Friday, September 16, 2016

Being Shrewd for the Sake of the Kingdom: Reflections on Luke 16.1-13 (RCL Proper 25C, 18 September 2016)

                  16.1 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.  2 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.’  3 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.  4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’  5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’  He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’  7 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.’  8 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.  9 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.

                  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.  11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?  12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?  13 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.”

Click here to listen to the Sermon as preached at the 10.00 a.m. Eucharist on Sunday the 18th.

            Being shrewd for the sake of one’s family is a virtue in a Myanmar governed by a military committed to its self-interest.

            In late 2007 Jim Cowan, the former Bishop of British Columbia, invited me to join him on a trip to Burma, also known as Myanmar.  His diocese had entered into a Companion Diocese relationship with the Church in Myanmar and Jim wanted to deepen the relationship by bringing a small delegation to the installation of the new Archbishop to be held in Yangon in early spring 2008.  The new Archbishop had specifically asked Jim to bring a liturgist to offer some continuing education to the clergy and to the seminarians at the provincial theological college.

            It was not the easiest trip overseas that I have ever taken.  In the first place, I had never travelled to a country under the control of a military junta.  There were moments when I was actually quite apprehensive and almost cancelled my participation.  I also was aware of going to a country where few people spoke English and whose knowledge of the wider world was tightly controlled.  I was told, for example, that any e-mail messages sent during the trip would likely be read by a government censor.

            Our primary mode of travel while in Myanmar was by mini-van driven by a dependable staff member of the Anglican church and accompanied by a travel agent who served as our interpreter, bodyguard and ‘fixer’.  But, on a few occasions, we travelled by plane and by train.  What I only came to realize towards the end of our trip was how difficult it was to obtain plane and train tickets.

            The Myanmar I visited was under the tight control of an economic policy that kept the salaries of the civil service below subsistence levels.  Whether a person was a professor in a university, a physician or a train conductor, their salaries were inadequate to provide many of the basic needs for their families.  Most of the people I met were engaged in the illegal activity you and I call ‘moon-lighting’ or were soliciting bribes.

            Teachers would work long hours tutoring students in various subjects.  A physician I had to consult during the visit worked both in a government hospital and as a private house physician attached to the hotel we used in Yangon.  Plane and train fares were, by our standards, cheap, but getting tickets required giving a bribe, or shall we say, paying a commission, to the travel agent or ticket agent or conductor.  All these activities, private tutoring, private medical care or requesting a bribe, were illegal, but no one could survive without the income, especially when it came from rich foreigners.

            Being shrewd for the sake of one’s future in this life is a virtue in the Greco-Roman world of Jesus.

            Today’s parable from Luke is a difficult one for us to understand.  The first thing that distracts us is Jesus’ description of the manager as being dishonest.  But it is a distraction, because the core of the parable is about how this manager, facing dismissal for some activity we know nothing about, faces this crisis with a decisive and shrewd commitment to his own future. 

            In the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ time, many wealthy people left the dirty business of business in the hands of trusted managers or slaves.  They had wide powers to buy and sell, to wheel and deal.  So our soon-to-be unemployed manager realizes that he will need friends after his master sends him packing.  And so he uses his legitimate authority as his master’s manager to ensure his master’s debtors will think well of him when he comes to their doors asking for assistance.  He reduces their debts, whether by waiving his commission or by choosing to re-draft the documents to reflect a lower debt the story does clearly tell us.  But whatever he does, his master commends him.

            Being shrewd for the sake of the kingdom of God is a virtue in a world consumed by self-interest and hindered by a limited vision of the common good.

            So what is Jesus trying to tell us?  Well, to be honest, I think that there are several messages that Jesus is leaving on our spiritual voice mail.  For example, several Sundays ago, Jesus reminds his disciples that where our hearts are, there our treasure will be.  Today’s reading asks the question again, but in a slightly different way:  Where we think our future lays, there our use of our resources will be.  As someone approaching retirement in some years’ time, I know the importance of making good decisions about our ‘golden years’.  But Jesus, in the parable of the shrewd manager asks us:  Do we see our lives and the choices we make as building blocks not just for the here and now but for God’s kingdom?

            Another message I think Jesus is leaving for us today is this.  You and I, whether we believe it or not, are people of privilege.  We do not have to bribe others to travel.  We do not have to wonder whether we have access to health care.  We are free to live our lives in peace and security.  Today Jesus asks us whether we are willing to lay aside some of our privileges, like the commissions received by the manager, to enable others to experience a better life, to know justice and peace, to know compassion and inclusion.  What might we have to give up in order for God’s kingdom to be more present today?

            One more message he leaves for us today.  Are we people who use our resources to lower obstacles or to build walls?  In order to secure his future, some biblical interpreters think that the manager simply falsifies the documents and lowers the debts owed to his master.  One of the challenges faced by Christian communities on the Pacific coast and elsewhere is becoming more diverse.  Without sacrificing the good news of God in Christ, our greatest treasure and resource, how do we reach out to people who, for one reason or another, do not see us as a place of help, hope and home?

            I’m sorry to leave you with questions rather than answers.  One of the books I’ve used over the years in the training of deacons is Loving the Questions written by the late Marianne Micks.  Today’s words from Luke are, I think, in the spirit of true Christian spirituality.  This spirit loves the questions that make us look more closely at our life as disciples of Jesus, even when those questions make us realize that there is still work for us to do.  After all, being shrewd for the sake of the Kingdom is a virtue not a vice.

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