Text: Luke 16:1-13
You are about to hear a perplexing story. So, make yourself as comfortable as you can on those old wooden pews. Set your bulletin down and close your eyes if you like. Normally, I would never issue such an invitation at the beginning of a sermon, but I am convinced that if you sleep through this story, then you really need the rest.
(Read Luke 16:1-13)
Speaking in a stage voice that every religious leader nearby could hear, Jesus tells yet another once upon a bedtime story, but this is one that will not help you sleep. Only moments before, Jesus said, "Once upon a time, there was a young [prodigal] son who squandered his inheritance." In this once upon a time story, a financial manager has squandered his boss’s portfolio.
The boss finds out and fires the manager and tells him to turn over the books. Too proud to do blue collar work and too wily to beg, the manager acts quickly and decisively. He visits all in debt to his boss. Those who owe his boss $2,000, he tells them that now they only owe $1,000; those who owe his boss $10,000, he tells them that they now only owe $9,000. One by one, the manager meets with his boss's debtors and makes them an offer they can hardly refuse and none do.
In the preceding story in Luke, the most puzzling character is the father. Before the prodigal son can apologize for a life of profound waste, the father embraces him, clothes him in a fine robe and throws the party of the century. When the eldest son goes on strike outside, the father embraces him and clothes him with words of love and kindness.
Here again, in this once upon a time story, the boss proves to be the most puzzling character. He does not chastise his fired employee for misrepresentation and for slicing his investment profits, no, he commends the manager for his shrewdness. The boss realizes that he may have taken a short-term financial hit, but he has gained admiration and respect from all his debtors, even while the manager has managed to make these debtors feel a debt toward him.
After Jesus tells this perplexing parable, he concludes, "The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light." On that puzzling note, the story ends.
Well, great! Just when our nation finds itself in a whirlwind about the consequences or lack of consequences for telling public lies and deceiving the country, our little Lord Jesus tells a story in which a shrewd liar gets praised. No wonder that for nearly 2,000 years, Christians have wished Luke had taken a pair of scissors to this story.
If you have had your eyes closed, open them now. Lean forward just a bit, and you can also hear some favorable whisperings in the crowd:
"Finally, Jesus tells a story we can relate to."
"You can say that again. I had just about given up on Jesus; now I see he
understands how the world works. I knew that behind all that goodness and
love business, Jesus knew the bottom line. Sometimes you have to grease the
tracks to keep the train going."
Maybe, but I am not so sure. Where in the world is Jesus going with this story and its closing moral, “You cannot serve God and wealth”? What sense are we to make of the shrewd financial manager, much less his boss? Throughout Luke, Jesus tells stories with this theme: It matters how we use or abuse the gifts to which God entrusts us.
The boss in the story does not commends the manager's duplicity, but he clearly does commend his shrewdness. Nearing Jerusalem, Jesus looks to create a company of shrewd saints, people with sharp minds and generous hearts. At another point, Jesus describes shrewd saints as those with tough minds and tender hearts. Luke scholar, John Carroll asks, “What would ‘street smarts’ such as that displayed by the business manager look like, when translated into the values of God’s reign?”(Luke: A Commentary, New Testament Library, p. 327).
No church worth its salt ever survives or does anything more than survive without “street smarts,” without tough minds and tender hearts. That though is not the popular image of the church, its leaders or its people. Typically, I cringe whenever I open a book or watch a movie where a minister or a priest appears. Most often, they are one-dimensional, mindless, simpletons, either spouting religious nonsense or endorsing a reactionary position. Often, they peddle cost-free grace, where God just wants everybody to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, but especially wealthy. By inference, these characters speak for Christianity, portraying it as a mindless and hapless enterprise, myopic and frequently oppressive.
My heart leaps, though, whenever I meet a shrewd saint on the screen or on the page. Some years back, Norman Maclean wrote a heart-wrenching story called, A River Runs Through It. Set in Missoula, Montana, the narrator is the eldest son in a family whose father is a Presbyterian minister. His father shares a passion for his faith and for fly-fishing. We read, "As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace” (p.3). Later, we read, "My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things-trout as well as eternal salvation-come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy” (p. 4).
I would add to the father’s words, “neither does the Christian faith.” The temptations are great to reduce Jesus to someone who makes us feel good or who wants us to be prosperous or who never expects too much of us. That is simply not the Jesus we meet in the Gospels. For in the Gospels, to follow Jesus means to go places people would never go otherwise, to make yourself vulnerable when you would otherwise keep up a strong defense, to give away money that most people would advise you to pack away for a rainy day. Mostly, to follow Jesus demands a willingness to live in the shadow of his footsteps, to walk in the path of his love.
Jesus seeks shrewd saints, not cheap, not cautious ones. God seeks generous lives that reflect a gracious God. Make no mistake, God's grace is free. Our response to God’s grace, though, is not. Grateful lives produce shrewd saints, men and women who are not willing to settle for simple answers to complex political and social issues, are not willing to be patronized by the world's power brokers who would just as soon step on their mother as drink a glass of water.
Shrewd saints know that the church of Jesus Christ cannot conduct God's work on the wind of well-wishers. Shrewd saints know that you cannot serve God and money, but that you can and must use money to serve God. Shrewd saints do not cower from using money to change systems that oppress, to provide hope and houses and hospitals for those who need more than our pious “thoughts and prayers,” to support talented and honest women and men who will never do less than serve the public good. Shrewd saints shout for those too hoarse to speak or too weak to stand up, for those who are far too discounted to make a difference. Shrewd saints walk with Jesus even into Jerusalem, knowing that nerves get frayed and powers get even when religion and religious folk refuse to keep in their place.
Shrewd saints are faithful people who learn from the dishonest manager but do not emulate him. They are faithful in the large moments of life, but more importantly, in the daily decisions of life. “Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake,” writes Fred Craddock, “More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go the choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat. [What did Jesus say?] “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (v. 10). (Luke, Interpretation Bible Commentary, p. 192).
Once upon a time there was a shrewd crook. Now, yes now, perhaps more than ever, it is time for shrewd saints.