Sunday, September 23, 2007

25th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 16
1Jesus said to his disciples: A rich man once had a manager to take care of his business. But he was told that his manager was wasting money. 2So the rich man called him in and said, "What is this I hear about you? Tell me what you have done! You are no longer going to work for me."
3The manager said to himself, "What shall I do now that my master is going to fire me? I can't dig ditches, and I'm ashamed to beg. 4I know what I'll do, so that people will welcome me into their homes after I've lost my job."
5Then one by one he called in the people who were in debt to his master. He asked the first one, "How much do you owe my master?"
6"A hundred barrels of olive oil," the man answered.
So the manager said, "Take your bill and sit down and quickly write `fifty'."
7The manager asked someone else who was in debt to his master, "How much do you owe?"
"A thousand bushels [a] of wheat," the man replied. The manager said, "Take your bill and write `eight hundred'."
8The master praised his dishonest manager for looking out for himself so well. That's how it is! The people of this world look out for themselves better than the people who belong to the light.
9My disciples, I tell you to use wicked wealth to make friends for yourselves. Then when it is gone, you will be welcomed into an eternal home. 10Anyone who can be trusted in little matters can also be trusted in important matters. But anyone who is dishonest in little matters will be dishonest in important matters. 11If you cannot be trusted with this wicked wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? 12And if you cannot be trusted with what belongs to someone else, who will give you something that will be your own? 13You cannot be the slave of two masters. You will like one more than the other or be more loyal to one than to the other. You cannot serve God and money.

It happened late in the morning on Thursday. They said it was coming, but few believed it would really happen. And while it happened for only a few minutes, we were changed. We hit par.

If you spent all of yesterday in a lineup at Fort Erie, I think we can understand why. Trading ahead of the US for the first time since 1976 can cause a momentary lapse of sanity, and may even cause us to rethink the way we see ourselves. The week was dominated by stories like “finally the world sees us as we truly are: oil reserves second only to Saudi Arabia, gold, diamonds, trees!” We felt a little taller, a little closer to centre on the world stage, and most importantly, for a moment or two, better than the Americans. Personally, I’m looking forward to Chicago next summer when my classmates will stop saying things like “hey, everyone’s going to chip in five bucks – ten bucks for you Canadians!”

[By-the-way, am I the only one that noticed that since 1976 we’ve traded below the US, AND had the world’s tallest free-standing structure: then within a week of losing the world’s tallest designation, the Canadian dollar is back. Is this what they mean by karma?]

I enjoy the Sundays when Jesus talks money, since we all seem to like to talk about it. It is one of the few constants in our lives: we all need it, we seldom have enough of it (or think we don’t) and we all have plans if we had more. We use it to measure ourselves (and each other) and have since the beginning of time.

The parable of the dishonest steward is both intriguing and confusing. Much ink has been spilled trying to come up with the proper way to interpret the story, and in spilling more today, I cannot guarantee we will be any further ahead. It is an anti-hero story, so that makes it interesting all ready, but what on earth does it mean?

A rich man comes to learn that his accounts are being mismanaged. He fires his manager, but his manager has a plan. As the manager concludes his business with the rich man, he discovers a way to ensure that he continues to be welcome among his master’s clients: one bill is discounted my 50% and another by 20%. The master returns, reviews the accounts, and surprisingly praises the manager.

My summary ends here because this is where things get muddy. We know that the gospel writers would routinely add a verse or two to parables to help make the meaning clear. In some cases, we know that later scribes would add their two cents worth too, to further clarify what they think the parable meant. Biblical scholars have made careers out of trying to determine where the parable ends and where the interpretive material begins. Sometimes it’s quite clear, and other time (like this one) it’s not.

The consensus among scholars is an abrupt ending in the middle of verse eight:

8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

This also reinforces everything we know about Jesus and parables. They are like puzzles, stories with uncertain meaning that we are supposed to take away and ponder until we can say “Aha! Now I understand what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God.” The sayings that ended up attached to the end of the parables are more like proverbs, sayings meant to make us wise in the ways of the world. It’s a whole different type of literature, and so we are best to stick to the story with the uncertain meaning.

