13 September 2010

A good reason to forgive old debts

Patrick Comerford

I have a difficult task.

Next Sunday, I’m preaching about the Unjust Steward, or, as the NRSV calls him, the “dishonest manager” (Luke 16: 1-13).

It would have been easier if I had last Sunday’s images of the Good Shepherd or the widow searching for the lost coin (Luke 15: 1-10) to contemplate in the week ahead as I ponder and think about my sermon.

So let me tell next Sunday’s story in another way. At the age of 18, I started training as a chartered surveyor and estate manager. I never finished that training, but I can visualise some of the characters in this story

A very, very rich man lives in a big city, let’s say Dublin. He has a luxurious lifestyle made possible by the income from the apartments, hotels and office blocks he owns in the city centre. He has been a major property developer, and a key shareholder in one of the business banks lending to developers.

He has hired an estate manager to run his property holding company, his building society, and his insurance agency while he spends most of his time in his large country house in Kildare or Meath, or golfing in Marbella.

All the work of painting, maintaining the lifts and the plumbing in his apartment blocks, working the bar and servicing the rooms in his hotels, and working at the call centres in the office blocks, is done by people who travel in and out from the rims of the city, people whose grandparents probably once lived in the small terraced houses that once stood along the docks or the canal banks but were levelled to build those apartments, office blocks and hotels.

They pay their mortgages to the bank that financed the apartment blocks and similar developments. Their overdrafts are from the same bank. Their mortgage insurance and life assurance policies are from an agency he owns. They find themselves increasingly in debt, paying school fees, running a car or two cars, meeting hire purchase payments for fridges, freezers, TVs, the children’s school fees and laptops ... What they earn is never enough to pay off their mortgages, their overdrafts, their term loans.

Their families are slipping further and further into debt, working harder and harder to pay what can’t be paid.

But they never meet the rich developer. The immediate face of this system, of his companies and his investments, is the face of the estate agent who manages the blocks – a man whose grandparents came from the same families as the people who now suffer under his management.

However, his parents had escaped the system, he got a good education, and then got sucked into the system.

The developer hears rumours that the estate manager, who is also his insurance agent, has been squandering the developer’s resource, and gives him his dismissal notice . Now, remember that “squandering” is not necessarily a bad word here – the sower in another parable squanders seed by tossing it on roads and in bird-feeding zones, and the shepherd in last Sunday’s parable potentially squanders 99 sheep by running after the lost one; the widow searching for her lost coin risks losing her other nine as she sweeps everything out.

Anyway, the estate agent has to work out his notice, but is no longer authorised to let, to rent, to but to sell, to do anything at all in the developer’s name.

He probably shares the same background only a generation or two ago with the maintenance workers, the tenants, the workers in the office blocks. But when he’s out on his ear, they aren’t going to help him to find a place to live, or find a new job, given that up to now he has allied himself with the developer’s interests, collecting high rents, refusing to bring down rents when the reviews are due, managing the work rotas for the maintenance workers, forcing them to work longer hours rather than taking on the staff needed for the job, dealing unjustly with both tenants and workers.

He has been demanding higher rents and premiums, and longer working hours, yet providing fewer and fewer services – doing what all good economists advised him to do: increasing profit margins and productivity and cutting costs at one and the same time.

He may be shrewd, but that’s why he is called “the dishonest manager” (verse 8).

So what does the agent do?

He does something that is extraordinarily clever.

He gathers all the tenants and workers who owe him money, and he declares that their debts have been written down, more than NAMA could ever write them down, to something that might be repaid, freeing families from heart-breaking choices. He has been upping their rents and their premiums; now he brings them all back to a payable rate. And in doing this, he manages to wipe out the arrears that have been mounting up.

The smart agent manages not to tell the tenants or the workers that he has been sacked. Nor does he tell them that the developer has not authorised any of his largesse. But the tenants and the workers now think the developer, their landlord, is more generous than anyone else in his position could be. The developer is now a hero in their eyes – and, by extension, the agent is too.

The developer comes for his quarterly or annual visit to pick up the income the agent has collected for him, and he gets a surprise that is exhilarating and challenging. The people are delighted to see him. Workers shake his hands, tenants lean out of balconies to wave at him, children want to have their photograph taken with him.

Then, as he inspects the books in the small office the agent has worked from in the complex, he finds out what the agent has done in telling the tenants and the workers that the developer has forgiven their debts.

He has a choice to make.

He can go and tell them that it was all a terrible mistake, that the agent’s stroke amounted not to generosity but to theft, or at least to dishonesty, and has no legal basis – he can tell them they are still responsible for the unpaid rent, for the overdrawn loans.

The warm welcome could quickly turn to nasty protests.

Or, the developer can go outside, bask in the unexpected welcome he received, and take credit for the agent’s actions. At least he has cash in his hand where once he might have had nothing because of defaulting tenants and clients. That would save him going to court, but he’d have to take the agent back to work for him, yes?

What would you do?

Picture yourself in this dilemma, both as the agent and as the developer.

From the agent’s point of view, does it matter any more what the developer decides to do?

Whatever decision the developer makes, his future is safe: either he gets his job back, or his own people are going to look after him.

But here’s the big problem: what the agent did is clearly dishonest. He has taken the landlord’s property and squandered it – even after he was sacked and had no right to do anything in the developer’s name.

What is it that the agent has done, without permission? Who has he deceived?

The agent forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for his past misconduct. But that’s the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a position from which it seems he could not be reconciled, to the developer any more than to the tenants and workers.

So what’s the moral of the story?

This is story is unique to Saint Luke’s Gospel, and for him there is a significance that is important throughout the third gospel: Forgive. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want. Forgive for the right reason. Forgive for the wrong reason. Forgive for no reason at all. Just forgive.

Remember, Saint Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer includes the helpful confusion: καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν, καὶ γὰρ αὐτοὶ ἀφίομεν παντὶ ὀφείλοντι ἡμῖν: καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν (“and forgive us our sins for indeed we ourselves are forgiving everyone who is [monetarily] indebted to us) (Luke 11: 4) – the monetary indebtedness is obvious in the original Greek.

I hope we pray it every day. We pray it. But do we believe it? We pray it, but do we put it into practice?

The arrival of the Kingdom of God is no occasion for score-keeping of any kind, whether monetary or moral.

Why should I forgive someone who has sinned against me, or against my sense of what is obviously right? I don’t have to do it out of love for the other person.

I could forgive the other person because of what I pray in the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday if not every morning.

I could forgive because I’d know I’d like to be forgiven myself.

I could forgive because I what it’s like to be me when I am unforgiving.

I could forgive because I am, or I want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Christ’s power to forgive and free someone just like me.

Or I could forgive because I think it will improve my life and sense of well-being.

It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive.

Extending the kind of grace God shows me in every possible arena – financial and moral – can only put me more deeply in touch with God’s grace.

If a crafty agent, a dishonest manager, an unjust steward, the sort of person we’re going to meet in next Sunday’s Gospel reading, can forgive to save his job or give himself a safety net when he is sacked, then those of us who have the experience of real grace, we have been invited to the Heavenly Banquet, we who pray in the words of next Sunday’s Psalm “Remember not our past sins; let your compassion be swift to meet us” (Psalm 79: 8), we who believe, as the Apostle Paul says in our Epistle reading next Sunday, that Christ “gave himself a ransom for all “(I Timothy 2: 6) – we have a better reason than most people to forgive.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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