Friday, September 16, 2016

The Dishonest Exemplar (Luke 16:1-8)

The parable revolves around a guy who has messed up just about everything possible with his job.  He’s an accountant who has been called to the corporate boardroom and told, “You’re fired.”

His problem?  He mismanaged money.

Inadvertently, this parable might sound more “plausible” today, as attuned as we are to the media stories about things we really never heard much about before:  Ponzi schemes and subprime mortgages.  The idea that middle and upper management could “blow” through vast amounts of money sounds familiar, if not painfully familiar.

It probably doesn’t help us to hear that this dubious character is known as the economion, which can translate as “steward” or “accountant”, a term derived from that same Greek word with that word that is at the forefront of our minds:  economy.

Just as we struggle today with issues of the economy, we ought to take heart that 21st-century angst over money mismanagement is found in the first century and even before that time.  Economic theory changes, financial markets wax and wane, and stories of mismanagement will be with us always.
The trouble, however, is that this fellow who gets into all sorts of trouble is the same guy that Jesus says, “Be like him”.

The manager has lost big money, and like most situations on the front pages of today’s newspapers, it is not his money to lose.  He works for an estate, a large tract of land that is quite a lucrative operation for his boss.  The money lost must be substantial to merit the boss himself giving the pink slip to this accountant.

At this point, the parable takes another spin.  The manager realizes that he has lost more than a job.  He is now out in the cold with no other skills to fall back upon.  Digging (literally a dirty job with back-breaking hours) or begging for alms is just about everything he’s able to do.  He has brought this disaster upon himself, and there is no way forward.

The manager does that time honored thing that people do when in trouble.  He improvises.  And what a strange gambit he plays.  He goes to two of the estate master’s debtors and instructs them to reduce their debt to the estate substantially.

Is this revenge on the manager’s part, causing his boss to lose even more money? Actually, the manager is not tearing down the boss’ empire.  Rather, he’s trying his best to feather what little of a nest he has left.  Taking advantage of the debtors not having something like Twitter, he gets ahead of the grapevine about his firing and finds two debtors who still think he works for the boss.   What appears to be a miraculous forgiveness of debt is really the manager hedging his bets that this will make him some fast (and extremely grateful) friends.

Again, Jesus says, “Be like him.”

In case you’re wondering if you got the wrong message in Sunday school all those years ago (i.e. “be nice to others” and “do the right thing”), don’t worry, you were getting the right message.  This parable makes one wonder if we ought to sweep it under the rug, giving seeming credence to bad behavior and really bad “economic” planning (even if it does sound like how economies tend to be run:  avoid blame and cover your tracks fast!).

The parable of the dishonest steward is told right after the Prodigal Son parable and just before a parable about wealth “gone bad” (the Rich Man and a beggar named Lazarus).  Jesus is where we left him in last week’s Gospel reading:  at table with the sinners and tax collectors and at odds with the Pharisees grumbling over in the corner while the disciples of Jesus watch this unfold.  After telling the stories of the “lost sheep, coin, and son” to hush the Pharisees, Jesus tells his disciples this story of a money manager that you really shouldn’t trust with the checkbook.  “Be like him.”

Books on parables flag this parable of “the dishonest steward” or “the mis-manager” as the most difficult of the parables of Jesus.  It befuddles the experts, it has baffled centuries of preachers.  Indeed, I count myself among the befuddled and the baffled.  How do we find anything redemptive in this story of a middle-management flunkie who breaks a few rules and then after getting caught, goes out and breaks a few more? 

Appropriately, the dishonest steward appears right after the disciples hear of a dubious son, the “Prodigal”.  Both the Prodigal and the steward are terrible with money.  Both squander tons of it.  The Prodigal winds up feeding pigs and wishing he could eat as well as the pigs.  The steward fritters about the digging, and begging surely in his future.  Oddly enough, both the prodigal’s decision to return home and the “morally challenged” sleight of hand pulled off by the steward get Jesus’ approval.

