Then Jesussaid to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
In today’s pandemic climate I think we are all drawn to people whose cleverness can help us to understand what to do for the greater good. A week or so ago I watched a television special on the coronavirus geared toward children. One of the hosts of the show was Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and medical professor with the Emory Hospital System and the Chief Medical Correspondent for CNN. He was assisted by a delightful cast of Muppets from Sesame Street. In one part of the show he talked how important it is for all of us to wash our hands. It reminded me of a recent time when someone asked him, “Which is better, washing hands or using Purell?” Dr. Gupta held up a greasy frying pan and said, “Both are okay, but if you had to choose between the two to wash this pan, which would you choose?” He then went on to say that Purell is good, but washing hands is better, because the virus is much like grease on a pan, seeking to attach itself to anything that is unlucky enough to pass by. Obviously, the visual image stuck with me, as I’m sure it did for many others. Bright, clever people help us to understand the time in which we are living and the time for which we are living.
Today we come to the consideration of one of the most, if not the most, confusing of Jesus’ parables. Rudolph Bultmann, the great 20th century theologian and New Testament authority, called our parable for the morning “The problem child of parable exegesis.” William Barclay, the Scottish scholar and theologian, said, “In many ways this is the most puzzling parable Jesus ever spoke.” Barclay and Bultmann speak for many of us, I think. For starters, we are uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus could find anything laudable about a person’s dishonesty. Tom Long notes, “It sounds as though Jesus wants his followers to use dishonest wealth—say laundered drug money or casino gambling proceeds or the profits gleaned by cheating migrant workers out of a living wage—for godly causes. Right? No, in fact the phrase ‘dishonest wealth’ is not a very accurate translation of the Greek. A better translation would be ‘the money of this unrighteous age.’ In other words, it is not the money that is corrupt; it’s the culture that is corrupt, and Jesus is not talking about dishonest money versus good money. He is talking about all money, every last penny of the currency of our culture.”
In Fred Craddock’s commentary on Luke’s Gospel, he postulates that the reason that many Christians have been offended by this parable may be due to the use of words such as “shrewd” and “clever,” words that we are prone to associate today with self-serving, perhaps even ethically questionable, behavior… that it is difficult in our minds to speak of a ‘shrewd saint.’ He believes that Jesus is telling the disciples that how one handles property has eternal consequences, that, for all the dangers inherent in possessions, it is possible to manage goods in ways appropriate to life in the kingdom of God. Even so, the parable remains a bit troubling, but that may be exactly what Jesus intended.
N.T. Wright, the gifted British theological scholar, helps us listen to this parable from another possible perspective. He writes, “The first thing to do is to understand how the story works. It looks as though the master in the story had himself been acting in a somewhat underhand manner. Jews were forbidden to lend money at interest, but many people got round this by lending in kind, with oil and wheat being easy commodities to use for this purpose. It is likely that what the steward deducted from the bill was the interest that the master had been charging, with a higher rate on oil than on wheat. If he reduced the bill in each case to the principal, the simple amount that had been lent, the debtors would be delighted, but the master couldn’t lay a charge against the steward without owning up to his own shady business practices. Thus, when the master heard about it (I think ‘the master’ in verse 9 is certainly the master of the story, not Jesus), he could only admire the man’s clever approach.”
Perhaps Jesus was not only cautioning the disciples about possessions, but he was also trying to teach them that possessions may be used for the good. One of my favorite stories along this line tells about a situation in a church.
It seems that the treasurer of a church resigned one day over the frustrating issue of trying to balance the budget with the inadequate giving practices of the congregation. The church struggled to find a replacement. Finally, they begged the local grain elevator manager to take the position. He agreed under two conditions: (1) That no treasurer’s report would be given for the first year; and (2) that no questions be asked about finances during that year. The people were surprised but finally agreed, since most of them did business with him, and he was a trusted man. At the end of the year he gave his report: (1) The church indebtedness of $228,000 had been paid. (2) The minister’s salary had been increased by 8%. (3) The Cooperative Program gift had been paid 200%. (4) There were no outstanding bills. (5) And there was a cash balance of $11,252! Immediately the shocked congregation asked, “How did you do it? Where did the money come from?” He quietly answered: “Most of you bring your grain to my elevator. Throughout the year I simply withheld ten percent on your behalf and gave it to the church in your name. You didn’t even miss it!”
Dishonest? You be the judge. Clever? Christ will be the judge . . .
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Can you remember a time when a clever teacher used an innovative technique to help you understand a concept? Give thanks for the cleverness.
A lot of us are wanting to “get back to normal.” On a recent CBS Sixty Minutes broadcast I heard Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, talk about the reality of getting back not just to a new normal, but a newabnormal. In trying to imagine our callings in the future, can you spend some time with God, asking to think in new ways for the Kingdom’s sake?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Hidden”