You know I love to buy things at thrift stores. One day I was standing in the book section looking for something to take with me to read on the plane, I was scheduled to attend a conference in Toronto. I knew it had to be a quick read and I didn’t want anything too heavy. Suddenly I saw a slim book on former President Clinton and the title caught my attention. The book was written by a Methodist Minister who had counselled Clinton throughout the impeachment debate. I was interested because I wondered how a Minister of the Gospel spoke truth to power to the most powerful man in the world, surrounded by all the trappings of the iconic White House.
I had just read a book on the Nixon tapes and was very disappointed by the response of Billy Graham, who sat with Nixon while the President vented racist and anti-Semitic commentary. In essence Graham either said nothing or occasionally would added an affirmative word or two. I was appalled this evangelist who would rail against sin at his rallies, naming names and being provocative about the issues of the day would become so mute in front the President. I wanted to know if this Minister would do likewise as he counselled Clinton on his transgressions.
I read the book. What jumped out at me was the observation by the author, a United Methodist clergy, that because Clinton had been raised a Baptist he had always known he was a sinner, that every day there would be mistakes made, some big and some small. And the correct and only response to such a reality was a conviction to right the ship and move forward. Bill Clinton wanted to know how to work on himself, how to get help and he wanted to do repentance, to do good and hopefully make amends for his sins. What struck the author was Clinton’s singular resolve to not “give up”.
You see the author was a mainline Minister like me and as such he was used to parishioners who could be disabled by such crisis. As a United Methodist Minister the response by many of his flock was either to fall to pieces (“how could this ever happen to me?”) or to deflect (“this must be someone else’s fault”). Many in the mainline tradition have been raised with a false sense that living a good life, a pious life, a generous life, working hard and playing by the rules, these kinds of setbacks just never happened. Clinton, as a good Baptist, knew the opposite, sin is real, sin is constant and sin will capture you for a spell whether you are good or not.
And so for many of us in the mainline church the Gospel story we hear this morning is quite an affront. How could it be that a dishonest manager, about to lose his job because he has misspent his employer’s assets, not wanting to do manual labour or receive charity, shrewdly makes arrangements and thus is praised by employer and becomes the hero of this Gospel text? How could this be? The dishonest manager goes around to all the people who owe his employer money and reduces their debts. He does this so that they will be hospitable to the employer after he loses his job. Since when is someone who is clearly dishonest commended in a Gospel story?
To begin to answer this question, we can note that this story serves as a bridge between the the Prodigal Son (15:11-32) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31). Like the prodigal in the preceding story, our dishonest manager has “squandered” what was entrusted to him. And, like the story that follows, this parable begins with the phrase, “There was a rich man”. Although our dishonest manager does not repent (like the prodigal) or act virtuously (like Lazarus), he nonetheless does something with the rich man’s wealth that reverses the existing order of things. In Luke, reversals of status are at the heart of what happens when Jesus and the kingdom of God appear. The proud are “scattered”. The powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted; the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. Note also that the pious elder brother in the Prodigal story is not the hero, despite being “good”, “pious” and “loyal”. This is not shaping up to be a family value sermon.
Some commentators have suggested that the manager has reduced his own commission in the debts owed and that this is what is being commended. Yet others have suggested more generally that the employer is simply commending the manager for responding shrewdly to a difficult circumstance. The word for “shrewd” here can also be translated as “prudent” or “wise”. The text itself provides four interpretations of the employer’s commendation.
First, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light”. In other words, Jesus’ disciples -- often referred to as “children of light” -- could learn something about acting prudently from the “children of this age.”
Second, what they could learn from the “children of this age” has to do with “making friends for themselves” by means of “dishonest wealth” so that those new friends might “welcome them into the eternal homes”. Instead of using “dishonest wealth” to exploit others (as the rich do), disciples are to use wealth to “make friends for themselves.” If friendships are based on reciprocal and egalitarian relationships, then releasing other people’s debts not only enriches them, but also establishes a new kind of reciprocity with them.
Third, there’s a connection between being faithful (or dishonest) with “very little” and “very much.” How one deals with “dishonest wealth” and “what belongs to another” says much about how one will deal with “true riches” and “what is your own”. How we use the resources at our disposal in this life -- especially in tight circumstances -- matters, even though our “true riches” can only be found in that place “where no thief can draw near and no moth destroys”.
