Augustine once remarked that God gives us easy scripture passages to keep us from starving, and difficult passages to keep us from being bored. This morning’s Gospel lesson is definitely one of the latter, that keeps us from being bored!
Two words sum up for me the Parable of the Dishonest Manager: “puzzled” and “shrewd.” I am puzzled that Jesus tells a story extolling one who squanders property, who seems to not want to earn an honest living, and who cheats his master out of his property. I’m puzzled at what sort of a master would commended a slave for cheating him out of his property. I’m puzzled as to what Jesus means when he says that we should “make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” And I’m not the only one who is puzzled; for centuries preachers and scholars have been trying – in vain, so far as I can see – to make adequate sense of this text.
Given that for nearly 2000 years Christians have been trying to provide a satisfactory explanation for today’s text, it is unlikely that we will solve its riddle here this morning. In fact, I wonder if any Christians anywhere will ever solve the riddle of this text, as enigmatic and obscure as it is.
Which is not to say that the riddle cannot be solved. But I’m not sure that Christians can solve this riddle. At least not Christians such as we tend to think of them. Let me explain.
When I was in seminary one of my classmates, from North Carolina, happened to be home for a few days and attended a talk by Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian at Duke University. Prof Hauerwas is famous for both his provocative ideas and his “colorful” language. By my classmate’s account, both were in evidence at this talk. As my classmate tells it, Professor Hauerwas said:
The thing that’s wrong with this church is that we’re all so _________ nice. And we ordain nice people to be our leaders. If this church wants to do itself a favor – if this church really wants to live into its mission and to proclaim the kingdom of God – what this church needs to do is to go out and ordain a whole bunch of _________!
I can’t say it in church. (I guess I’m too “______ nice…”)
I wonder if it would take somebody who wasn’t so “nice” to make sense of this text, someone who maybe didn’t consider him- or herself a Christian. Someone who had squandered somebody else’s property. Somebody who had cheated others out of their goods. Someone who had made friends of dishonest wealth (whatever “dishonest wealth” is!). Maybe to make sense of this text we need somebody so unlike us – or at least so unlike the persons we think we are supposed be – that in the 2,000 years of the Church we have never asked someone like him or her to preach on this text, never ordained them, never really given them a voice to help us make sense of this text. Harper Lee once wrote (in To Kill a Mockingbird) that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” To understand this text, I wonder if we need a person who has been in this manager’s skin, who is not Christian as we tend to think of “Christian,” who is one of what Stanley Hauerwas called them (and that I am too embarrassed to say in church).
Which suggests that this morning’s text might really be a text about hospitality. And that brings us to my second word: “shrewd.”
The text describes the manager as having acted “shrewdly.” Maybe we can understand this text only to the extent that we have shed “nice” and taken up the “shrewd” of the dishonest manager. “Shrewd” in that the dishonest manager had a realistic assessment of who he was: “I am not strong enough to dig…” “Shrewd” in that the manager knew what he needed to do in order to be alive: “I have decided what to do… ‘How much do you owe my master?’” “Shrewd” in that the manager knew his master well, that his master would approve.
To make sense of this text, maybe we need to honestly assess who we are: loved sinners all, each with unique gifts. To make sense of this text, maybe we need to be clear about what we need in order to live: to follow Jesus. To understand this text, maybe we need know our Master exceedingly well, even better than we do now. Unfortunately, the way in which we come to know ourselves and what we need, the way in which we come to better know the Master, is often through suffering and pain, and through failure and shame. For often it is only when there has been an earth-shaking event in our lives – a death, a diagnoses, a divorce, an addiction, or something that involves a profound sense of failure or shame – that we come to know God as merciful and loving and compassionate, that God does not stand so much in judgment as God stands ready to pick us up, like a parent picks up a child who has fallen and scraped her knee and tends to her wound.
If we can be shrewd – knowing ourselves, knowing what we need, knowing our Master intimately – then we might be able to welcome in, not just others who may have squandered and cheated and deceived, but also those fallen parts of ourselves that we so often try to hide. And when we are able to welcome those people and those parts, maybe – just maybe – we might begin to make sense of today’s gospel lesson.
There is little room for us Christians to simply be “nice;” we are called to be shrewd. And we are called to imitate him who is the shrewdest of the shrewd, Jesus himself, who in his shrewdness – knowing himself, knowing what is needed for life, knowing the Father intimately – offered himself on the cross so that we might be welcomed into “the eternal homes.” It is his sacrifice – his shrewdness – that we will celebrate momentarily in the Eucharist. May we take this shrewdness into ourselves, make it our own, and take it forth into the world.