September 22, 2013 – Pentecost 18

Luke 16:1-13

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. “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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.”

***

Pentecost 18 Sept 22, 2013   Luke 16:1-13   The Shrewd Manager

*****************************************************************

What is Jesus trying to tell us? – in this rather strange story of a dishonest manager, who, facing loss of his job, unilaterally reduces debts owed to his boss – then gets a thumbs-up approval from his boss?

Well, if we’re puzzled by this story Jesus tells, we’re in good company. Bible interpreters through the ages have been baffled by this story. Even St. Augustine, back in the 4th century, who believed the bible was absolutely always the word of God, considered this story of the Dishonest Servant so difficult to understand that he couldn’t quite believe Jesus really said it.

And what we hear in a story of course depends on what we bring to the story. In his book, What Do They Hear?, Mark Allan Powell explores some of the ways people hear the bible differently:

            When I was in high school, way back in 1969, [Powell writes] my mother told me that she liked “that song about the bathroom.” She didn’t usually like Top 40 music, so I was intrigued–but I had no idea what song she was talking about. She explained: “The one that goes, ‘There’s a bathroom on the right!’” The song is “Bad Moon Rising,” and the actual line is “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” But lyrics had not been the primary attraction for Mom anyway – she just liked how it sounded.

Mark Powell’s book’s actually not about mis-hearing words – it’s about how we hear the same words, in the same stories, differently.

Powell, a seminary teacher, likes to have his students read a bible story out loud, then retell the story from memory. He tells of having a dozen seminarians retell the parable of the prodigal son (the familiar story we talked a little about last week). All the students told almost all the story accurately – but all of them left out the part about the famine that occurs while the younger son’s off in a far-off land and his money’s gone.

Curious about this, Powell followed-up with a more extensive study, involving 100 students from diverse ethnic, economic, and denominational backgrounds – and still only 6 of a hundred American seminary students (6 %) mentioned the famine. (I’ve preached and done bible study with that story, and I’m not sure I’d remember the famine part most of the time either.)

Later, Powell taught in Russia, and he did the same exercise now with seminarians there. And this time 84% – forty-two out of fifty students – named the famine when they retold the story. Why such radically different results?  It didn’t take Powell long to figure: The Russian seminarians’ families had experienced famine, within living memory.

***

We all hear selectively. It’s almost impossible to do otherwise. And I suspect most of us, most of the time end up liking or not liking things Jesus says mostly because what we hear him saying either sounds good to us, or doesn’t. Either resonates with how we think things ought to be, or doesn’t.

I am probably weird on this one, but I actually love hearing that the dishonest servant ends up winning his master’s approval – maybe mostly because I like to root for long-shots. And I like the part about those who are faithful in even a little will be faithful in much – since I think I can be faithful in a little.  I’m not so sure I like the part about those who are unfaithful in even a little being unfaithful also in much – since I’m pretty sure I’ve been unfaithful to God some of the time also…

And often when I start thinking I have a parable figured out, some detail will poke itself out and puzzles me all over again. Like – why does Jesus keep reminding us of this manager’s dishonesty? (We over-hear the manager talking to himself about being too weak to shovel, too ashamed to beg – and he sure doesn’t seem to be contesting the charges against him.) And what’s up with Jesus talking about the master commending his manager for what sounds like stealing from him? Why is Jesus giving us these strange details?

And sometimes all I can think of is that probably Jesus does have a robust sense of humor. Which may also be part of the parable.

Speaking of which – Rabbi Burton Vizotsky tells a story in his book, The Genesis of Ethics that seems like a parable that goes with the one Jesus tells. (In the spirit of ecumenical dialogue, I’ve edited that story just a little.)

A wealthy businessman, one of the largest contributors to his church, walks into the church office to see the pastor. He looks really tired and stressed, and he says: “Pastor, as you know, I’ve always given generously to the church. I feel I owe you an explanation of why my contribution’s going to be much less this year.  Business has been just awful lately. It’s been one thing after another… and I thought I’d better let you know, I can’t give much if anything next year –  since I know this will effect the church budget.”

The pastor replies, “You’ve been such a great help to us over so many years. Is there anything we can do to help you?”

