Sept. 18: “The Shrewdly Selfless Christian”

I was pleased with how this wrote itself; much of it just fell into place nicely and was fun to write.  I was also pleased that I could write a sermon that follows, in part,  the method I developed in my book: to resist the desire for complete understanding, while still giving enough to go on practically.  But I was very proud of the congregation: many thanked me and said they were able to follow along–some were left with many questions, understandably.  I’m still not sure exactly what this sermon means!  

Luke 16:1-13

What are you expecting of me in the next 15 minutes? (Maybe you are expecting, with crossed fingers, 12 minutes.) Do you want me to explain what the parable that we just heard means? We have before us a perplexing parable, found only in Luke’s Gospel, followed by some sayings of Jesus that seem to do little to help clarify what he is talking about. I would feel pretty valuable if I could brilliantly elucidate it for you.

We all long for clarity, for something to grab on to and give ourselves direction. The Bible can give us that. What could be clearer and provide better direction than the two great commandments: Love the Lord with all your heart etc., and love your neighbor as yourself. I think you already have all the clarity you need. You know why we’re here. We are here to celebrate and proclaim God’s love in Jesus, and to live out that love, making it the very basis of our existence as a people, and resisting everything in our world that violates that love, and healing those who have been violated. As our mission statement says: We “extend Christ’s love by sharing our faith through word and action.” That’s all the clear-eyed direction you need. But of course clarity is often elusive in practice. We are to some extent twisted, self-deceiving creatures who have elaborate ways of resisting the truth, and we live in a world that does likewise at least as much as we do. And to top it off, God is deeply mysterious; we know that God loves us, but it isn’t always obvious how, or what that love means.

So maybe I’ll take a day off from giving clear explanations. (right) After all, if Jesus wanted to give us clarity, he wouldn’t have spoken in parables. The parables, which are almost like riddles, sometimes teach a clear moral, always doing so in a richer and more reflective way than a simple commandment. Sometimes the characters in the parables clearly represent God, or Jesus, and reveal to us something about them. But not in this parable, so the commentators say; surely neither God nor Jesus is the rich owner, nor the dishonest manager, heaven forbid. Today’s parable gives us neither an obvious moral lesson, nor a clear insight into who God is; this parable, like some others, just shocks and perplexes us.

But perhaps that shock and perplexity is in fact an essential element of the life of faith: Jesus confuses us, throws us off balance, resists our desire to entomb God within our narrow understanding, within our carefully constructed institutions, within our handy-dandy clichés. So let’s prepare ourselves to be perplexed. Because we’re not even there yet. Right now, you, like I was when I started thinking about this reading, are probably just scratching your head about this parable and saying, “Wha?” And that’s nothing remotely close to being powerfully shocked by God; that’s just befuddlement.

We talked about this parable on Tuesday at the South-Hadley & Granby Ecumenical Group—which is one important way our church remains in fellowship with the Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and others in our neighborhood. Methodist Pastor Peter Milloy, whose knowledge of the Bible and Greek is excellent, led the discussion. He proposed to explain the parable clearly, but to do so he suggested we ignore the commentary by Jesus that follows it, because those verses very well could have been tacked on by Luke, or whomever, when it came time to write the gospel. Rev. Peter began by noting that the dishonest manager squandered his money somehow. (The word “squander” is also used for what the prodigal son did with his fortune; that famous parable immediately precedes this one.) So the rich master gives the manager his pink slip. (Is Katelyn Dwinell here?) And the rich master tells this manager (who was probably a slave, not a free man) to go get the books straightened out before he leaves his job.

So the manager does a clever thing. He calls together the master’s debtors—these would be something like tenant farmers who work the land in exchange for payments to the owner of wheat, oil, or whatever they produce. The manager calls them together and, according to Peter, deducts his standard commission from what they owe. So the one debtor owed 100 jugs of olive oil, and the manager, deducting his cut, says, make it 50. The other owes 100 containers of wheat, and the manager says, make it 80. Well, the manager wasn’t going to get that commission anyway; he’s on his way out the door. So he lets the debtors off the hook for his share of the debt. Why? Well, he says to himself that he is too weak to dig for a living, and too proud to beg. So he is going to ingratiate himself to the debtors so they will take him into their house and give him a place to live. It’s a clever or shrewd strategy.   And Peter’s interpretation of the story thus far makes a lot of sense. (Assuming, as he must, that the amount that the manager knocked off from what the debtors owed was indeed his commission; the story doesn’t say that, but it is possible. If the deduction was not his commission, then he is robbing the rich owner of what is owed him to ingratiate himself to the debtors.)

