Dishonest stewardship and other inspirations | 1 September 2013

Text: Luke 16:1-13

When’s the last time you were at work and found yourself in the middle of a parable?

Jesus, famously, uses parable as one of his main forms of teaching, and many of his parables occur in the workplace.  A shepherd is out at work in the fields watching over his 100 sheep.  One wanders off.  He leaves the 99 and seeks after the one who is lost, and when he finds it, hoists it up onto his shoulders, rejoicing, and calls together all of his friends to celebrate.

A parable that happens while at work.

A farmer goes out to spread seed, flinging it generously over the field.  Some falls on poor soil, some on the hardened pathway, some falls where weeds are already growing, and some falls on good soil and that seed grows and multiplies and produces an abundant harvest.  Another work parable.

The kindom of God is like a new pastor who is hired to help give care for a congregation.  But in his first two months finds that it’s he and his family who are receiving all sorts of care from this congregation – help with painting the house and moving in, being invited over to people’s homes for meals, receiving helpful words of orientation to the office and congregational life.  his is another parable that has popped up in the workplace.

With this being Labor Day weekend, it’s a good chance to ponder the ways the Spirit shows up in our places of work.  We give some of our best energy and creativity to our work, not to mention our time.  We are challenged to consider work not as something separate from our discipleship, but as one of the key ways we live out that discipleship, serving God and others in whatever work it is we do.  This includes work inside the home, and, if you are a student, your studies.  We have told Eve and Lily on a number of occasions that their main work for the next decade plus is to be a student.  When we last said this, Lily came back by saying, quite seriously, that if this really was her work, she should get paid.  Her hardline negotiating skills are going to serve her very well some day in the workforce.  For now she’ll have to be content with free room and board.

Not only are a lot of parables about work, but parables themselves are work – sometimes hard work.  Parables can be tricky, sometimes intentionally so.  They can be subtle.  Or they can so threaten our sensibilities that we have to work to really allow ourselves to hear what is being said.  Jesus was fond of saying, “Let those with ears to hear, listen.”

Another reason parables in the Bible can take so much work is that they are, by their very nature, highly contextual.  They speak into a particular time and place, which, now for us, 2000 years later, is distant.  I can’t imagine someone 2000 years from now reading something that is written today and automatically getting all the cultural references, innuendos, and inside jokes that are a natural part of how we communicate.

Part of the job description of being a Jesus follower is interpreting and listening carefully to parables.  Time to clock in and get to work.

Today’s passage is printed in your bulletins, and I’ll again read it, just the parable portion of the text.

NRSV Luke 16:1-8a 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. 2 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.’ 3 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. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 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.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”

You may notice that while last Sunday was stewardship Sunday, today we are celebrating dishonest stewardship Sunday.

For those with eyes to see it, this parable has all the makings of a modern day white collar workplace parable.  It centers on an accounting scandal involving the manager of a rich man’s wealth, which comes to light when an anonymous whistle blower comes forward and tells this member of the 1% that his wealth is being squandered.  This is news to him, and before doing any research into the figures himself, the wealthy man does some damage control by pulling a Donald Trump, calling in his manager, and telling him, “you’re fired.”  The disgraced manager, former manager, quickly realizes how much trouble he is in.  He thought to himself, “My resume and reputation are going to be shot, and the job market is horrible anyway.  I can’t bear to think about flipping burgers the rest of his life and I’m too ideologically opposed to a government social safety net to sign up for collecting an unemployment check.  What should I do?  I’ll have to foreclose on my house and be out in the street, with nobody to take me in.”  Suddenly he has a jolt of inspiration for how to make some quick friends.  Before any of this gets out in the press he pulls out his cell phone and starts calling all the people who owe his boss, former boss, money.  Hey Dianna, how are you?  Good.  Hey, how much was it again you owe us?  $2.5 million?  Right.  OK, I tell you what, you’ve been a good customer over the years.  I know times are tough, we’re going to go ahead and cut that in half, alright.  Yep, I’m putting it in our books as we speak that you only owe us $1.25 million, alright?  OK.  Chao.  Hey, Carlos, long time no see.  Hey, crazy question, but could you remind me how much you owe us?  $4.95 million?  Yeah, that sounds about right.  I tell you what I’m going to do for you, OK.  I’m going to round that down to 4 million and call it even, alright?  It’s a done deal.  Yeah, you’re welcome.  Catch you later.

And when the boss found out about this, the rich man,  the member of the 1% who had positioned and maintained his way on the top through shrewdness and savyness, when all of his clients started calling, and texting and emailing him letting him know how generous and unexpectedly kind and how he and his manager would go down as a couple of the most upstanding members of the business community for voluntarily writing off part of their debt, and that they would always be loyal customers, when all these calls started flooding his office, the master… commended the dishonest manager, because he had acted shrewdly.

