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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 09/22/2019

I don’t know how your computer works but mine, if I turn it on and don’t do anything with it for awhile, eventually the screen goes black. Sometimes I’m working on a sermon and I’m just not getting anywhere so I stare for awhile at either a blank white page on the computer screen or at the little bit I’ve written so far until the computer gets tired of waiting for me and goes black. Then…I stare at a blank, black screen for awhile hoping for inspiration.

This happened a lot last Monday morning as I was faced with today’s gospel lesson, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, a parable in which dishonesty seems to be praised. The last few verses do make it more palatable but the general consensus is that what Jesus actually said ends at verse 9 where making use of dishonest wealth is praised and that those final verses were added later, to make it more palatable as from the beginning what Jesus said didn’t seem to make sense. Ending at verse 9 though, it is rather troubling, so I sat and stared.

It’s been a tough few weeks gospel wise. I did get a little break last Sunday with the two little lost and found parables with a gracious God at the center of them, a God who, against all odds, searches until he finds us. That’s nice; a pastor can preach that. Before that though it was several weeks of “wish he hadn’t said that” readings and now, today, this. It’s not so much wishing Jesus didn’t say this, it’s more just wondering what in God’s good order of things is Jesus talking about and what does he expect me to say about it. On Monday morning then, I did spend a fair amount of time with a blank computer screen, hoping for inspiration. The problem though, as one noted parable scholar says, is that “This parable suggests numerous connections, nuances and possibilities—most of them dead ends,” in other words, blank, black screens.

In a way it’s funny though because I’ve been known to say that Jesus didn’t come into some perfect, make believe world, he came into this one with all its imperfections, but then I’m irritated with this story that exposes a major imperfection, that being…dishonesty. It’s an example of Jesus not sugar coating things; in his parables he uses some daring images to describe the kingdom of God with some of them, like this one, being not at all pious but intended in some degree to disturb us, to wake us up and cause us to pay attention.

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager is not a pious story; to be blunt, it’s a crime story. To be sure it’s a parable and anything can happen in a parable; they’re not necessarily intended to be realistic. But still, however you look at it, this is a story of the double betrayal of an absentee landowner by his manager.

In Jesus’ time, much of the land belonged to a few rich owners who mostly lived elsewhere, leaving day to day operations to on site managers, so that sets the stage. The manager in the parable though, over a period of time, embezzled what was entrusted to him, lining his own pockets.

Being away, the owner, the master has no way of keeping track of what’s going on until he gets a report that his property is being squandered. So he comes back and calls the manager on the carpet asking for an explanation, an accounting of what had gone on. But the manager has no explanation so, as a result of what he has done, he is to be removed from his position; his future looks bleak. He’s obviously not going to get a good recommendation from the owner and he recognizes that he is too weak to dig, too proud to beg. But…he still has his deceitful wits about him so he comes up with a plan. However, it’s not one that represents an effort to make things right, which is what we might expect, it’s one that makes his crime even worse.

What he does is to call in his master’s debtors and has them rewrite their bills in their favor. For one, instead of owing the master 100 jugs of olive oil, the manager says make it 50. For another, instead of owing 100 containers of wheat, the manger says make it 80. In both cases these are significant reductions resulting in the owner being cheated out of even more money but the manager is trying to get these debtors to be indebted to him so maybe they’ll take pity on him when he gets booted.

At that point, our expectation would be that the scheme would unravel, that this second embezzlement would be discovered and the manager would wind up in prison with the moral being, crime doesn’t pay; that’s one possibility. A second possibility might be to portray the landowner as the bad guy, to see him as being exploitative, taking advantage of his underlings thus turning the manager and those he conspires with into Robin Hood like characters, perhaps breaking the law but only because it was the only way to get their fair share in an unjust world. With both of those scenarios, it’s a morality tale and both are endings that we’d be OK with, either crime doesn’t pay or the manager broke the law but he was justified in doing so.

But this isn’t a morality tale, it’s a parable and parables don’t always give us endings that we’re OK with; quite the contrary sometimes and this parable might be exhibit A when it comes to contrary endings. Instead of what we might expect, the master commends the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly.

When I’m staring at that blank, black computer screen I’m always hoping that the words I need, the explanation I need will suddenly appear there. It hasn’t happened yet, but the Spirit does move in mysterious ways and on Tuesday it wound up moving in a way that gave me new insight into the word “shrewdly.”

I’m teaching a Lay School class on the books that make up what are called the Writings of the Old Testament. In Judaism, the Hebrew Bible is divided into three major parts, The Law or the Torah, the first five books, then the Prophets including Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the major prophets along with the 12 so called minor prophets, with the third section being the Writings which is everything else. The Writings include the book of Proverbs which is known as wisdom literature with Proverbs basically being instruction for young people, guidance in helping them make good choices and Proverbs was on the agenda for last Tuesday’s class so I had Proverbs on the brain and I had the dishonest manager on the brain when suddenly there was a connection.

The opening verses of Proverbs describe the purpose of the book this way: it’s “For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young.” There was that word, “shrewdness,” the same word that is praised in the parable and thus providing me with an “Aha! Moment,” causing me to think, that perhaps this word is a clue to what Jesus was getting at.

In Proverbs, shrewdness is an aspect of wisdom. Investigating further I found that in Proverbs, wisdom is not so much about answers to deep, philosophical, meaning of life type questions. Instead, wisdom is more about practical intelligence, more about being alert to potential deceptions, more about the ability to find your way around situations that might leave you worse off than you were before, more about…shrewdness. We might call it street smarts.

Jesus was a product of the culture that produced the book of Proverbs, it’s likely that Proverbs was part of his instruction when he was young so…while to us it seems wrong to praise the manager for his shrewdness, for Jesus and for those who first heard the parable, it wouldn’t have sounded wrong. Shrewdness was part of wisdom.

With that insight, Jesus wasn’t applauding or approving the manager’s crime, he was praising the initiative by which he rescued his existence. The manager didn’t do anything halfway; he was all in, totally committed, risking everything he had in order to find a way out of the mess he was in. Maybe this parable does fall into the “wish he hadn’t said this” category because in a way it follows on the series of readings we had on the cost of discipleship where full commitment is called for, where to follow Jesus means that nothing comes ahead of him including family and possessions; you have to be all in.

We are called to total commitment because Jesus was called to total commitment. At this point in the gospel, Jesus was on the path to Jerusalem, on the path to the cross, where he risked everything, where he gave up everything, for our sake. For us and for our salvation he was all in, breaking the cycle of death and providing hope for new life, life lived in a restored and forgiven relationship with God, life lived in total commitment.

Parables are subject to interpretation and no one interpretation answers every question; there are almost always loose ends left hanging. In this case, dishonesty being praised is the biggest loose end. I don’t have a good explanation for that, not today anyway. Who knows though; maybe spending a little more time with my blank, black computer screen, the answer will appear.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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