Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Shrewd in Faith”
Rev. Art Ritter
September 22, 2019
Then 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. So 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.’ Then 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then 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.’ And 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. And 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. “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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No 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.”
James Howell shares the story about how when he was five years old he tried to use shrewdness and cunning to avoid punishment from his father. He was about to be spanked by his father for breaking some rule or for general misbehavior. Howell can’t remember the exact details. But he remembers his father prefacing the spanking with these words, “Now son, this is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you.” To a five year old mind, this didn’t make any sense. But the shrewd Howell recognized a way out of the spanking. He said to his father, “Wait a minute! You are going to spank me but it is going to hurt you more. But I am the one who did something wrong?” His father fell right into the trap saying, “That’s right.” The precocious five-year-old continued, “Well, if I am the one to be punished, why don’t you let me spank you so that I would experience the most pain.” Howell said that his father then quickly caught onto the clever plan. The young boy received the spanking plus the loss of his weekly allowance.
I am sure than many of us have been victims of identity theft or cyber fraud. At the very least we gotten those strangely worded emails and text messages wanting us to offer some of our private financial account information. I saw a new item this week where cybercriminals can now sign up for a six week online course offering webinars, online tutorials, and technical support, all designed to help wannabe crooks aiming to get involved in credit card fraud. The invitation to the class says that it can take a complete novice and turn them into a specialist in credit card fraud in a mere six weeks. The course is conducted in Russian, which gives you a pretty good clue as to where most of the students are. It costs around $250 dollars with an additional charge of $200 for materials. And prospective students have to pay in cryptocurrency like bitcoin because evidently identity theft students just can’t be trusted. The story is just another example how shrewd and developed criminals are in the world today.
This morning we hear the words of Jesus from the gospel of Luke, telling his listeners the parable of the dishonest steward or the shrewd manager. It may be one of the most difficult parables that Jesus told. Alyce McKenzie compares it to putting Crisco on a watermelon and then asking someone to catch it. You can grab at it but it is bound to slip out of your grip. You may think you understand and then you find something that raises an additional question or concern. Clarence Jordan, author of The Cottonpatch Gospels, once said that Jesus’ parables were like Trojan horses. They looked great on the outside but you let them in and bam- they got you. That is certainly true with this parable we reflect upon this morning.
The master of an estate calls on the carpet his manager who had been cheating the boss for years. The manager was kind of a middle man, representing his master in the exchange of good and services with merchants and in the receipt of rent with the tenants. Most managers or stewards were able to line their own pockets with a few extra dollars in every transaction. The master looked the other way, expecting it to happen unless things really got out of hand. In this case, they apparently did. The manager was taking way too much money from the accounts and the master of the estate called for an audit of the books. It became clear to the manager that he was about to lose his job.
The shrewd man immediately went into crisis mode. He did not raise his arms in despair and hopelessness. He spent every ounce of his creative energy planning to protect his future. He called all of his clients together and treated them to one last meal on the boss’ tab. He told them that he had the power to reduce the amount of money they owned to the boss. He promised them whatever he could so that when he lost his job- those customers might remember his favorably and welcome him into their homes and business to care for him.
Our reaction to hearing this parable is quite natural. What a jerk! What a scoundrel! Perhaps he took the course from the Russian cyber fraud experts. Using the boss’ assets to provide for his own future, even after many years of cheating that same boss. Yet this is the parable that Jesus told his followers.
And stranger yet is what happened when the boss of this shrewd manager found out about what his employee had done. Instead of firing him, he actually commended the man. He praised his shrewd and creative behavior. He lauded his diligence and effort. And Jesus said, “For the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
What is the message for us, the followers of Jesus who hear this parable today? Perhaps a good place to start is with that word “shrewd.” For many years this parable of Jesus was called “The Dishonest Steward.” But it is not dishonestly that is behavior that is supposed to be modeled but shrewdness. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word translated as shrewd can also be translated as “something that you have wrestled with.” The word is used in a couple of places in Scripture, places that are also connected with the nearness of a judgment. The word seems to point to some commitment to a well-thought out plan to bring about a desired outcome.
Jesus taught his disciples this parable, because they like us, lived in a time and place that demanded action and response. As those who are caught up in the world are clever and cunning, even those who deal with their affairs dishonestly, the children of God need to reflect upon the gifts and abilities and especially the opportunities that God has given us and then arrange the various aspects of our lives so that we can take care of the things that need to be done for God. The shrewd manager was praised, not because he was dishonest and conniving. He was praised because he made a radical decision in the light of a coming event. He was praised because he focused on what was important at that moment. Jesus taught that God puts a critical moment in front of us that demands a radical re-ordering of our life priorities. The presence of Jesus the Christ places a crisis in our midst. The crisis confronts us daily through our choices and decisions.
I recall a trial of a forger in Germany around twenty years ago. The man was so good at his trade that he actually had experts believing that his diaries of Adolf Hitler were real. When brought before the court, the judge spent most of the trial complimenting the forger on his ability. “You have a rare gift, an exceptional talent” he said. Others in the courtroom were astonished at the judge’s behavior but the judge reminded them all that he was not praising the illegal act, but merely the skill.
I think the same is true of Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the shrewd manager. Jesus often used an example of a rascal to teach us a thing or two about what God is like and about what we should be like in response to God. Remember the widow who kept pestering a judge relentlessly, both day and night, until he finally gave her the justice of which she felt worthy. Remember the man he wouldn’t leave the comfort of his bed to welcome a stranger until his door was almost beaten down? Remember the man who found a treasure in the field of a friend and then quietly went out and bought the field so he could profit from the treasure? These were not good people! Yet Jesus lifted them up as examples of faith. How much more will it profit us if we approach our lives of faith with the same urgency and passion as these shrewd rascals and scoundrels approached their malicious ways?
I have shared with you before a Jewish fable about a student who burst through the doors of his school with important news to tell his teacher, the great rabbi. One of the rabbi’s friends had just been arrested for burglary. The student expected the rabbi to be shocked, at the very least visibly upset at such terrible news concerning his friend. But the rabbi seemed very calm. He said, “My friend the burglar is a great example to all. Every day he manages to teach me something, even today. When we are sleeping, he is busy working. When we go about our daily activity without any thought, he is quiet and adept. When others are busy locking their doors, he skillfully knows how to open them. Yes, my best friend the burglar is a true artist and a great teacher!” The student walked away amazed and puzzled at such a lesson.
We need to be shrewd in faith. We need to understand the urgency of the situation and the important need to respond. We need to appreciate the resources at our disposal and to use them in ways that are commendable in God’s eyes to get the work of God done here on earth. We need to secure our ultimate future, which in God’s intention, cannot be separated from the future of the whole community. We need to take the words of Jesus which tease our minds, allow them to enter into our active thought, and then put ourselves in the middle of decisive life-changing action.