Shrewd for Christ’s Sake
Let me tell you a peculiar story of Jesus, that very few long to hear. It might be my favorite of all.
It’s called the parable of “The Dishonest Manager” and it’s found in Luke 16:1-9. Look in your version, some anxious translators call him “shrewd” for propriety’s sake; seems a little softer. Many claim the story continues through verse 13, but it doesn’t. This is just scrambling to try to lessen the blow by including other, more conventional (but unrelated) teachings on money. It should stand alone.
You might be unfamiliar with what is also called by translators The “Unjust Steward”, due to the ethical difficulties it presents in contrast to expected morality. Now that my congregation is finishing off Luke’s gospel I wanted to mention it in Faith Biscuits before moving on. I think of it often when trying to make sense out of my career as a liberal preacher.
A wealthy master hears that his manager is wasting his money and calls him in to fire him. The newly unemployed Manager says to himself (in language my clergy friends borrow when talking to each other about how work is going…)
“What will I do? I’m not strong enough to dig (for a living) and I am too proud to beg! I know what I’ll do!…”
And this lousy, lazy, entitled cheat quickly goes around to his master’s debtors and has them dramatically reduce their bills. He has them cut in half what they owe in oil and wheat. This way now that he is unemployed (but before the word gets out) he has made friends who will take him in, maybe even give him a break to help him out financially tomorrow. What a scoundrel!
And his master commends him! The master ruefully claps his hands and mutters
“Well played, well played…”
The lesson is that believers need to be not innocent, but more shrewd and clever than even unbelievers. They should make friends by way of worldly (ill-gotten)wealth. No wonder this wasn’t featured in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School when we were growing up.
I feel guilty sometimes as I desperately try to make the gospel more relevant to an age rapidly tiring of church and religion. I fear I am adapting too much, watering down irrelevant or out of date texts, changing the long-held rules that once served the institution and now are utterly failing to do so. I also have enough evangelical background to carry a strong sense of the sanctity of The Word and the need to refuse to relax its claims, but rather let it shape us, regardless of the outcome.
I can’t help but wonder if conservative religion is even a force for good in our world today; we are constantly shown evidence otherwise; in our country and around the world. The almost anti-conservative pluralism I feel called to teach seems no longer to be simply a theological preference but an absolute necessity for our survival. Still, I feel bad changing the rules as we play…unless this parable somehow has guidance for navigating the strictures as well as the scandalous grace of God.
On Judgement Day I am fully expecting to be called to the carpet for any number of sins both of commission as well as omission. I will be ashamed and terrified, and rightfully so. I know all I will have to mention is a simple two word name; justification will be granted etc.
But sooner or later the small matter of my ministry career is going to come up too I suspect. And regarding serving as shepherd and guide for the PCUSA, regarding decades spent in preaching and teaching I will indeed remember that name. But first I’m going to try to remember two other words as I stand alone before that Throne.