Sunday, September 22, 2019

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 16
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
6 “‘Nine hundred gallons[a] of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’
7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
“‘A thousand bushels[b] of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”

Do you ever get the sense the radio is talking to you?

So I’m listening to cable news on the radio, and they have to fill the commercial breaks with their own crop of ads, often over and over and over. Like this one: “Maybe you’re over fifty, maybe a little porky, and maybe you take meds to control your cholesterol.” Suddenly I’m feeling a little self-conscious. And then the conclusion: “Call Big Lou, he’s on meds too.” I like what you did there, Lou.

The second most frequent ad is for debt consolidation loans, because sometimes using one card to pay off another card just won’t cut it. And the next most common is under the general heading of tax relief, paying someone to negotiate with the IRS on your behalf. I didn’t even know that was a thing. If you weren’t listening carefully you would think it was a country song: ‘I was gonna lose my house, my car, my dog—until I called this highly memorable 800 number to get out of paying the tax I owe.’ I can confess that this is the moment I start shouting at the radio, using words generally reserved for sailing. Why not simply pay the tax you owe?

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. There was a rich man whose manager was profligate with company assets. So the rich man called him to the top floor and said, “You’re fired! Now sort out your accounts and go away.” Then the manager thought to himself: ‘I can’t dig ditches, and I won’t beg, so I guess I better find a way to retain my standing with my friends.’

So he called on some people with unpaid invoices. “I'm offering you a write-down,” he said, “even though I know that technically a write-down describes the reduction in the book value of an asset when its fair market value has fallen below the carrying book value.” Seems the manager has been reading Investopedia. For one it’s a 50% write-down, and for another it’s 20%. All in all, a good day for debt recovery, no memorable 800 number needed.

And then the conclusion, half a verse to sum up the parable: “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” If it feels abrupt, that’s likely because it is—the various verses that follow feels like someone trying to jam in those last puzzle pieces that just don’t fit. Jesus spend upwards of three years sharing parables and aphorisms, those pithy sayings designed to make you stop and think. What seems to have happened in Luke 16 is an attempt to explain the parable of the Shrewd Manager by attaching a set of sayings that might explain it. But it doesn’t quite work.

Worldly people are shrewd when dealing with their own kind.
Use worldly wealth to gain friends.
You're either trustworthy or you're not.
You can't serve two masters—you can't serve God and mammon.

I think the last one is true, and certainly sounds like something Jesus would say, especially if he was in a mood. But like the others, ‘God and mammon’ doesn’t seem to fit the parable. So back to the drawing board, and back to the assumption that Jesus presented this parable as a tiny literary unit meant to convict or confound—in this case, to confound.

But rather than remain confounded, we can turn to the work of John Dominic Crossan, one of the rare biblical scholars who understands ancient culture as well as he understands the Bible and someone who frequently looks at the Bible through the lens of class, power and social position. 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.

Just now you’re thinking, ‘yes, but where’s my lesson? Parables are meant to show us the kingdom, to reveal something about God.’ And that’s a good point. Situation, complication, kingdom lesson—that’s what we’re here for. I see what you want, but I’m not sure you’re going to like it. Like the radio ad that seems to be talking right at us, the parable just might be about you and me. Let me explain.

If accept Dr. Crossans hierarchy—patron, broker, client—we might begin by looking for ourselves. To start, we’re not the patron. The patron is the all-powerful one, the one that blesses and pardons, and that’s more likely God that us. So there’s that. Maybe you’re humble (like me) and think ‘I guess we’re clients then, minor characters in this unfolding drama.’ But that feels too easy, simply getting in line with the invoice we forgot to pay. Paying 50 cents on the dollar for something we own doesn’t tell me anything about the kingdom. So what if we’re brokers?

Back to Investopedia, we learn this about brokers, or using their formulation, power brokers:

A power broker is an individual who, through his or her connections, is able to influence the decisions of other parties. A power broker is typically an industry insider, and is familiar with other individuals and groups able to exert influence or make decisions. Power brokers may be elected officials, business leaders or individuals who are "connected."

It all sounds rather positive, so let’s add a dose of human nature to the description, and try again:

We’re human, so we try to use our wits or our connections to influence the people around us. We want to be loved, or just taken seriously, so we try to impress others with the clever things we say or do. We want to associate ourselves with people or places that matter, and we’re not above name-dropping to make our point. Most of all, we want to be connected—connected with the right sort of people, because you never know when you might need help in the future.

In other words, we’re shrewd. And depending on where you sit, being shrewd is something to be embarrassed about or just part of being human. Recall the end of the parable: the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. In other words, God is saying ‘I know who you are, and I know what it takes to survive life on earth, and I can even acknowledge the moments you are the most shrewd.’ At the end of the day we are loved and forgiven, loved in spite of our need to continually broker what little power we have, and forgiven for the various ways we go about it.

May we see ourselves in the light of the kingdom, loved and forgiven, and free to love God in return. Amen.


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