Sunday, 22 September 2019

Shrewdness : Trinity 14

Luke 16.1-13 & Amos 8.4-7

I’m not a huge Simpsons fan but I thought they could be onto something which would encourage more young people into church when I saw their sign outside the First Church of Springfield which read ‘free wi-fi during sermon’. Clearly it’s to enable worshippers to search biblical text and historical context as they follow the preachers words intently.

Upon hearing today’s gospel reading did you think to yourself ‘well it’s pretty obvious what that is all about?’ If so then you have done a lot better than I did upon my first reading! The rest of us might wish we could start googling but hold on and hear what I can make of it first.

Having read numerous commentaries and websites it’s clear that people with far greater theological knowledge than me can’t really agree what it’s about either, at least not in its entirety.

Should this bother us? Personally, I don’t think we have to resolve every point, it’s about finding some meaning which is greater than the story itself, about seeing whether we find ourselves in any part and whether it speaks to us.

Perhaps try coming at it from a different angle, if we were to ask Jesus whether we should cheat the taxman or steal money from others we probably know what the answer is. But if we were to ask Jesus ‘what about money’ would he answer ‘watch that Martin Lewis chap, you know the money saving expert he has a lot of useful advice or he might just answer with a parable which begins…’There was a rich man who had a manager and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.’

The parable, sometimes called ‘The Parable of the Shrewd Manager’ is told by Jesus to the disciples, but we also hear that ‘The Pharisees who were lovers of money, heard all this’ and there were probably others as well, it’s quite likely that some of them were tax collectors so any story about money changing hands would have made their ears prick up.

In essence we’ve got a guy whose job is to manage land, probably, for an absentee landlord and he’s about to get the sack for poor performance or maybe dishonesty. Naturally he’s worried about this and knows that alternative employment options will be virtually nil. So he thinks I’m going to need some people who will owe me some help once I’m out of here and calculates that if he falsifies the records to reduce the debts of some of the people who owe his master that they will repay him later when he is in need, or if not he could always blackmail them for being complicit in his cheating! His master sees that payments have been made in wheat and oil and says good job.

Jesus tells the disciples, and obviously I paraphrase, see how these boys use their imagination to get things sorted, a little bit of false accounting here, a bit of dodgy dealing there and everyone’s happy. You need to sharpen up like them, get a bit of the action and use the money to get yourselves some new friends who will owe you when it runs out.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to see Jesus face when he said this. Was there a glint in his eye, a wry smile maybe or possibly he was absolutely deadpan serious leaving the disciples to look at each other until the penny drops and they say ah he doesn’t really want us to do that does he, he’s being ironic again, as they descend into the type of nervous laughter that often results from relief!

One thing we can be sure of is that all these characters were putting a lot of effort and ingenuity into their ducking and diving. It’s a fact that a lot of the most successful fraudsters are very clever, working hard to come up with new scams, devoted to their horrible work in a way that many people in regular jobs are not. So when Jesus says that’ the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light’ he is challenging those who hear to put as much effort into Godly things as the dodgy people are into their cheating.

We need to be aware of the lengths to which some will go in order to obstruct God’s will and be prepared to go further to uphold it. We need to use our intelligence and our energy to promote peace and justice but most of all to show love for each other.

Being a Christian means using our God given talents to serve each other. It means using our experience to ensure that we are getting best value, wheeling and dealing for God in an honest but shrewd way. Not getting stitched up and caught out by those who would take advantage of our community given the opportunity.  One of my old school reports suggested that the teachers would have more chance to see whether I could live up to my surname if put half the effort into study as I did into sport.

It falls to us all to consider whether we have a little energy we could divert from other activities into making God’s love known to others.

So where do your sympathies lie at this stage? Are you most angry with the cheating manager or the people paying less than their debt. Perhaps you feel it’s all the fault of the landowner because he really should have been taking more interest and then he may have known that he was being cheated?

Anyone who has ever lost their job without another lined up will know the anxiety this brings and may sympathise with the man being fired, don’t forget that begging was his only alternative.

Jesus' hearers would have had the benefit over us of being only too familiar in their knowledge that the debt contracts probably included exorbitant interest hidden from the illiterate peasants. Think today of payday loan companies charging sky high interest rates to those least able to afford it.

We also need to remember that that charging interest on loans was forbidden in the Bible because it exploited the poor and vulnerable. So when we come across the manager in his role as debt collector reducing the amount to what may have been payable before the interest was rolled up does this change the way we see him even though he may have got into trouble in the first place because he’s been taking a slice for himself and leaving his boss to account to Rome for their share?

How do we feel about something that has an apparent element of justice when cheating is involved?

Hopefully by this stage we are starting to see what a truly brilliant parable this is, all the more so because we cannot neatly resolve it. If we fully immerse ourselves it’s hard not to consider other possibilities for the characters involved.

Possibly the debtors are long overdue and it’s better to get something rather than nothing in payment. Perhaps the rich man starts to get an insight into the world of those without much wealth and becomes more sympathetic, perhaps a bit of corruption was so commonplace to those hearing the story that few care about a bit of dodgy dealing, or maybe the debtors believe that it is the rich man that commanded the reductions and he wants to maintain this illusion of generosity to save losing face. 

If you ever think everyone has forgotten you, borrow some money, miss a repayment or two and the ‘phone will start to ring again.

If we feel someone owes us, be it money or anything else we may think they will behave in a certain way but how often do we hear people say things such as ‘after all I’ve done for him you think he would at least have, I don’t know, washed up after the meal, paid back what he owed, not left me for my best friend! Perhaps the parable is provoking us to think where am I going to invest my energy and resources for my eternal future?

If nothing else it shows us that people don’t always behave predictably.  This story immediately follows the parable of the prodigal son in Luke’s gospel where we are told that once the younger son had squandered his property he found that none of those who enjoyed helping him do so were interested in him when famine struck and he found himself skint. While we don’t get to know the conclusion in today’s story I strongly suspect that the ‘friends’ and favours that the manager hoped he was securing for the future simply led to him being let down and disappointed. Real friends can’t be bought.

It’s clear that we still don’t need to look far to see that money or its equivalent has always caused problems and it continues to do so today with corrupt business dealings, the expenses scandal and unfair interest rates charged on loans to the poorest countries to name but a few.

Even around 750 years before the time of our Gospel reading the prophet Amos was addressing corruption and seeking social justice. The scene he describes in today’s reading sounds like it needs an urgent call to trading standards as the traders cannot wait for the Sabbath to be over so that they can start fiddling people with short measures and worthless goods.

Jesus knew that dilemmas surrounding money were not simple when he walked the earth and nor are they today.

However money isn’t all bad, apart from buying us essential shelter, for parents, it keeps you in touch with your children who have left home and in return you can keep photos of them in your wallet or purse, you know where your money used to be.

There are the super rich such as Bill Gates. If he spent a million dollars a day it would take him 218 years before he ran out of money. Thankfully he has the wisdom to use it as a force for good, improving the life chances for the less fortunate through his foundation.

Then there are those who never have a spare penny as they struggle from month to month.

Arguably the greatest dilemma falls to those in-between, trying make responsible decisions about family support, mortgages, education fees, pensions and provision for later life care whilst balancing this against charitable giving and the use of money in ways which benefits the wider community.

Our decisions about money will be personal and varying but when we make them let’s try to do so prayerfully.


Kevin Bright

22 September 2019

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