Monday, September 24, 2007

Shrewd with the True Riches

Luke 16: 1-13

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC's, Sept. 23, 2007.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could open up the Bible and stick in the stuff that we feel should be there? If we were to “open the canon” as the scholars call it, and edit the Bible to include the things that our world recognizes, and take out the stuff we no longer understand?

Think about the Ten Commandments: what if we could add a few: one of those laws would be something along the lines of “Thou Shalt not pay more than three dollars for a cup of coffee.” “Thou Shalt use thy turn signal.” “Thou shalt wash their hands after using the bathroom.”

Other folks would be surprised to hear that there are certain phrases that aren’t in the Bible, especially in the book of Proverbs. Lots of them came from Benjamin Franklin, like: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, meaning that it’s better to count on what you have, than to count on what you expect. “A Stitch in Time saves Nine”, meaning that preventative care often saves money over needing to make major repairs. Some come from Thomas Edison, like “Success is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration”, meaning that even the best ideas take work to be successful.

One that I’ve heard people say should be in the Bible is: “God helps those who help themselves.” It’s one of my favorites, and I think that if we were to sum up todays’ Gospel reading, it would be that phrase.

When you really think about this story, what is basically happening is that a man, about to be fired for “squandering his employers’ property” (which could mean anything, none of it good), runs around and reduces the debt of all of the people who owe his employer money. As I heard a comedian say once, “That’s not right!”

But then we get to verse 8, where it says that the master commended the manager “because he had acted shrewdly.” This is that twist that Jesus throws out so often in his parables.

At least for us. This is one of those places where we are reminded of the fact that we don’t always read the Bible with the same eyes as the author and audience did. Remember, Jesus’ audience remembers the stories of tricksters like Jacob. To men and women who can pull off getting one over on someone, great honor was given and they were thought to be wise. We, on the other hand, are inheritors of the Protestant work Ethic, brought to us by the Puritans. We find that when someone doesn’t act the way we expect in a transaction, or behaves the way we want them to as employees, they aren’t wise, they are crooks, or disrespectful, or something else.

So this manager, called to account for his dealings on behalf of the owner, sees the sudden need to be in peoples’ good graces. To get there, he reduces the potential income of the owner. Not his actual income, but his potential. We assume that based on those reductions, the owner is then paid.

The second half of verse eight is also odd—“the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light”.

Huh? What? What are we being told here? It’s a parable, so there are multiple ways of interpreting it, of course. Here’s what I think. The line says “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” tells us that in our modern American Christian culture, we Christians are perhaps too trusting of people with whom we deal. We seem to want to believe in the best of people, and sometimes, we are disappointed.

If they are Christian, too, we tend to want to trust them blindly. Why is it that we think that people who call themselves Christian are somehow going to be better than the people who aren’t? How is it that we are somehow not allowed to be good negotiators, careful legal readers, and wary consumers? Conversely, if someone isn’t a Christian, they are somehow less worthy of to doing business with. These just don’t seem like shrewd actions.

This passage, from the very mouth of Christ, teaches us otherwise. The lesson here is that we are responsible for a lot, being persons of the Way. If you can’t manage a little bit of what you are given in terms of your gifts and graces well, how are you going to do with the whole kingdom?

God helps those who help themselves, it seems. We have been entrusted with a lot, being given salvation in Christ Jesus. No small gift, there. What are we called to do with this gift? How can we be shrewd with this gift?

We can be shrewd with it by finding ways to give it away. Shrewdly. That doesn’t mean sneakily, that means appropriate and effective to each situation and relationship.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Once, I saw a preacher standing by the side of the road at a busy highway intersection, preaching. On the surface, this was a great idea, because he was theoretically in contact with a lot of people every time the light turned red. There were two problems, though. One was that it was a hot day, and almost everyone had their windows up. You couldn’t hear the man. The second was that he was sending a 9-year-old boy out to distribute religious literature under windshield wipers during the red lights. This was not shrewd. He was standing in a hot Texas summer sun without a hat, preaching to a bunch of closed windows and humming air conditioners. And he was endangering the health and welfare of a child. Now, some folks would say, “He was preaching the Word, his witness was his presence, and the child would be taken care of.” Well, as to the first, perhaps, but I don’t think so; it didn’t impress me. Second, what witness is it to have a child help you in that way?

What generally ended up happening is that we, as the children of light, ended up looking less than wise, and in fact ended up rather foolish. Now, we can not always avoid looking foolish, for we are imperfect creatures. But we can sure lessen the times when we do look that way. Sometimes it is a witness to seem foolish. But being shrewd is knowing when it is valuable, and when it is just silly.

The manager of the parable was wise, because he was “falling forward”; he was going to lose his job, so he was trying very hard to make sure that he fell into a way to be sheltered, fed and clothed. Can we be that wise, falling forward with the gift we have been given? How can we shrewdly further the great commission?

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