And just to further confuse the issue, when it says “his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly,” it could also mean “prudently” since the Greek has two meanings.

Prudent or shrewd, the manager certainly is clever. He manages to “write-down” what others owe his master, impress the person who just fired him, and win the loyalty of a couple of big clients. What began as a bad day ended rather well.

To try to go a little deeper into the story, I turned to the work of John Dominic Crossan, one of the rare biblical scholars who understands ancient culture as well as he understand the bible and someone who frequently looks at the bible through the lens of class. He reminds us that Jesus was a peasant living under occupation, and that much of what Jesus teaches must be understood in that context.

He also tries to relate the gospel story to the customs and worldview of the people that surrounded Jesus. In this case, he describes a society organized as patrons and clients, interconnected by the work of brokers. Much of Jesus’ world was organized like this: for the vast majority of non-slaves, everyone was involved in little pyramids of power. Each little pyramid was headed by someone with more wealth than most. We’ll call him a patron. He would naturally attract clients, who by association would become important themselves. They, in turn would attract their own set of clients, and by doing so become middlemen, or brokers. Each little pyramid would have layer upon layer of clients, all trying to better themselves or at least keep their position in the overall pyramid.

Enter our shrewd manager. We have tended to think of him in a traditional employment way (a modern concept) but instead we need to put him near the top of his little pyramid. We also need to bear in mind that there was lateral movement between pyramids, where being part of an “old boys” network would help you shift from one to another if need be. And this is exactly what is happening in the parable: our shrewd manager has found a way to keep his place in the overall structure even as he gets caught mismanaging his patron’s money.


Somewhere, lurking behind all of this, must be some kind of spiritual lesson. Jesus was certainly very knowledgeable about the ways of the world, and loved to tell stories to entertain his friends, but we are still left with the task of finding some Kingdom lesson in this passage of scripture.

I have to admit, I’m stumped.

But since I’m up here, I might as well give it a shot. I guess I would begin with all the other options our manager had: he could have ripped off the clients, lining his pockets and providing and bit of a parachute while to looked for something else to do. He wouldn’t be the first to steal from his employer on the way out the door. One of the untold stories of the great dot-com disaster was landlords returned to vacated offices to find that all the copper wires had been stripped from the building by departing employees who had lost everything.

The other option would be to become super efficacious. Get more out of these clients as a way to impress the boss, maybe he would get his job back if he was better at it. But, of course, he did neither of these things. He give large discounts, and send two big clients home happy. And his boss was happy too, and this holds the key to the meaning.

The master understood that relationships are at the heart of the whole set-up. The quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life. It’s not how much money you have, or where you appear inside your little pyramid, but the quality of your relationships that truly matters. It is true for financial managers and currency traders and cross-border shoppers and for disciples of Jesus too. The amount of money you have is always changing, both in real dollars and in relation to others. But the quality of your relationships, they can be maintained. They can be the constant in an uncertain and ever-changing world.

The disciples had each other. And Jesus spent much time trying to convince them that no one was greater than the others, and that the way they related to each other was more important than who would sit a the right hand of Jesus in the time to come. He sent them out to preach and heal without money, completely dependent on the relationships they could forge on the way.
People who study businesses have found that people who are happy at work, work harder. They have also discovered that a good relationship with co-workers will go a long way to increase job satisfaction. Good relationships, happy workers, higher productivity. How sad that many employers ignore this lesson and continue to use the tried and true method of continual layoffs and the threat of layoffs to get workers to work harder.

And people who study congregations have made some similar discoveries: congregations that focus on the quality of relationships tend to be happier and tend to grow. Congregations where people are busy blaming each other or being rude to each other tend to die.

Through all of this, God remains. At the beginning of time God was alone, unique in the universe and utterly alone. God created us so that God would no longer be alone, and could experience the joy and sorrow of relationship. God entered our world, to encounter us in the flesh and further understand what it meant to live in relationship. It ended badly. But through death came new life, and the power to form relationships with every living thing for all of time. May God continue to bless us and our relationships, one to another, now and always, amen.


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