predictable tale of woe becomes a scene of rejoicing.

I look around at today's complex and sorry systems of oppression and abuse of power.  They are beyond my influence.  There is so much systemically broken in the world.  Suspicion and hatred abound. 

Yet even in the midst of scandal and outrage, another order can break through.  In the most unimaginable and outrageous ways, God can turn a sorry and predicable tale of woe into a scene of rejoicing.  That's a message that should be close to the hearts of all Episcopalians.  After all, we have our genesis in the sorry tale of the peccadillos of Henry the Eighth.  Look what God did with that mess.  He made us!

It's remarkable that Jesus told this story.  It shows he had stomach enough for the worldliness and intrigue of his day.  Might we also have the stomach to face the complexity, oppression and suspicion of our age with enough courage and shrewdness to help another order break through, to turn our world's sorrow into rejoicing.

[Here's a 2007 sermon I preached on this parable.]


Audio podcast:  Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week.  Go to:

About Morning Reflections
"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at

Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

See our Web site at

Our Rule of Life: 
We aspire to...
    worship weekly
    pray daily
    learn constantly
    serve joyfully 
    live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


At 10:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But Obama is the messiah, he is going to run the most transparent administration, the oceans will stop rising, the lion will lie down with the lamb?
This just shows your sad worldview and it once again illustrates how self government (the Biblical way) is the BEST.
And NO, the Republicans are no better. SMALL government.
The ONLY way we can change is by not participating in their system. We have to quit sending them money because that and power is what motivates them Lowell. Your big government "social justice" is unsustainable, deal with it.



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home