Year C, Proper 20
September 22, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
One of the things I love about Eugene are the bumper stickers. I saw a good one yesterday: “God’s original plan for us was to hang out in a garden with some naked vegetarians.” I’m just saying… Remember, a priest’s primary vocation is to point out the obvious.
Today we have the parable of “the shrewd manager.” You can’t serve God and Wealth and all of that. Hard language, guaranteed to offend the wealthy amongst us, a complicated thing to do preceding stewardship.
Now as you are probably learning, I try to go head first into the gospel. Like last week. It was about soteriology and ecclesiology, right? Salvation and structure, who is saved and who is not saved, who is in and who is out, right? And we talked about SLEEPS and how to understand the existence of the subaltern, the excluded. And the conclusion? Salvation is God’s business; who is in and who is out, that is on us. Remember?
So after last week, I had planned on a slightly more gentle, a more spiritual or pastoral sermon for today, we shouldn’t be operantly conditioned to be leaving church in a muddled, somewhat agitated state of discord being called to discern the gospel flowing in our lives in ways we could not ask for nor imagine. Right? Is that what we are here for? That might be too much. To have to be thinking about all of this stuff all the time, or at church, at least. Praying, letting things into ourselves that our society, that the normative, hegemonic culture we inhabit discounts, disregards, and discards. Like the very poor. Like defenseless trees and their defenders. Like storms in Mexico and Colorado and melting glaciers in Antarctica and mass murder-suicides in our capital or the 25 more humdrum murders perpetrated with firearms every day. Like the true nature and needs of our children and our sick and our elders and women and men and the broken in body, mind and spirit. That is just a lot of thinking to do, a lot of praying and feeling and letting the suffering of the world into our hearts and our minds and our bodies. And we get it all day every day through the paper, the radio, who knows how many listserves and other on-line information streams we are fed. Church could/should be a place of calm, quiet and solace from the storm of a broken, chaotic and sinful world, right?
I don’t know. Sometimes, I suppose. We need a break from it sometimes. So after a couple of strident weeks in the pulpit I was going to pull back on the reigns today, go a little more gentle or pastoral and then I read the lectionary… You cannot serve two masters, you cannot serve God and wealth… Sorry. You might leave a bit agitated again today, agitated in the Lord, hopefully. It is not me. I don’t make this stuff up, I don’t choose the Gospels we preach here, the Holy Spirit does that, we just arrange the order.
We do come to church for solace, but as Eucharistic Prayer C says, we must also come for strength. We near the table not only for pardon, but for renewal. This is extremely important. Jesus did not come for the well, the comfortable or the slightly uncomfortable. Jesus Christ came into the world for sinners, for the soul sick, the body sick, the mind-sick, the demoniac, the addicted, and for those so consumed with, so disordered in our relationships with the material world that we begin to serve masters that do not deserve our service, that do not deserve our fealty that do distract us from serving the Master we have been put here to serve, God.
The parable of the shrewd manager is about material wealth. Period. It is not about “spiritual wealth” or what we hold back from God. It is about wealth, material wealth, possessions and our relationships with it. “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Them’s fightn’ words, or at least they have been taken to be that for a very long time. Let’s dig in and let Jesus Christ speak to us directly through St. Luke’s words.
A rich man had a manager who was accused of squandering the rich man’s property. So he told him to get everything in order because he was fired. There was no unemployment in those days, and the manager realized that he was not strong enough to dig, to do manual labor, and too proud to beg. So what does he do? He decides to put some of his business contacts to good use so that when, “I am dismissed as manager, people will welcome me into their homes.” To do this, he called a few of the accounts he managed and cut their debt, by 50% for the olive oil dealer and 20% for the wheat merchant. Shrewd.
We don’t know what those discounts actually meant. Did these discounts reflect the manager’s commission? Maybe he discounted the amount of his commission from the bills to save face in the firing and gain the favor of his master’s debtors? That is shrewd. Maybe he discounted an unlawful usury, interest that the rich man had intended to collect? You can’t really complain publically if your manager gave away illegal proceeds. Either of these are rather righteous ways for him to depart. The manager would have been within the spirit of the law of righteousness if not the letter.
This might be the implication, and would be reinforced by the rich man’s commendation that the fired manager had acted “shrewdly.” This interpretation is backed up by Jesus’ commentary on the children of this generation being more shrewd than the children of light, but “shrewd” is a complex word.
“Shrewd” means, “showing sharp powers of judgment.” It also has an archaic meaning implying keen, piercing and sever, “a bayonet’s shrewd thrust” is a usage example in the Oxford English. So there is a connotation to the word, though not as negative as the word “cunning,” is still rather edgy. But this explanation flows in line with Jesus’ commentary on the children of light and the dangers of serving multiple, divergent masters. One commentator suggests that the children of light could learn from this generation when it comes to managerial style… The manager is praised for “…having the qualities of a manager! It is the quality of responsiveness rather than the possible morality of the action that is the object of praise.” Maybe that is something we can learn form the more mercenary in our midst.
Another possibility, is that the rich man was saying, “I’d have done exactly the same thing if I was in your position.” That is why when someone is fired now they are escorted out by security or management, cleaning out their desk under watchful, distrustful eyes. I did that to someone in my short corporate management career. It was awful, but if you are being thrown out on your ear, wouldn’t you do what you could to save yourself and your family?
Then there is the statement, “…make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” This is related to another Lukan statement, “Make for yourselves purses that do not grow old…” and lay up for yourself treasure in heaven,” so there is a very possible correlation of giving dishonest wealth in the form of alms and eternal salvation, a case for karmic money laundering.
So there are two morals being discerned here. One, be shrewd, be wise, be discerning when it comes to the use of possessions, wealth, mammon. Good can come from ill, Jesus seems to be saying. The master’s tools might be used against him, is another, though our sister Audre Lord might take exception to that hermeneutic. The lesson is tied into the teaching that what you do with the unimportant reflects what you do with the important.
The second moral is more direct: what we do with possessions, with wealth, with material goods directly impacts our relationship with God, the Universe and everything. And it is risky business, material wealth. It is important, material things are a natural part of existence, not something to be disregarded or certainly not diminished or demonized. Of all the great world religions, ours, Christianity is the most materialistic. Our understanding is that God so loved the world that God in God’s self came here, God joined us in the time-space continuum. He had a mother, siblings, He ate and cried and had friends, and walked around and talked and did all sorts of things here, living in the material world. And while material things do not have an inherent good nor evil disposition, our nature puts us at grave risk of making bad choices between the seen and the unseen. We cannot serve God and Mammon, though good Lord, do we try. AMEN