SERMON IN CR CHAPEL SUNDAY 19 SEPTEMBER 2010
TRINITY 16 PROPER 10 LUKE 16:1-13
The shrewd manager
The parable we have just heard is rightly famous, famous for being perhaps the hardest nut in the gospel of Luke. At first blush it sounds as if Jesus is commending the kind of economic practices which have got the capitalist world in such a mess and have caused and will cause grave suffering to millions of the poor and marginal. That sounds odd because as we know Luke, of all the evangelists, was more inclined to the Ed Miliband wing of politics than the other gospel writers, certainly not the wing of George Osborne. Indeed, so embarrassing has this gospel been that in the old 1928 lectionary an alternative was found for those who could not make headway. Of course, perhaps Jesus is commending such dishonesty - and it is big dishonesty: 2250 litres of olive oil are involved in the cut offered by the steward and it is saying that such rules do not affect the standing of the Christian in the kingdom; “do what you can in adversity even if you have been utterly corrupt until now.” Jesus the Nietzschean as it were. Unlikely, especially as Luke goes on to draw moral lessons from the parable, about faithfulness in adversity, about giving to the poor and not being afraid of living in a time of unrighteousness, about lessons for good sense in the face of difficulties.
Yet it is possible that Luke is here doing something which is more typical of Matthew; of offering commentary on a parable which is clearly undergoing a slight domestication in the process. It has been suggested - by the Archbishop of Canterbury no less - that the parable we have heard is one which was remembered because it was so strange and yet did hit the disciples square between the eyes, something remembered because it was not understood rather than because it met the disciples where they were at, to use the modern phrase. Happily, there is little of Jesus meeting people where they were at and much more of yanking the carpet from under their feet and wrapping them up in it and rolling them down the hill for good measure.
Whatever one makes of the steward, the manager, one thing is sure is that he has used the system, an oppressive system of economic management, to his own short term benefit and has got away with it. He has been shaped by his own speculation for he has become too proud and is past being able to do good work - I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. He is in a fix and is allowed sometime to defend himself, for his master is almost disconcertingly just and patient with someone whom he knows has been ripping him off. We are dealing with a very unjust steward and a Lord who is so patient as to be on the verge of silly. The steward takes advantage of it and gets some of his master’s money out of his control into the hands of third parties and puts themselves into a debt which they will have to repay to him. Canny, dishonest, corrupt. It is the kind of thing you could imagine Jacob doing to escape Esau but not the author of the sermon on the mount.
Of course that is surely part of the point – the hearer is not expecting that the Lord will commend the steward, that he will praise him not only for being a devious thief twice over but also for the way he has done it. Even if it is a moral tale as Luke takes it, it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
What is going on? We’re right to be unsettled, for Jesus is using a dirty story with one character who is almost feckless and another who is corrupt and canny in a context which is gravely distorted and far from the Lukan ideal of sharing things in common. It may be that canniness of Israel is being commended, of being on the qui vive when difficulties come, when major difficulties come. I am not talking about financial worries – Jesus uses stories about money to illustrate other elements of life rather than to endorse any financial practice. Rather, the difficulty is when everything is going to change, when your treasured devotion, your beloved prayers and intercessions are going to be swept away, when the place where your treasure is about to be shaken and the treasure cast aside. Perhaps the wisdom – for wisdom is a better translation than shrewdness here – is.
This is not natural of course; the parable is a hard one. None of it is what one might call a natural environment for Christian behaviour or even attempts at Christian behaviour. It is a serious point that we need to know how fragile our hearts are and how fragile that treasure and that, therefore, we need to beg for that wisdom, so that when our very hearts are on the line, when what we really do love most is kicked, we may not be swayed or embittered. It is always a point which the church needs to learn; perhaps the fact that the amounts of oil and wheat are those which are ordered to be given to Ezra for the building of the temple indicate that.
I recently met someone who may be an example of what I mean. He is a Russian now living in retirement in Moscow ; he was many years ago prevented from working as a doctor and badly beaten by the police – he only has one working eye and he lost everything because of his faith. He is more socially engaged than many of his co-religionists would like and that puts him at some risk. He has very little still but he is without rancour; nor has he built up the defence of insouciance which many put together to protect themselves. He has that wisdom. that shrewdness and it is not natural; although it is at home in the mammon of unrighteousness, the mammon of unrighteousness is not at home with it. Let us ever be so unsettled that we may be neither natural nor that the mammon of unrighteousness may be at home with us.
Thomas Seville CR