Are you with me so far? If what you’ve heard so far is helpful to you as you seek to live out the two great commandments, go with it. But I am not satisfied. What moral does the parable, as Rev. Peter explained it, teach us, except, “If you screw up and are in a bind, try to come up with a clever way to get out of it?” (Now, Peter thinks the parable was originally about making good use of your time until judgment day, but the commentary that follows the parable does not take it that direction.) Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, who is with Immaculate Heart and does inspiring work with Catholic Charities, echoed Peter’s interpretation and said, “The parable is about self-interest. Self-interest is implanted in all of us by God at creation. Christians just pursue our self-interest with the benefit of God’s light.” That didn’t sit well with me either, although she explained the point with aplomb. (And let me say, I like and admire and have much to learn from these ecumenical friends of mine.) But I was not completely persuaded by these attempts to bring clarity to this parable.

There is clarity in our reading from today; however, I find it not where my colleagues did, but at the end: “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.” The word for wealth is mammon—an obscure word, but one used for talking about wealth as a dangerous force that sucks us in and makes us loyal to it, thus taking our loyalty away from God. This saying of Jesus is found in Matthew, also, where it stands alone, and so, is clear and definitive. How we respond to Jesus’ proclamation is perhaps not so clear. We face pressing questions about how to regard our wealth—most of us are relatively wealthy compared to most people in the world—and these questions are not only relevant at stewardship time. But we’ll have plenty of opportunities to talk about wealth another time, because the issue comes up often in Luke’s gospel.

We’ve seen Jesus give his disciples similar absolute ultimatums before. To the crowds of followers, he declared that one must forsake family and bear the cross to be his disciple. Today’s ultimatum, along with the preceding parable, is likewise said to the disciples: You cannot serve God and wealth. With God, it’s all or nothing. But in life it’s not always so clear when you are serving God, and when Mammon or wealth. And likewise, the parable that Jesus tells about the manager is not very clear, and not clearly about serving God as opposed to wealth. So unless with my colleague Peter we want to cut up this reading into discreet bits, how can we make sense of both the clear ultimatum, and also the obscure parable and the commentary by Jesus that follows it?

Well, many commentators think Luke makes this parable about almsgiving, giving to the poor. That’s an important theme in Luke’s gospel, and in its sequel, Acts of the Apostles. The commentary by Jesus after the parable is all about how we use “mammon,” which our Bible translates as “dishonest wealth.” We might also call it, morally ambiguous wealth. Our wealth can be a good thing; it can certainly allow us to enjoy the good fruits of creation. But wealth also sucks us in, tempting us to hoard for ourselves. I am amazed how quickly even a child can go from the joy of a new toy, to the equation that more and more toys must equal more and more happiness. It’s not easy to realize that this equation is false. / Worse than making us hoarders, our wealth leads us to see others as potential threats to our wealth, rather than potential sharers in our good fortune. / So Jesus tells his disciples that if you are faithful with the little stuff by giving your wealth to the poor, God will entrust you with the “true riches”— probably meaning your own soul, your very self. Wealth, Jesus says, belongs to another, to God, like the land that the manager oversees. Your soul is your very own, once it is given you by God.   But for now, we all are slaves serving a master, and Jesus says it is either going to be wealth or God, so use your wealth righteously by giving to the poor.

By doing so, you will make friends “by means of dishonest wealth,” Jesus says, just like the manager made friends. And when your wealth is gone—and of course you can’t take it with you—“they will welcome you into the eternal homes.” It’s an interesting and beautiful image. Imagine the poor that we have helped being the ones who welcome us into God’s eternal kingdom. They will show us eternal hospitality: Jesus is saying that God’s kingdom, or heaven, or whatever is ultimate and eternal, belongs to the poor, is their home. It is they, just as much as God, who will show us hospitality and invite us in. We’ll see the poor man Lazarus playing a similar role in heaven in next week’s parable.