David Buttrick claims that Luke’s gospel is not so concerned with introducing you to “perfect” examples of good behavior.  In fact, examining the parables that appear in Luke, Buttrick claims Luke “seems to have a broader tolerance for human error and moral failure” (Speaking Parables, W/JKP, 2000, p. 179).   Just as Jesus willingly sits at table with those who are of dubious righteousness, so Luke’s gospel recognizes that not all of the characters around Jesus (or even those he imagines in the parables he spins) are neat and tidy examples of humanity.

Other stories appear in ancient sources about underlings/slaves who get into mischief or try to pull a fast one to make ends meet or get ahead.  (Similarly in modern day, there is the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum which features such a character in supposed “old Roman empire” days as well as the British comedy Black Adder, where a whole family lineage of schemers tried their best to hustle the best deals possible while working for the royal court or the aristocracy.)  So why is Jesus telling his disciples such a story as this?  Jesus appreciates the clever skills of this dishonest manager, who thinks on his feet when faced with adverse conditions.

The disciples of Jesus see the riffraff at table and the overly pious over in the corner as Jesus spins these parables.  In some ways, the disciples are much closer to the sinners at the table than they are the self-elected saints grumbling in the corner.  Some scholars wonder if Jesus is tipping his hand a bit with this parable, suggesting that shrewdness will be something the disciples of Jesus had better pick up fast.  Thinking on your feet would become mandatory for the early followers of Jesus, as the early Church experienced hardship and persecution, endeavoring at their best to reach the ends of the earth with the gospel.  To be “children of the light”, they still need some skills to survive the world at hand.

Another angle for this parable is the criticism levied against such people as the manager and his master.  The people around the table with Jesus and the disciples were part of the populace that had very little in terms of money, property, or economic stability.  The manager and his master represented that part of society that controlled pretty much everything else.  Losing some money was an annoyance but not ruinous to the manager’s boss.  In fact, the type of bills he was due (the large amounts of oil and wheat) indicated the wealth of this boss.  The manager was the middle man between the upper class (less than 2% of the populace was “wealthy”) and the lower class. The parable serves as a warning to those who would put all of their eggs in the basket of Empire, the elite class’ view of things, or “mammon”.  Mammon is wealth acquired by less than respectable ways, i.e. “greed”.  The manager is caught up in a system that is fundamentally flawed, one contrary to God, the “master” of the life for which we are created.  Such a parable as this reveals that Mammon is not only a “master”, it enslaves.

Parables have this quality of being inscrutable, and this one wins prizes for certain.  Elsewhere, Jesus claims disciples ought to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10).  Such sayings sound odd to our ears, as we consider the gospels having a fairly monochrome view of the world, devoid of that grey cast we know so well from everyday life.   This parable seems lodged in the world as we know it, somewhat too close at first glance.

Such texts as the dishonest steward reveal that the gospel can be found even in the midst of dubious characters playing out the plot of life as we know it.  The parable serves as a warning to those who confuse their priorities between God and Mammon too easily.  The parable serves as a wise word to those who would follow the contrary way of Jesus, preparing those who listen for tough times and the need to “think fast”.

This parable might bedevil its listener with ambiguities, yet it offers a pragmatic view that we need.  Our faith journey will take twists and turns along the way.  Not every moment of our lives is given over to the easiest path.  Shrewdness is part of the life of discipleship, just as surely as grace, hope, and love.

To be shrewd might mean “making a fast buck at the expense of others” or “feathering your nest”.  With the gospel, shrewdness becomes saying no to the easy way or easy money.  In itself, that’s a tall order for most of us, as “Mammon” comes in many appealing or “quick fix” guises.

Shrewd disciples know that the way ahead might be challenging, that faith does not mean one has easy answers or exemption from life’s travails.  It might mean a Sunday afternoon painting bowls for a fundraiser.  It might mean seeing a building as more than “worship space” and letting the doors be open wide to a variety of people in need.  It might mean saying “yes” when it’s time to volunteer somewhere far afield.  Shrewdness might be the thing that saves us from ourselves and allows us to be there for others.

Shrewdness allows us to be like the One who sees more to the world than Mammon ever could offer.

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