You know it is going to be an interesting week of sermon preparation when you read the day’s Gospel text, scratch your head and say “Huh?”; then go to a commentary for illumination and find it begins with this sentence:
“The parable of the unjust steward has baffled interpreters since the beginning of time.”
Obviously that is a little bit of an exaggeration — the parable has only been around for a couple of millennia — but the story of the dishonest manager, or the “clever rascal,” as one commentary put it, is one of Jesus’ most perplexing parables.
The story is about a rich man who employs a steward to manage his estate. He learns that the steward is squandering his property. The rich man sends for the manager, fires him, but demands also to see an audit of the accounts.
The manager is in a quandary. What will he do when he loses his job? He’s not tough enough for manual labor, and he is too proud to beg.
But the manager is a shrewd man, and he comes up with a plan to save himself.
If he can build up good will by putting people into his debt, then maybe he can survive after he loses his job.
So one by one he calls in his employer’s debtors. “How much do you owe?” he asks the first. “A hundred jugs of olive oil,” the debtor replies. “Make it 50,” the manager says.
A debt of 100 containers of wheat is knocked down to 80, and so on down the line. A whole community of people are now grateful and obligated to the manager for reducing their debt.
Here is where things start to get perplexing. We expect that the dishonest manager will be condemned when the master finds out what he has done.
Instead, he is praised.
“The 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.”
The rest of the reading seems to contradict this statement and sounds more like we would expect Jesus to sound: “Whoever is faithful in a little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a little is dishonest also in much.
“No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Those statements we can understand, even if we find them difficult to live out. But what do we do with this seeming praise of dishonesty?
The commentaries I read this week tie themselves up in knots trying to explain it. One common interpretation is that the debt the manager erased was really what was supposed to be his commission, so that the rich man was not cheated.
Maybe, but that seems to be trying to paint too pretty a picture here.
What strikes me is that Jesus is not praising the manager’s morality, but his practicality. He is saying the same thing later when he urges his followers to be “wily as serpents and innocent as doves.”
There is a practicality to a life of faith. One article I read this week says Luke seems to be suggesting that followers of Jesus need to know how to read the signs of the times, to discern the cultural challenges of the age.
We need to be wise; we need to be resourceful. As “children of light” we ought to be cleverer than the “children of this age.”
In other words, we are not to live in some sort of pure spiritual fantasy. Rather, we are supposed to be effective in working for the Kingdom of God.
There are many Christians who are uncomfortable with this approach. They come to church to get away from the world. They want to hear sermons on spirituality, not about the problems of the world.
The church should have nothing to do with politics, nothing to say about the issues confronting the nation and the world, they say.
In case you haven’t noticed, that’s not the approach to the gospel I believe in. Jesus did not stay in isolation; he engaged the world. As his followers, so should we.
That means that the gospel has something to say about the issues that surround us. It means that the kingdom of God is concerned about health care and immigration and the economy, about weapons and war and peace. About how we treat one another, especially those who may differ from us.
All of those things should be of concern to the followers of Jesus.
This approach to the Gospel is not new, of course. It’s as old as Jesus himself. In more contemporary times, we have the example of Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the most politically influential and practical theologian of the last century.
“One of the most fruitful sources of self-deception in the ministry,” he wrote in 1928, “is the proclamation of great ideals and principles without any clue to their relation to the controversial issues of the day.
“The minister feels very heroic in uttering the ideals because he knows that some rather dangerous immediate consequences are involved in their application,” Niebuhr says.
“But he doesn’t make the application clear, and those who hear his words are either unable to see the immediate issue involved or are grateful to the preacher for not belaboring a contemporaneous issue which they would rather not face.”
Niebuhr found this approach particularly dangerous in a democracy. With a sense of urgency, he warned that the “preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove.
“The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness, but remain free from their malice,” he wrote. “They must know the power of self-interest in human society without giving it moral justification.
“They must have this wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community,” and the Kingdom of God.
One of Niebuhr’s most famous students at Union Theological Seminary in New York was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who came to this country from Germany in 1931.
In 1939, Bonhoeffer went back to Germany at the beginning of the war despite his teachers’ pleas that he stay. He explained his decision in a letter to his professor:
“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.
“Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization.
“I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make that choice from security.”
Bonhoeffer could have chosen to remain safe in this country, to criticize Hitler from afar. He could have walled himself off, remained above the fray, stayed pure and spiritual.
But his faith demanded that he engage the world, that he get his hands dirty, that he be shrewd and wily.
He paid for it with his life. Bonhoeffer was arrested and executed in April 1945, about a month before the end of the war, for, among other things, participating in a plot to kill Hitler.
I leave us today with these words from him:
“The word of the church to the world must encounter the world in all its present reality, from the deepest knowledge of the world, if it is to be authoritative.
“Out of this knowledge the church must here and now be able to speak the Word of God in the most concrete way.
“Therefore, the church must not preach timeless principles, however valid, but only commands which are valid today. To us, God is ‘always’ God ‘today.’”