Well, are you still with me? Now we’ve started from the end of the passage—serve God not mammon—and worked our way backward. And we find this message: use your wealth to give to the poor, and by your righteousness secure the eternal hospitality of the poor. A good message. But what does the parable about being shrewd have to do with it? Surely Jesus, or Luke, could have illustrated the moral by featuring a noble, geneous character, rather than this self-seeking manager who has squandered his wealth and, after he gets caught, is too lazy to work for a living. I’m still not satisfied. The truth of God, the revelation this parable promises is still beyond my grasp, even though the parable teases me on to keep looking.

Rev. Peter stuck with the front of our passage and ignored the rest; I began from the back and worked toward the front. But the illusive mystery of it all seems to hinge on the middle, in verse 8: “And his master commended the dishonest manager (literally, the manager of unrighteousness) because he had acted shrewdly (or cleverly); for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Sounds like shrewdness is being praised, and even recommended by Jesus to the children of light—that’s the disciples.   In Greek it says, “And the master (ho kyrios; not “his master,” “the master”) commended the dishonest manager.” Now it could certainly be the rich owner who is commending his manager, perhaps for securing a future for himself, as Peter’s interpretation suggested; or perhaps the rich owner is acknowledging that the dishonest manager has bested him in this twisted game of exploiting others in order to secure your own wealth. After exploiting the mid-level manager to do his dirty work, perhaps the rich owner is tipping his hat and saying, “Hey, you finally caught on. You beat me at my own game.”

But it could be Jesus who is commending the manager of unrighteousness. The beginning of the verse is ambiguous, and I wonder whether Luke has centered the whole passage on an intentionally ambiguous hinge, to keep us tipping this way and that—keep us on our toes. Ho kyrios, “the master,” can also be translated “the Lord,” which is a frequent title for Jesus: “And the Lord commended the dishonest manager, for he had acted shrewdly.” Strange, but the rest of the verse is almost certainly meant as Jesus’ words: “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Maybe Jesus is saying that it’s ok to manage your unrighteousness so that you steal from the rich and give to the poor. Maybe there’s a kind of justice in that, that the children of light should admire, if not imitate. Or, more in keeping with what follows about almsgiving, maybe Jesus is just telling his disciples to be shrewd like the manager by giving alms.

We don’t usually think of being shrewd as a Christian virtue. We typically think that the Christian thing to do is to be selfless, even self-sacrificing. After all, Jesus recently told us to forsake everything, even life itself, to be his follower. And I am always drawn to see the Christian life as one of self-giving generosity, in imitation of God’s loving self-giving, without thought of return. But perhaps Jesus is telling us here that, while we don’t want to boil down the Christian life to be about self-seeking, it can still be ok to think of faithfulness as bringing you true goods, true wealth.   Jesus often echoes the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, like the Book of Proverbs, which is very much about being righteous out of your own best interests. So we shouldn’t necessarily follow the great Enlightenment ethicist Immanuel Kant, who said that only a purely selfless act could be virtuous, even if Jesus sometimes does talk that way. Perhaps we are in some weird middle ground between selfishness and selflessness, a place I called being “shrewdly selfless;” I contemplated making up a hybrid word: “Selflesh.”

As we make our calculations this fall about what we are going to give of ourselves from our time and our “resources”—that’s our polite word for what Jesus calls “mammon:” “dishonest wealth” or at least “morally ambiguous wealth”—we should probably shy away from saying that giving to the church is just for your own good; but we don’t have to be completely above saying that if we are faithful with the stuff that has been entrusted to us, and use it cleverly for God’s purposes, God will give us what really matters, our true self. / We might say that; but let’s stay on our toes, if we are going to follow this Jesus.

After all, the parable may be about something else altogether. What if God were the Rich Man, who ultimately owns everything; and we are the indebted sharecroppers who ultimately owe God everything. And God put God’s Word over us to manage us and collect what we owe. But with Jesus being that Word, he starts cutting us some slack, some grace, and starts reducing or forgiving our debts. Anything to woo us, to draw us in, to make us open our homes and invite Christ in. Perhaps Jesus is being shrewd by letting us off the hook a little, so that we at least start to give back to God what is due. And so at the parable’s end, the Lord God is commending Jesus for his shrewd grace.

Is that what you expected of me: to cut you some slack; to be shrewdly, cleverly ingratiating? A dishonest manager?

 

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