What I have suggested is, of course, only one possible interpretation of this parable.

This is one of those parables that no matter how you cut it just doesn’t have a simple, clean conclusion and it has pretty much baffled commentators from the beginning – mainly the commentators who have looked for simple, clean conclusions, which, unfortunately seems to be most of them.  One of the major problems here is that there’s really no good way to draw a moral lesson out of this parable – which, we assume, is what Jesus was all about, teaching moral lessons.  One option is to read that perhaps this dishonest manager, when we has reducing the figures for the master’s debtors, was writing off his own personal commission, sacrificing his own profits in order to win over these people who may then help him down the road.  But the text doesn’t say anything about that, it would have been a massive commission with the figures presented, and verse 8 is careful to remind us that this is a dishonest manager.  Others have suggested that perhaps the manager, in reducing the amounts owed, is eliminating the interest from the debts, thus acting fairly and justly. but this runs into similar problems.

The fact that this is a hard parable to interpret shows up even in Luke’s gospel in the verses that follow the parable itself, which give several different possible interpretations of the parable, interpretations which don’t fit together as a whole very well as far as we can tell, although if you can find a way to synthesize them I’d love to hear it.  Verses 10-13 contain some beautiful words about being honest and faithful in the little things so that we can be honest with true wealth.  That’s one take.  Don’t be like the dishonest manager.  And verse 9 goes a different route and offers one of the most head-scratching pieces of advice in the Bible: “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  Dishonest manager as positive example.  That might be a whole other sermon in and of itself.

I’d like to focus on the first statement that gets made after the parable, in verse 8b, which says, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

So, let’s imagine for a bit, that Jesus actually did intend to tell a parable that doesn’t have a hero who fits the mold of the repentant sinner, doesn’t teach a moral lesson, and doesn’t provide a clear mandate about what do to next.  Let’s imagine that this manager actually did carry out a last ditch effort to cheat his boss out of millions of dollars – or hundreds of jugs of oil and containers of wheat – to make some quick friends for himself; and that this boss, angry as he must have been, was so impressed by this shrewd action that he commended his dishonest manager.

The fact that verse 14 of the chapter, the one occurring right after what is printed in the bulletin, says that when the Pharisees heard all of this that they “ridiculed” Jesus, may highlight that he has just told a preposterous parable.  You can’t do that!  You can’t tell a parable about not one but two self-serving dirty rotten scoundrels and expect us to be inspired.  Ridiculous!

The dishonest steward, we are told, acted shrewdly – which could also be translated as “clever wisdom.”  He acted with clever wisdom.  He has also acted illegally, deceitfully, and selfishly.  But that’s not the part that gets highlighted.  He was one shrewd dude, which, as Jesus has stated in another place, can be a discipleship trait.  “Therefore I tell you, be shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).  These guys are crooked and corrupt, they are not innocent, but at least they got it half right.

A paraphrase of that verse 8b could read something like this: “for people in the secular world can be a whole lot better and more creative at doing what they do than us in the church.”  I hate to highlight too much the secular/sacred split, because I think it’s a false split, but maybe you know what I mean on this one.  Have you ever been at work and thought – Wow, if we in the church were as dedicated to our bottom line of compassion and justice and peace as people at work are committed to the financial bottom line, church would be a different place?  Have you ever seen something at work and thought that the church could learn a thing or two from what you’ve experienced there?

I’ve worked on several different construction sites over the years and have labored alongside a few people who were able to string together the most amazing, extensive, and foul strands of cuss words that I couldn’t help but be impressed with their lyrical creativity.  For the people of this world are more bold and creative in their proclamation than are the people of the light.

The origins of Christian Peacemaker Teams goes back to a speech made by Ron Sider, back in 1984 when he called on people who professed to follow Jesus to be as willing to sacrifice for what they believed in for the cause of international peace and reconciliation as those soldiers who go off to war in the name of national security.  For the people of this world are more willing to give their lives for their beliefs than are the people of the light.

Last week after the service Ted Mueller and I were talking and he told me a little bit about his work with logistics, using a model pioneered by Toyota.   If any worker on the floor has an idea about how things could be improved, management has a whole process in place to hear, and test, and possibly implement that idea for the better of the whole.  For the people of this world are better at practicing the priesthood of all believers than are the people of the light.

Again, I’m hesitant to make this sharp dualism between people of the world and people of the light, the secular and the sacred, because we believe that Spirit infuses all people and all realms of reality, but that ends up being the exact point.

Parables happen all around us because the Spirit is not limited to our own religious containers we make for her.  Inspirations for goodness can happen in the most foul settings.  Even accounting scandals conducted by the most disingenuous of people can have that generative seed of clever wisdom.

Happy Dishonest Stewardship Sunday.  Enjoy your Labor Day off of work, then go look for some parables in your workplace, and help us in the church become the kind of people God is calling us to be.