Sunday, September 23, 2007

Shrewd Maneuvers: A Sermon on Luke 16:1-13

This sermon owes a deep debt of gratitude to Sarah Dylan Breuer's Lectionary Blog (see sidebar).

“Shrewd Maneuvers”
Luke 16:1-13
September 23, 2007

Think for a minute and remember with me, what it was like as a child to be… caught. Caught in a bad or thoughtless or careless act, one which resulted in damage, hurt. Let’s take the classic example: Janie is up at bat in a sandlot baseball game. She swings, gives the baseball a nice, hard smack, and it sails through the neighbor’s window, smashing it to smithereens. Let’s think of excuses together… you know we’ve all done this. What might Janie say, when questioned by her mom or dad or even the irate neighbor? She might say…

~ What baseball?
~ Tammy did it.
~ The sun was in my eyes.
~ It’s this new bat.
~ I didn’t see the house there.
~ A bird grabbed the ball and dropped it through the window! I saw it!

You get the picture. The child who is confronted with her own guilt can be incredibly creative in trying to wiggle her way out of it. She is persistent. She is relentless. She is single-minded. Hopefully, as in every sitcom from “Andy Griffith” to “Two and a Half Men,” she learns a lesson about honesty in the end. But her natural impulse… all our natural impulses, at first… is probably to try to stave off the inevitable.

Which brings us to today’s parable from the gospel of Luke. I must say, this may just be the world’s least favorite parable of Jesus’… that is, if the chatter among preachers is any indication. And I have to admit… in terms of looking for life-lessons from the gospels, the parable of the dishonest manager is not promising. Let’s look at the essentials. A rich man has a manager who is in charge of all his accounts, and his manager is cheating him. Charges are brought to the rich man. Evidence is marshaled against the manager. The rich man, understandably irate, summons his manager and says, in effect, Game over. Bring me the books. You are out of here.

The manager has been caught. And he has been caught, not in a thoughtless or careless act, but in a long-standing pattern of bad acts, dishonest behavior and thievery. Like Janie, he immediately begins to think, to try to imagine what to do next. There is a crucial difference between Janie and the dishonest manager, however. All Janie’s responses demonstrate that she knows she has done something wrong, something that might incur some kind of punishment. The dishonest manager begins planning to manage his punishment, and gives no sign of remorse or acknowledgment of the nature of his actions. He knows he is about to lose his job. But he also knows that he is too physically weak for manual labor and that he is too proud to become a beggar. So he decides to enlist the goodwill of the community by going to all those who owe the rich man money.

If we had only read up until this point in the parable, we might imagine the ending to be something like this: the dishonest steward decides to come clean, and asks those with whom he did business for loans so that he can repay his employer. Or, the dishonest steward decides to do one honest thing before departing, and collects all his employer’s debts. Or, the dishonest steward forgives the debt of someone who owes him money, thus impressing his employer with his generosity and humility. We might imagine an ending like one of those… something that shows the possibility of grace, forgiveness, a change of heart, a change of path.

Jesus offers us no such thing. Jesus offers us an ending that is worthy of a David Mamet play, of the back room at the Ba Da Bing. The manager goes to all those who owe money to the rich man, and essentially aids them in stealing from his employer. They cut every bill in half, forgiving significant portions of the debts of the whole town by the sound of it. By bringing the debtors in on his crime, the manager ensures that they are now in his debt. As he puts it, “I have decided what to do, so that… people may welcome me into their homes.” You bet they will. They owe him.

At this point, the hopeful reader is waiting for Jesus to tell us why this is the most despicable thing imaginable, and that the manager will now be cast into the outermost darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth—or at the least, that he will be plunked down in the county jail for a spell, so that he can think about what he’s done.

Again, we are out of luck. Instead, Jesus returns to the rich man who is… impressed. He is impressed with what his manager has done. He slaps him on the back. He congratulates him on his shrewd maneuvers.

I think this is a terrible parable. I do not want to teach this parable to my children or to yours. And do you want to know something? Luke thinks it’s a terrible parable, too. Why else would he offer explanation after explanation? He sounds like Janie, stammering out her excuses for the smashed window… well, here’s what happened. Actually, this is what happened. No, really, it was that. I challenge you to make all these statements agree with one another. First, he has Jesus say, “… the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light.” Then he adds, “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.” Then he offers something that seems to completely contradict the parable. “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 dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”

There’s more. He ends up with a saying that is familiar to us, from another story in Jesus’ life where it seems to make more sense: “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” Well, I would give an “Amen” to that. But I don’t actually think that is what this parable is saying at all.

This parable is useful to us in several ways. One way it is useful is that it is a pretty revealing example of the words of Jesus making people so uncomfortable that even the gospel writer is scrambling to make sense of them. These are what we call the “hard sayings” of Jesus. I believe that what is most likely is that Jesus truly spoke the parable, and then gave either one explanation or none. That is the Jesus we know from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke: Enigmatic, concise, encouraging us to figure it out for ourselves.