“Pastor, ” the man replies, “Thanks  for offering – especially since I’ve just told you I’ll be giving a lot less. But you’re a pastor, not a businessman. What could you possibly do to help?”

“Well,” the pastor says, “We know the bible speaks to every part of life. When the saints of old experienced troubles, many would pray for wisdom, then open the Bible at random. Wherever their eyes fell on the page, they took the words they saw there to be God speaking to them, and acted accordingly.”

“I don’t know, pastor, that sounds pretty desperate to me,” the man says. “But hey, nothing else seems to be working. I’ll give it a try when I get back to the office. Thank you for your time and your prayers. God bless.”

He’s out the door…. And no one sees the businessman in church for a long time.

Till one day, months later, he comes to the pastor’s office again – driving a nice new car, looking calm, happy, tanned, and relaxed. He walks in, and first thing, hands the pastor a really big check, larger than all his previous biggest contributions put together, and says, “Pastor, thank you so much! I owe it all to your advice!”

Now the pastor’s really surprised. (He’s not very used to people doing what he suggests.) “What happened?” he asks.

 “I did just what you said. I went back to my office and prayed – and opened the Bible – and there it was! I read it. I did it. Now my financial situation has completely turned around! Thank you so very much!”

“I’m curious,” the pastor says, “What did you read when you opened your Bible?”

“Well – there it was. I opened the Bible, and right in front of my eyes I read, clear as can be – ‘Chapter Eleven!’”

***

If we’re a banker or businessman whose customers owe us big time – probably this story Jesus tells isn’t so funny. Probably we’ll keep opening our bibles looking for a second opinion. If we’re the International Monetary Fund, Chase Manhattan, or even Uncle Sam, and the poorest countries of the world owe us a few trillion dollars, we too, may prefer to keep opening our bibles, looking for alternatives to chapter 11.

But if we’re heavily indebted peasant farmers, or working-stiffs-who-owe-our-souls-to-the-company-store – if we’re the ones in debt over our heads – if we’re the ones heading for bankruptcy court – hey! – this manager sounds like a decent guy to me – somebody I’d be happy to return the favor for. And there’s plenty of spare couches, in many a home, if this shrewd manager ever needs a place to crash while he’s job hunting.

And what Jesus is saying today gets less difficult to understand, the more we hear the main point emerge through all the details. Remembering Jesus teaches us to pray, saying, forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us. Remembering Israelites are supposed to cancel debts every seven years in the Sabbath Year (Deuteronomy 15). Remembering Jesus tells us do for others as we’d like done for ourselves.

Yet we still may be wondering – how can this master approve of an employee bailing himself out – by writing off debts owed his master?

Some say perhaps the shrewd manager was eliminating interest on these loans, or canceling his own commissions, which seems plausible. Jesus seldom explain the details of the parables he tells, but it’s almost a sure thing that – by the time the master hears about what his manager’s done, surely his master’s debtors who’ve had debts reduced are now thinking that this master is a mighty good guy. And now for practical purposes, it’s rather late to try to reverse what the shrewd  manager has done – for himself – and for others – and really even for the Master, who’s looking good in the community now…

Jesus tells us all things belong to God – and we can’t serve God and money. (Though his saying this doesn’t seem to have made a huge difference in human behavior yet.)

So Jesus tells a strange story, not about good folks doing the right thing for the right reasons – but about a dishonest servant, doing the right thing to save his own rear end (and maybe his soul). A story about making friends for ourselves by means of other people’s wealth – remembering all we have belongs to God, not us anyway – so when money’s a thing of the past (as it soon will be) we’ll have friends in God’s kingdom to welcome us in.

And the Master commends this manager – for understanding real-life bible-applications better than most of us. Because at the end of the day, whatever his faults, this shrewd manager knows how to do unto others as he wants done for himself. He knows God’s chapter-eleven-extreme-start-over-option’s still available, even for dishonest managers. God’s law of grace still applies whenever, however, we turn to God, and do what Jesus says.

And for all we know, this shrewd manager may still be working for his master.

Since this is (is it not?) – our Master –

telling this story for us.

So maybe we best stop here and just say Thank you Jesus!

for every teaching, every grace, given in love.

            Amen