Shrewd like that

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:37-38). Jesus can be very clear. We know he can. But Jesus loves to tell stories. And some of them leave us scratching our heads. What’s that all about, we wonder.

There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.

That’s all we’re told. We don’t know if the manager was incompetent or corrupt. We also don’t know if the charges had any base in reality or were merely slander. We’re given very few details.

The rich man responded by summoning the manager, telling him he was fired, and demanding a final accounting. “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?” the manager said to himself. He had to think and act fast. A demotion to digging ditches was not an option; he didn’t have the back for that kind of physical labor. And begging was out of the question. But he was a quick thinker and moved fast to make sure people would welcome him into their homes after his dismissal became final. One by one, he summoned his master’s debtors, and together they rewrote the paper work.

We don’t know if they were looking at land lease agreements or loan documents. We do notice, though, that the amounts involved were fairly substantial.

“How much do you owe my master?”

“A hundred jugs of olive oil.”

Those weren’t the small jugs you keep in your kitchen cabinet, the ones you can easily lift with one hand. Each of those jugs held about ninety gallons. These two were looking at a 900 gallon olive oil contract.

And the manager said, “Make it fifty.” Cut it in half.  He asked another, “And how much do you owe?”

“A thousand bushels of wheat.”

“Take your bill and make it eight hundred.” 20% off, that’s nice, isn’t it? We can safely assume there were other happy debtors, because nobody needs a manager only to handle two accounts. But we don’t know if this very nice debt reduction program reflected the fees and other add-ons the manager had inserted into the original contract or if he was working with payments owed only to his master. We don’t know if he was giving away what was his to give or if he was defrauding his soon-to-be former boss. Whatever it was, he did it with a clear purpose: Tomorrow he would be out of a job, so he took care of himself by endearing himself to his master’s debtors. He made sure there would be some open doors when the one to his office closed behind him for good.

At this point of the story, most folks in Jesus’ audience are slapping their knees and laughing. That little crook, he sure knew how to make the best of a critical situation! Yes, he was a rascal, but such a clever one. The property owners in the audience who depend on the honesty of their stewards and managers aren’t laughing. They are waiting for a memorable moral at the end that will teach people to be honorable and upright, something like this: And when his master found out what the manager had done, he had him thrown in jail until he had payed back every penny he owed. Those in the audience who like to think that the rich man was probably a bigger crook than the manager anyway are waiting for a punch line that will bring down the house, something like this: And the rich man in the city never knew that the books had been cooked. Instead, the next line reads: And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

Now just about everybody is scratching their heads, wondering, What kind of story is that? What kind of master would commend a dishonest manager? And it gets even more confusing. Luke is telling us about a story Jesus was telling and there are no quotation marks in the text; that means it can be difficult to tell where Jesus’ story ends and Luke picks up the narrative thread again. That line about the dishonest manager being commended? It can also be translated, And the Lord commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. So is it the master in Jesus’ story who’s praising the scoundrel or is it the Lord himself, the master who is telling the disciples that the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light? And why would Jesus praise a man like that?

The way I read the story, the manager is not being presented as a role model for ethical business administration, but as an example of quick, creative and determined action in a critical situation. For the manager, the world as he has known it is quickly coming to an end, he knows there will be a reckoning, and that emerging future determines everything he does in the present. And Jesus wants his disciples to live and act as shrewdly, creatively, and resolutely in the light of God’s coming reign. But if that is what Jesus wants, why doesn’t he just say so? Because he loves stories and because he wants us to wrestle with the details of how to live faithfully in expectation of God’s coming kingdom. The story of the manager doesn’t have a clear ending, it transitions into a discussion of what its implications might be for followers of Jesus. It’s like the early church and Luke added other teachings of Jesus and comments from congregations to that difficult story so they would help shape the conversations of future generations.

Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

“Making friends by means of dishonest wealth” sounds a little bit like using the funds you’ve embezzled to bribe others – not a very attractive model of kingdom living, if you ask me. “Dishonest wealth” sounds too much like money made by cheating as opposed to money made by honest work. And that’s not the contrast underlying the story of the manager or of Jesus’ mission. The real contrast is between the world as we know it that is coming to an end and a new world that is dawning. Jesus isn’t talking about dishonest as opposed to honest wealth, but about the currency of the world as opposed to the currency of the kingdom. The proclamation of the gospel puts us on the threshold between this world where people hunger for righteousness and the world to come where righteousness is at home. The manager in Jesus’ story has just been shown the door, he is standing on the threshold, realizing that the world as he has known it is quickly coming to an end, and he jumps into action. He uses the tools his master has put at his disposal to make friends among the master’s debtors. He invests himself and all his recources in the world to come. Shrewd like that is how Jesus would like us to be. Creative like that. Determined like that. Focused like that.

The final teaching appended to the story is utterly clear.

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.

The choice is not if you will serve, but whom. Bob Dylan sings, you gotta serve somebody.

You may be a business man or some high-degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.[1]

Martin Luther wrote in his explanation of the first commandment, “Many a one thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions; he trusts in them and boasts of them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one. Lo, such a man also has a god, Mammon by name, i.e., money and possessions, on which he sets all his heart, and which is also the most common idol on earth.”[2]

The contrast underlying Jesus’ story and mission is between a world in which Mammon reigns and God is thought of as a means to an end

and the world in which God reigns and wealth is used for the purposes of God. Jesus can be very clear. You cannot serve God and wealth.

The early church was intrigued with the role of the manager, the role of the steward. In 1 Peter the apostle picks up the theme and develops it beautifully, and I want to close with these words:

Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:10-11)

 

[1] http://bobdylan.com/songs/gotta-serve-somebody/ italics added

[2] Large Catechism, Explanation of the First Commandment at http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/catechism/web/cat-03.html

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