Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Commending a Dishonest Manager-- Huh?

The Gospel for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost is Luke 16:1-13. R. Alan Culpepper’s commentary on that passage in “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, Volume IX, helped shape my thinking about this parable. Tom Friedman’s column appeared in the September 12th New York Times.

Are you hoping I will talk about that parable, or that I won’t?

I will, and in part because Tom Friedman told me to. Not personally, but his column last Sunday paved the way, when he referred to a problem “we have not faced honestly as we have dug out of this recession: We had a values breakdown—a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism.”

I smell both in today’s Gospel. But let Tom finish his sermon first: “Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.”

Friedman reminds us that what made the Greatest Generation great, facing huge obstacles like the Depression, Nazism, and Soviet Communism, was their leaders’ fearlessness when it came to asking Americans to sacrifice, and that generation’s readiness to do the sacrificing, pulling together for the good of the country and earning global leadership the only way it can be earned, by saying “Follow me.”

By contrast, he writes, our generation’s leaders never utter the word “sacrifice.” “All solutions,” he says, “must be painless. Which drug would you like? A stimulus from Democrats or a tax cut from Republicans? A national energy policy? Too hard… For a decade we sent our best minds not to make computer chips in Silicon Valley but to make poker chips on Wall Street, while telling ourselves we could have the American dream… without saving and investing, for nothing down and nothing to pay for two years…”

Thanks, Tom. We hear you. Now it’s Jesus’s turn. And what is he saying in this parable?

What is a parable? C. H. Dodd answers that in his book, “The Parables of the Kingdom.” “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

Jesus teases us into this story, not of household-level debts and management, but of large commercial dealings. Eight hundred gallons of olive oil, a thousand bushels of wheat. The first-century commodities market.

Jesus takes us to a deeper place, as well. A place of radical decision. It may sound like the slave market, when we hear him say, “No slave can serve two masters; he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

But it’s actually the very frontier of spiritual freedom to which Jesus takes us, when he insists, “In a like way, you cannot serve God and wealth.”

Think of all the times and places when he summoned working people to become his disciples. “Follow me,” he said, to fishermen in their boats, to a tax collector at his booth, to women in their front parlors and in their kitchens. And each time, he created a crisis, a moment requiring judgment, demanding response. You can’t give no answer in such a moment. It’s not an option to have no master. If you are silent at the frontier of spiritual freedom, then you have another master than Jesus and you have renewed your submission to being a child of this age and not a child of light.

In other words, to tease out the message of this parable, we must respect the firewall created between the people of this world and the people of the light, created by the choices they make. Those who belong to this age and those who belong to the light live among one another, they are called to respect and learn from one another, but they have very different values. One is content to drift among the rising and falling tides and currents of a market-driven world. The other is choosing to move with the mind and the heart of God—they may be erratic in learning these moves, may fail sometimes, succeed sometimes, but they try, they want, they practice a sharing of abundance, they value justice and mercy, they learn to roll with the mystery that the first shall be last and the last first, and, as we shall see, they learn to be resourceful.

Jesus locates his story in the business world, but he’s telling his parable to disciples whom he’s training in the ways of the Kingdom of God. To catch the sense he makes, we stand with the disciples on the children of light side of the firewall, and across that divide we watch the behavior of a shrewd manager and the business owner who is firing him. The message we take from Jesus, whatever it will be, respects that boundary, as he says to his little fledgling church, “Consider the behavior of this manager: his values are different from yours, but if you are as bold and decisive and resourceful in caring for the poor and preaching what is true and building human alliances in society, if you are as shrewd and effective in your calling as he was in the crumbling moments of his tenure, then your stewardship will make a difference .

There may be a world of difference between the impact, on one side of the divide, of those urgent words “Follow me” and, on the business side of that wall, the words, “You’re fired.” But in both cases, urgency requires bold and decisive choice. And in both cases, the hearer suddenly realizes that an old life has ended, and a new life requires change, fast and instinctual. Didn’t someone write, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth”? Oddly enough, both the summoned disciple and the fired manager find themselves in a thin place, in-between what was known and what will be, unchartered territory that each must suddenly navigate.

Okay, now we’ve put off this moment as long as possible. Why does the master commend the dishonest manager? It all depends on what you think the manager did.

Did he reduce the balance due from his master’s debtors by foregoing his own commission, sacrificing what would have been his, choosing to bank on another kind of wealth and indebtedness (call it goodwill or loyalty)? An interesting theory, but not based on any information Jesus gives us…

Or did the shrewd manager suddenly recall the ancient text in Deuteronomy that forbids Israelites from charging one another interest? This could have justified his reducing those debts to principal only. Is this a swift case of righteousness that put the master over a barrel, a canny chess move the owner could only shake his head at but couldn’t fight without losing face? An intriguing theory, but again nothing in Jesus’s telling leads us to it.

Or… is it, plain and simple as the parable states it, that the steward was cheating the master, and the master was rich enough that he could afford to notice more than the impact on his net worth. He experienced some collateral benediction from his debtors, for as long as those debtors thought the manager was still the manager, he acted with the full authority of the master. What he did glorified his boss, polished his reputation, earned him (who knows, perhaps for the first time) a good name—a new form of wealth, a new kind of net worth.

Such is a good parable, one that teases the hearer into active thought, and thoughtful action.

It brings home the fact that in the New Testament as a whole, Jesus has far more to say about how to deal with wealth than how to handle sex. If our churches occupied themselves proportionally, we could have more to say to our culture’s dishonesty, its devaluing of sacrifice, its get-rich-quickism, and its something-for-nothingism.

On the other hand, lest the Church get to sounding self-righteous, Jesus challenges the people of light to muster for God, and for the poor and the oppressed and the abandoned, boldness and shrewdness and decisive action that can be seen in certain people of the world, even the occasional dishonest manager.

Go figure.