17th Sunday After Pentecost – Luke 16:1-13

Lately I’ve been thinking about friendship with my Christian Ethics students. We’ve spent a little time with Aristotle and his views on the nature of friendship and his classic theory of the three types: friendships of pleasure, friendships of utility, friendships of goodness.

Students are always intrigued by these types since they are able to recognize them in their own lives — the Friday night drinking buddy who’s always good for a laugh (pleasure); the study partner who helps you get through organic chemistry (utility); the long-time confidant who desires your well-being and whose pursuit of moral excellence you share (goodness).

The third type of friendship is, of course, genuine and rare. Dominican theologian Timothy Radcliffe describes its origins this way:

“Often the first sign of friendship is that we are delighted to discover that we see the world in a similar way. We find ourselves laughing at the same jokes, enjoying the same novels, sharing other friends. We treasure the same things. Friends do not primarily look at each other, like lovers. They look at the world together.”

In the Gospels, Jesus is always modeling the kinds of friendship we generally like to avoid: friendship with the lowly, the lonely, the loser, the misfit. Another favorite quote from another favorite pastor/theologian, Peter Storey, puts the challenge like this: 

“Some tell us that following Jesus is a simple matter of inviting him into our hearts. But when we do that, Jesus always asks, “May I bring my friends?” And when we look at them, we see that they are not the kind of company we like to keep. The friends of Jesus are the outcasts, the marginalized, the poor, the homeless, the rejected — the lepers of life.

We hesitate and ask, “Jesus, must we really have them too?”

Jesus replies, “Love me, love my friends!”

The appointed Gospel lesson for this Sunday is Luke’s story of the dishonest manager, the most perplexing of all Jesus’ parables. Hermeneutical gymnastics seem required to make any sense of this strange narrative that has Jesus (or is it only the “master” in the story?) commending the kind of accounting shenanigans we’ve come to expect from shady Wall Street types.    

But within the odd parable is a reference to “friendship” which might help explain what seems inexplicable. The dishonest manager who has cut shrewd deals with all his master’s creditors knows that the jig will soon be up for him. How to survive when the bubble bursts? when his cushy job in middle management is gone? when easy street is only a memory? “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg,” he admits in a moment of rare honesty.

So he makes some new friends. He decides to practice a different kind of economics. He has squandered his master’s wealth and like the squanderer in the parable immediately proceeding this one — the famous prodigal son — he has no where to go but up. He has — also like the prodigal — “come to his senses.” What will save him is friendship, relationship, community with others who will “welcome him into their homes.” The generosity he has shown in forgiving debts is unorthodox, yes, but the rabbi telling the parable made similarly wild, offensive gestures and claims (another “meaning” of the parable, perhaps, that Luke is keen to suggest?).  

In a strange, startling way, the dishonest steward’s actions mirror divine grace: the generosity of a God who forgives, who desires our friendship, and who wants to make his home in us.

(The image used in this post is of a painting by artist Jennifer Lommers entitled “Late Night Friends.” Click on the image to learn more).