Rich people can be very generous. Take for instance, how much well-known people tip in restaurants or bars.
It appears that Johnny Depp, the star of Pirates of the Caribbean left a tip almost as great as his bill. He left a tip of $4000 in a restaurant where he was a regular, on a $4400 bill. He must have been dining with lots of friends. President Obama on the campaign trail left a $20 bill to pay for a beer that cost $2. So some famous people are also famously generous.
But, we also need to give some context to this. If you are a vastly wealthy film star, $4,000 might seem like small change. Perhaps, the president was in a hurry, so he just left the note that he had to hand.
So, we need to be careful how we interpret trivial news stories. All the more so, we need to take care with how we interpret the parables and stories we encounter in the Gospels. Take, in particular, Sunday’s gospel reading, the parable of the Dishonest Steward.
A rich man employed a manager. He heard that the manager had been squandering his property and he summoned him to give an account of himself. The manager then decided to take action. He summoned all those who owed his master something – oil, wheat, etc. – and he offered to reduce what they owed, one 20%, another 50%. He did this because he hoped that they would welcome him into their homes after his master had sacked him. However, he was surprised when his master commended him for acting shrewdly.
Retold in more contemporary terms, the parable goes like this: a rich man has a manager who has gained a reputation for cheating his employer. He’s summoned to his employer’s office for a dressing down before he’s fired (like a Trump reality show moment?).
The manager realises that he’s neither trained nor suited for any other job. He figures that he needs to do some groundwork for the future and goes to his employer’s clients and reduces their bills. At a stroke, he earns their gratitude and changes their view of his employer, who is no longer regarded as someone who employs corrupt employees but as someone who is generous with his clients.
In Luke’s Gospel, this parable immediately follows the parable of the prodigal son and there are some interesting similarities. In the parable of the prodigal, the younger son goes off to a foreign land and wastes his inheritance. In the parable of the dishonest steward, the steward wastes what he is entrusted with or, perhaps, he has been taking a cut like tax collectors did (it’s difficult to know; the original audience may have made such an assumption).
Both the prodigal son and the dishonest steward are irresponsible – in some ways culpable – and they both come to a practical and prudent solution. This could be interpreted as repentance but it may just be practical: the prodigal will be better off at home as a servant than acting as a swineherd; the dishonest steward would be better off currying the favour of his master’s clients.
However, both the prodigal son and the dishonest steward encounter a reception the that they hadn’t expected: grace – freely offered forgiveness and approval.
But that’s the point about God’s forgiveness: it’s freely given and not deserved. Jesus in telling both parables is highlighting the prodigality, to human eyes the crazy extent, of God’s forgiveness.
We may find this disconcerting, just as the elder, stay-at-home son does in the parable of the prodigal son. We may deem that neither the prodigal son nor the dishonest steward deserves the reception that they get.