When I lived in a small town in Wyoming, I had several opportunities to sit in the courtroom of a municipal court judge, who impressed me with the fair and compassionate manner in which she dealt with everyone who came before her. When my daughter was belligerently determined to plead “not guilty” to a charge of smoking on school property even though she had been caught dead to rights, this judge took the time to explain to her, in a respectful, non-accusatory way, the consequences of such a move. Not once, though, did she give the impression that this course of action was not available.
But what most impressed me was the time a young man failed to appear for his court hearing. His surname marked him as belonging to one of the large extended families of the Arapaho tribe which lived in the area. The judge said to her clerk, “Please find out if there was a funeral today in Mr. --------‘s family or if he has a relative who is somehow in need. If so, please set another court date for him. If not, please issue a warrant for his arrest.” Her cultural sensitivity – the awareness that this young Arapaho man might have been needed by his family in some way that took precedence for him over all other considerations – drove her decision.
It was this compassionate judge who came to mind as I was contemplating the parable of the dishonest manager. I love these completely astounding parables of Jesus because they are the ones that help me think outside my boxes. I keep coming back to them because the questions I have lead me in ever new, fruitful directions.
Here we have the story of someone who mismanages his master’s estate, squandering resources in such a blatant way that it comes to the attention of lots of people, and they inform the master. And when the master asks this man to produce the records of his actions because he is going to be fired, he squanders even more resources, dishonestly adjusting the accounting of debt owed. His rationale? That he will be welcomed into the homes of his masters' debtors once he has been booted out of his position. This blatant disregard for his master’s welfare is commended by the master, and the parable comes to an end.
I am guessing that the dishonest manager most likely did not save his job by acting as he did. I imagine his master saying, “That was clever. Now get out.” But he gained the gratitude of those with a debt hanging over their heads; he gained community. Jesus suggests that this is a bigger asset.
Today in pondering this parable I think: there isn’t a single person who upholds the Law perfectly, and so the truth of the matter is that all of us are debtors. Why not, then, forgive the part of the debt it is ours to forgive? Why not give away what we can give? In so doing we will come into right relationship with one another, and all of our dealings will be whole and holy.
And that is why I thought of the municipal court judge. She was not slipshod in assigning consequences for breaking the law. Her rulings often involved heavy fines, long stints of community service or jail time, all appropriate to the severity of the violation and in keeping with what the law required. But she forgave what she could, what was hers to forgive: the affront of a snotty teenager, the disrespect of a man who did not show up for his hearing. She did not let the power of her position blind her to her fellowship with those who came before her to be judged.
How can we each, in the positions we hold in the world, find the compassion to forgive what we can?
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations' creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado