10/02/2013 11:29 am ET | Updated Dec 02, 2013

A House Remodel That Matters

What would it be like to "recalculate" what you're owed, cutting that amount by half?

Jesus' parable in Luke 16:1-13, known as the "Dishonest Manager," proposes an unusual business model. There's a lot to think about here, especially in our day and age of capitalistic excess and dishonesty. But just now, this scripture meets me in a more personal place, namely in the temptation to maintain a "payments due" list against loved ones.

Parents sometimes show this with their grown children, and perhaps try to "get back" a bit of what is owed to them through grandchildren; spouses keep a little "account of debts" in their heart, e.g. a forgotten anniversary (that's gonna cost you!); a bad decision or an oversight which costs everybody; we hold onto debts, never really letting anyone pay them off, even partially.

Our children are fierce when it comes to holding onto the debts owed to them. A punch, a kick, a poke -- any of these count as a debt owed to them by their guilty sibling. Some evidence of the injury (a scrape, a bump, scuff mark) increases its value exponentially.

These may sting, but the debt, especially its memory, they cultivate it like a coal in the fire. And it's not just something they do in private, but it's a public thing, as they try to woo us, their parents, into a demand for payment, full-payment. And of course "full-payment" may actually entail sending their sibling to a six year old's version of Siberia.

The text hits me at the level of private industry, too. A contractor doing a remodel in our house became embroiled in a dispute with one of his subcontractors. The subcontractor arrived at our house around 7:30 a.m. and, without missing a beat, began berating the contractor: never work for him again, he said; can't believe he designed your bathroom this way, what a mess; and so on and on. And the contractor reciprocated as he tore down the reputation of his subcontractor -- often in our living room. Now there are threats of a mechanic's lien on our house (the subcontractor says the contractor is threatening to "buck" his pay).

Sigh. . . .

I called my Dad and asked him what to do. He gave good advice, but I finally admitted that I was more accustomed to "sanitized transactions" where the price for any product is clearly marked, with as little emotion involved as possible.

Most consumers believe that their purchases are objective, scientific. The bar-code tells no lies, makes no accusations, neither laughs nor weeps. It's bloodless and most of us would prefer that illusion to the messy and very human face of capitalism.

By contrast, Luke does not ask us to "sanitize" our economic activity by taking the human element out of it, but rather asks us to reintroduce the human and communal element, the element of interdependency. Luke's Jesus introduces a pattern of debt forgiveness that goes against the grain of our all too human instincts. It also suggests that debt forgiveness is not merely a matter for the private conscience or charity but it is also a way of life that contributes to the common good.

While settling the "debt" that exists between our contractor and his subcontractor will be complicated, it would be even more challenging to put Luke's parable into action in my life: I am owed, I say to myself, noting some debit against my account, some deduction from my "limited patience" or my sense of entitlement. I calculate the debt, the injury. And then my internal dishonest manager steps in and cuts it in half. Not only for the benefit of the debtor, but also for my own self-interest.

No, my motives in this are not separate from my own benefit. That's a spirituality better left to people more religious than I am. But if I could forgive in my personal life, would there be more room in our own home? More room for people to grow, indeed for me to grow?

What happens when we, as a society, expand our capacity to receive others into a more generous space? Do we become smaller through forgiveness or, paradoxically, larger through a deeper sense of being linked to each other's well-being in a larger web of life and relationships?

Forgiveness, as I give it, may be partial or imperfect in this world; but by the same token, my judgment is likely to be exaggerated. This text suggests I hold the latter a bit more lightly, and leave judgment to God. And of course, Luke witnesses to a God who both judges rightly and forgives completely.

As I play my part in this whole story, my more modest acts of forgiveness make for a community in which all may enjoy life a little more fully, each being accorded the opportunity to grow in our collective interdependency. Instead of using debts punitively, Luke's Jesus invites us to "use" debts to extend God's hospitality -- a hospitality that enriches not only the life of the debtor but also the so-called creditor.

Now, if only I could get the contractor and his sub to think this way, my life would be a little bit easier ... or, truth be told, if I could begin to think this way myself, maybe our house would get the remodel it really needs.