Monday, September 23, 2013

September 23 Sermon: The Most Confusing Story in the Bible

Luke 16:1-13
16Then Jesus said 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. 2So 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.’ 3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then 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.’ 8And 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. 9And 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. 10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” 

Well, we are in a little two week series called the most and least confusing stories in the Bible, and I thought long and hard before I called this week’s scripture lesson the most confusing story in the Bible. I tend to exaggerate a little bit sometimes, you know, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being too ridiculous when I talked about this story as confusing.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, no, this story isn’t just confusing, it is almost like Jesus told it just to throw us off, just to throw off the Pharisees who were following him around. I guess Jesus doesn’t work like that, but isn’t that exactly the point? When you think you know exactly how Jesus works, he goes off and does something like this, tells a story about how the way to get out of being fired for gross incompetence is to be even more incompetent, to reduce the money and goods that the boss is due without the boss’s permission. The way to get ahead is by being shrewd, by being practical.

Of course, this isn’t a story about business, which is good, because I’d NEVER hire this guy. This is a story about the church, about the kingdom of God, about what it means to follow Jesus. Jesus says that we are supposed to be shrewd, to be practical, to look at things as they are and make the best out of them.

The theologian Lois Malcolm says that “even though he is still a sinner who is looking out for his own interests, [the shrewd manager] models behavior the disciples can emulate. Instead of simply being a victim of circumstance, he transforms a bad situation into one that benefits him and others.”
Now, let me stop for a minute and say that maybe the problem we have with this story is the word shrewd. Maybe we should go with perspicacious. That’s a word fitting of this story, don’t you think? “The parable of the perspicacious manager.” We think of shrewd people as dishonest folk, people who walk about trying to figure out how to reach into your pocket in order to find a dime to squeeze. And maybe there is some of that here. A lot of study Bibles call this story the story of the dishonest manager, and I don’t think that is quite right. I don’t think the manager sets out to be dishonest. I think he just realizes that he doesn’t live in an ideal world. He can only deal with the cards he’s been dealt, so he needs to do what he can with what he’s got.

The problem is that doing what he can with what he’s got means selling out his boss a little bit. The olive oil guy owes the rich man 100 jugs of olive oil, and the shrewd manager lets him off the hook for half of them. The wheat guy owes him a hundred bales of what, and the shrewd manager writes off twenty. And you’d think that the rich man would be mad, that he would be furious in fact, as the manager had no right to do what he did. But, surprise, surprise! The boss is pleased, for he ends up with more oil and more wheat than he would have ended up with otherwise, because the manager was flexible enough to realize that it is better to live in a practical world, taking stock of how things are and doing what you can, than it is to live in an ideal world in which the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.

This does not mean that the rich man came out ahead, of course. He’d paid the oil guy enough for 100 jugs and the wheat vendor enough for a hundred bales, and he ended up with less than he paid for. And so while he got more than he might have otherwise, I am sure it stung a bit to realize that though he’d done everything correctly, he still got the short end of the stick.

And this is precisely Jesus’s point, for it is impossible to shrewdly and faithfully follow Jesus without anybody getting hurt, because following Jesus happens in the real world, which is incidentally where most of us live. There is no ideal world in which we are able to believe what we want and everybody gets along and everybody makes the same sacrifices. That world doesn’t exist. If I am going to be practical with our faith, I’ve got to realize that I don’t have all the money in the world. We don’t have all the time or resources or what have you, and so each of us must follow Jesus from where we are, not where we would like to be.

Maybe this sounds a little harsh, because we’ve come to believe that God blesses those who follow Jesus’s example. Now, I happen to believe this is true in a way, but blessing means something different than operating in an ideal world. One of my favorite quotes is from the excommunicated Catholic theologian Alfred Loisy who said that Jesus came preaching the kingdom, but what arrived was the church. On days when the finances don’t add up or there’s an argument in the church, I remember those words. We’ve got to do what we can with what we’ve got, making difficult decisions when necessary, all in the interest of serving God from where we are, now, for Jesus came preaching the kingdom, and what arrived was the church.

You know, I think it is interesting that the hero of this story is, from the beginning, charged with squandering the boss’s property. And then Jesus talks about how this guy is supposed to be something we’re supposed to emulate, which makes me feel better about the fact that things don’t always go as I plan for them to. Sometimes I am in over my head, which is good, because Jesus shows us that even when things are over your head, there’s a way forward. It is not necessarily easy, and it doesn’t get you all hundred jugs of olive oil and bundles of wheat, or whatever, but if you follow Jesus, you may end up with fifty and eighty, which is better than it could have been. You may hurt the boss’s bottom line, you may hurt his feelings, and you certainly risk even worse. But the blessing of this sort of thing is that it is possible. Maybe not pristinely possible, but practically possible.

So, Jesus says, you've got to get your hands dirty. Now, it doesn't just mean that you've got to do some things that might not be the most fun for you. That may happen now and again, but that's not what Jesus is talking about. Shrewdly following Jesus means that you've got to make some difficult decisions that are going to make some people mad, and for good reason. The business of being a Christian, after all, is not simply about adding belief in Jesus to your life. When you make the difficult decision to follow Jesus, you implicitly make a million other decisions about what you aren't going to follow, and some of those things are deeply good. For instance, there’s no shortage of good things the church can spend its money on: mission, utilities, payroll, facilities, You name it, somebody’s asked me for it.

But following Jesus means that you've got to be shrewd, spending energy and time and money on things that make disciples, not things that make us comfortable, for you cannot serve God and wealth. That’s not easy, but if you start to worry about the efficacy of this sort of thing, find me after the service and I will find you the phone number of the shrewd manager, who had his back up against the wall and managed to be hailed as a hero, by his boss and by Jesus and by two thousand years of Christian preachers trying to figure out what on earth this weird parable means.

It is a weird story, so as I get ready to sit down, let me tell you the redneck way I would tell it if I were in Jesus’s shoes. Maybe this will help.

When the truck gets stuck in the mud, and you get out the rope and the winch and pull it out, you can wash the mud off the truck, but the trenches are still there. They don't easily go away. Slowly, over time, dirt washes back in, but it can take a long time.

The other alternative, I suppose, is to just leave the truck stuck in the mud. Eventually, it, too, will get covered up with mud.

You’d be crazy to do that, but churches all over the country are doing just that: leaving the truck stuck in the mud, content to just leave it where it is and hope that some magical person comes and lifts it out. Jesus promises resurrection, but if the shrewd manager tells me anything, it is that you can’t leave things as they are and expect to get by.

Nobody wants to get stuck, but when it happens, and it happens to everybody at some point, take stock, get out the rope and the winch, and find a way out. I’m not saying it is easy. I am not saying you won’t do some damage along the way, I’m not saying you won’t leave deep ruts for a while. But you do what you have to do.

So, in the life of faith, there’s a choice. You can tell the boss that it wasn’t your fault, that the price of oil has gone up, and it is just out of your control, it is just too hard, and just sort of accept your fate.

Or be shrewd, step out in faith and do the difficult thing, and end up with fifty jugs of oil and eighty bales of wheat more than you would have otherwise. The good news is that if you just throw in a little water and a little salt, and you can make an awful lot of bread out of that kind of arrangement. You can feed an awful lot of people. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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