Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Shrewd Faith? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18C

Luke 16:1-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
16 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 
10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,[d] who will entrust to you the true riches?12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”


                I don’t know about you, but I find this particular parable a bit baffling. Of course, if you find it baffling, you’re in good company. That seems to be the scholarly consensus. The comment on this parable in the Jewish Annotated New Testament is a good example: “The parable defies any fully satisfactory explanation” (p. 134). The parable appears in a section of Luke’s Gospel that speaks of proper use of money, with the next parable in line being that of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). In this parable a rich man fires his manager because the manager had squandered the master’s property. What happens next isn’t all that surprising, but the use Jesus makes of it is rather interesting.

                The question the reader might have is why Jesus would commend a dishonest manager for choosing to make friends by making deals with the master’s money. If we assume that most parables describe God’s realm, then this parable should raise a few questions about who this master is and how the parable applies to kingdom living. After all, the manager in question has already been identified as dishonest and then as one who defrauds the master during the brief time between discovery and having to leave the office. No wonder many businesses and employers march their fired employees out of the building immediately after the firing, accompanied by security. You want to make sure that no shenanigans occur!

                The parable is followed by a call to be faithful in one’s charge (not something the manager was) and then a word of wisdom about the impossibility of serving two masters—God and wealth. Contextually, this parable leads up to a critique of Pharisees, who Luke describes, reflecting a well-worn stereotype, as being money-grubbers (vs. 14). As is so often true when we read the Gospels we need to be aware of these stereotypes, because they often lead to unfortunate anti-Jewish sentiments.

                In the parable, the dishonest manager settles accounts with clients by reducing their debt in the hope that he will be welcomed by them—a little quid pro quo. As a result, the rich man commends the manager for his shrewdness. That is because, as Jesus suggests, the children of this age are shrewder than the children of light. Shrewdness, apparently gains friends who welcome you into the “eternal homes.” What we should make of this wisdom about making friends with mammon, is difficult to say. It could be a reminder that as long as we live in this world, we will have to deal with money. Thus, we should use it wisely for purposes of the realm—our eternal homes. Perhaps John Wesley has been the most quoted respondent to this message, for in a sermon on Luke 16:9 he declares:
Gain all you can, without hurting either yourself or your neighbour, in soul or body, by applying hereto with unintermitted diligence, and with all the understanding which God has given you; —save all you can, by cutting off every expense which serves only to indulge foolish desire; to gratify either the desire of flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life; waste nothing, living or dying, on sin or folly, whether for yourself or your children;—and then, give all you can, or, in other words, give all you have to God. [http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-50-The-Use-of-Money].
Wesley’s interpretation has something to commend. It is shrewd, to say the least!

                While I may struggle with this parable, I do get the wisdom of being shrewd in one’s use of money and in one’s dealings with the world. That’s what makes this parable intriguing. There is something here that is similar to a statement of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew.  In Matthew Jesus tells the disciples that in the coming days they will face persecution, and so they need to be prepared. As they go out into the world, Jesus says: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Is that what Jesus is intending us to hear in Luke 16? Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves?  

                The fact that Luke has Jesus follow up this parable distinguishing between faithful and dishonest handling of things, suggests that whatever Jesus intends in the parable, he’s not encouraging dishonesty. Nevertheless, the parable isn’t merely there for our entertainment. Jesus wants us to catch something here about shrewdness or cunning. Perhaps another way of saying this is to contrast wisdom with naiveté. To live in this world, requires wisdom and insight. Naiveté about the world puts one at a great disadvantage. To be innocent doesn’t mean being subject to scammers and con artists. In this context, could we think in terms of “get rich quick” schemes, many of which are perpetrated in the name of God (i.e. the “prosperity gospel”). Purveyors of such schemes are like the dishonest manager. They’re shrewd. Therefore, we must be shrewd (wise as serpents) as well, so that we don’t get scammed.

                In this case, because Jesus is in a debate with the Pharisees, it would seem that Jesus is suggesting that they’re akin to scam artists. They’re fleecing the sheep. As I noted earlier, we must be cautious here so that we do not engage in anti-Jewish stereotypes. By the time that Luke writes his gospel, the Jewish/Christian divide has begun to set in. Late first century debates may color the presentation, and we must shrewdly take account of them.   

                As we move from this rather odd parable to Jesus’ interpretation, things may get clearer. We are to be faithful and honest, not dishonest. We will, Jesus says, be entrusted with as much as we can handle. The more honest and faithful, the more responsibility we will be given. The more dishonest, the less will be entrusted to us. Therefore, Jesus is not commending the manager’s dishonesty, though he is calling on us to be wise in our dealings with the world. No head in the clouds discipleship here.

                So, if the dishonest manager is not to be seen as an example of faithful discipleship, what should we take from this discussion? I think one thing is clear—much has changed over the past two millennia, but human nature hasn’t changed much. The lure of wealth, riches, power, is as strong today as it was then. We live in a world where power can easily be corrupted, often by money. We are, after all, in the middle of a political season, where money talks. The same is true in religious circles. Institutions require funding, and so it is easy to let money direct the ministry of the church.  That may not be wise! So, when it comes to money, let us be wise (shrewd) and make use of whatever comes our way for purposes of God’s realm. 

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