Here’s another way in which this parable is useful. It disabuses us of the notion, once and for all, that Jesus always says things that are nice. He most emphatically does not. He says things that are true. He says things that are challenging. He says things that are downright painful, even scandalous. But he almost never, ever concerns himself with being nice.

All the evidence gathered thus far would seem to suggest that this is not a nice parable. It is a nasty one. It is about a crook who gets caught, and not only does not reform his ways, he actually continues to steal as a way out of his self-made dilemma, and then wins the admiration of his victim. What on earth is Jesus talking about? What and how can this story teach us?

It has been said that scripture is like a beautiful gemstone: we hold it up to the light, we turn it and turn it and see the various facets, shining, glowing. We see different colors, clarity as we turn it. Here is what I see this week.

The manager does at least two things that are worth our notice. First, he displays a kind of single-mindedness that might be considered admirable. He attacks his problem with a kind of logic and determination that, in the end, appear to solve his problem. Remember Jesus’ words: “… the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light.” Jesus respects the single-mindedness, the whole-heartedness with which the manager deals with his dilemma. And he contrasts it with what we might guess is the half-heartedness of the “children of light.” That’s a phrase that was used in the early days of Christianity to refer to followers of Jesus, also called “followers of the way.” There is something in the manager’s actions that Jesus wants the children of light to follow, to imitate, to emulate. I don’t think it’s the stealing. I do think it’s the relentless pursuit of an objective… but what objective?

That brings us to the other thing the manager does. One commentator I read this week posed this question, and offered this answer: “Q: What, precisely, is it that the [manager] does, albeit without authorization and with deception? A: The [manager] forgives debts.” The commentator goes on:

The [manager] forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that's the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a position from which it seemed he couldn't be reconciled…

So what's the moral of this story, one of the stories unique to Luke?

It's a moral of great emphasis for Luke: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.

The manager forgives debts. It doesn’t much matter in Jesus’ mind why he forgives those debts, or that he had, in a very real sense, no “right” to forgive them. The manager engages in relentless, single-minded, laser-focused acts of forgiveness. It doesn’t matter why, it doesn’t matter how. He forgives debts. He probably ends up reconciling a community… the rich man now has the goodwill of all those people who owed him all that money.

I said earlier that this was not a nice parable. I stand by that statement. Forgiveness is not nice. Forgiveness is not easy. If we have been injured, if we have been hurt, if what we have to forgive is anything substantial at all… we will not find forgiveness nice. Look at the rich man. He has a laugh at the end of the day… significantly poorer at the hands of the thieving manager, and he forgives him. Look at the thieving manager, forgiving right and left though he has no right to do so, relentless in his pursuit of forgiveness.

What would it mean for us to be relentless in our pursuit of forgiveness? What would it mean for us to have a kind of single-mindedness about forgiveness? It kind of makes you shudder, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but if I haven’t forgiven someone a grievous injury, or even a casual slight, it means I don’t want to do it. So a relentless pursuit of forgiveness would involve something pretty distasteful to me: forgiving when and where I don’t want to. And sometimes God seems to speak to us loudly about these things.

Years ago I had a pretty unhappy parting with an employer. I wasn’t the thieving manager, but I was the unhappy camper who couldn’t work in an unhealthy environment any more, and I quit my job. And I want to say that leaving that job was the first step to my finding myself on the path to ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA). So I know that leaving was the right thing for me.

But I held on to my anger. About half a year later someone I didn’t know gave me an unexpected gift: two beautiful, handmade Russian Pysanky eggs. All the stranger specified to me was that I should give one of them away. I discussed this with my daughter, who was 5 at the time, and already a repository of deep wisdom. Without pausing, she said, “You should give it to…” and she named my ex-employer, my nemesis, the woman who’d made my life miserable for two years. “Uh, that’s a nice idea,” I said, all the time thinking, “Yeah, right.” I didn’t give my former employer the egg. And you know what? A few months later a man working in my home knocked both eggs off the shelf, smashing them to smithereens. And I looked up at the heavens and said, “OK. I hear you.”

Forgiveness is not nice. It is not easy. I cannot claim to be a flawless practitioner of it, or an expert of any kind. But God expects us to be relentless in our pursuit of it, so much so that Jesus tells us uncomfortable terrible parables to goad us into it. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Diane said...

like this. and I'm going to have to add Dylan to my sidebar as well. also, makes me think of a story to tell...

smart daughter you have there...

Jane R said...

Our sermon on Sunday (delivered by a lovely young man who is discerning a vocation to the diaconate and is eloquent and poetic) noted that the protagonist in this Gospel story is... a crook! That wasn't the main point of his sermon, but it was a good one.

Thanks for yours! I will re-read it at leisure tonight when I am not dashing about getting ready for class and office hours and and and.

I'm not preaching again till a few weeks from now, but I get the story of the widow and the unjust judge. Hmmmmm.

Anonymous said...

Great sermon! And I'm glad you found the lectionary blog useful. Blessings to you and your congregation!