Finally, the “take away” to all this is that “no slave can serve two masters…you cannot serve God and wealth”. This reiterates a central theme in Luke. As noted, Luke places great emphasis on how the reign of God reverses the status of the rich and the poor. In Acts, the Christian community is one where disciples share “all things in common,” distributing “to all, as any had need”. These texts cannot just be spiritualized. Luke is talking about a different way of using wealth. Our wealth belongs to God and is to be used for the purposes of God’s reign among us and not simply for our own interests.
So why is our dishonest manager shrewd? Even though he is still sinner who is looking out for his own interests, he models behavior the disciples can emulate. Instead of simply being a victim of circumstance, he transforms a bad situation into one that benefits him and others. By reducing other people’s debts, he creates a new set of relationships based not on the vertical relationship between lenders and debtors but on something more like the reciprocal and egalitarian relationships of friends.
Sometimes when I feel low because I have messed up in some major way I think about Clinton and how he endured his humiliation, public as it was. I certainly take no inspiration from his dishonesty and likely criminal behavior (telling witnesses to lie). But his resiliency is inspiring. I recall watching him at a National Prayer Breakfast quoting the Apostle Paul, “do not grow weary in doing good”. I remember that because when I am low because of my own sin I know deep within me is the gift to do good. I can grow weary, weary because of embarrassment, shame and guilt, but the resolve to shake off the weariness and “do good” comes directly from my spiritual roots, my Christian faith.
I now know, at the age I am today, that just because people are basically good, do good things and join us for worship weekly (even pray) does not mean they are immune from sin. All of us sin. And there will be times when our sin is exposed. The shrewd dishonest manager’s story is a reminder not to give up, to move forward, and find means of both restoration and survival.
I want to return to “children of light (Jesus’ disciples) could learn something about acting prudently from the children of this age.” Have you noticed there is a federal election going on? I recall the federal election of 2000 when I offered as a candidate. I was then serving a church where people would routinely tell me they liked me. But once I announced as a candidate it was like I had told them I had decided to take a part-time job at a local brothel. People were unnerved. Even people steeped in the political process were scandalized by the thought of a Christian Minister becoming tainted, corrupted, by this dirty world of politics. There were people who had told me with tears in their eyes, “you are the best Minister we ever had” now refusing to shake my hand. And it had nothing to do with the party I represented or the policies I was espousing, it was just that church and politics were to be separated like germs and clean hands.
And yet I will tell you many of the strategies I use to do my work as a Minister; like reaching out to everyone and offering to visit, listening to what each and every person is looking for from the church, weighing all opinions and needs equally, these are all techniques I learned in politics. Even public speaking, organizing my time and getting to know the community around the church, all skills that sprang from my life in politics. In a very real way I have become a more complete “child of the light” by my experience as a “child of this age”.
I wonder what you have learned from people who are not normally associated with the church. Was it the art of “living in the moment” so helpfully modeled by our Buddhist friends? Was it sound business practices from people involved in the private sector? Was it a deep love and reverence of the earth, witnessed for us so beautifully by indigenous peoples all over the world? Lessons learned can come to us from a variety of sources, inside and outside our church. We all have a lot to learn.
Almost all of the great sins of the church have come when we assumed we had all the answers and we could tell everyone how to live, how to pray and what to believe. Our arrogance has caused great pain. And here we are told by Jesus that we have much to learn, from anyone and everyone.
Finally, just let me say something personal, and very, very heartfelt. I know many of you struggle with finding joy in your life. And I know many of you have kin who struggle likewise. Like this manager in our story today all of us will find ourselves in a ditch, believing the harder we try to dig ourselves out we just go deeper and deeper down into the pit. Whatever means you find to bring yourself or your loved one out and into the light I want you to consider this strategy. This manager was shrewd, he was cunning, and his methods ended up helping almost everyone along the way. I believe each of us has this resilience deep inside us, that God is not finished with us yet. I believe there is a way out and I believe in you. If you ever need a listening ear, I am here. Don’t give up.
I want you to be smart—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”
Thanks be to God for this Good News! Amen.