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The Shrewdness of Servanthood

Luke 16:1-13
David A. Davis
September 22, 2019
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“His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” That’s where the parable ends. Jesus keeps talking to the disciples. He keeps on going. Luke’s Jesus keeps teaching but the parable proper, the story ends with “His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”
The rich man had discovered that the man was mishandling his business affairs. The employee was skimming money, stealing from him. Maybe he was faking expense reports or shaking down customers or inflating prices. Whatever it was, “he was squandering the rich man’s property.” “Turn in your accounts, all the paperwork, the contact list, you’re done. You can’t be my manger anymore.” Then the dismissed manager had one of those hard conversations with himself. A discussion not unlike the one the Prodigal Son had when he was up to his eyeballs in pig slop after squandering his inheritance. The result was that the Prodigal Son decided to go home and throw himself at the mercy of his father. Here in the parable of the “unjust steward”, he says ‘I can’t dig and I’m ashamed to beg.” His “come to Jesus” moment must have taken a while, at least through a long, dark night. But this is a parable, so he reaches the conclusion right away. He said to himself “I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.”
In order to collect as much as he could quickly, in order to try to recoup something of the business loss incurred by the owner, in order to try to make some amends with customers he had strong-armed for years, the manager went door to door inviting people to pay at a reduced rate. He took off his commission, reduced the bill, told folks to pay just a part of what they owed. “If you owe a hundred jugs of oil, make it fifty. A hundred bundles of wheat? Make it eighty. Each customer, one at a time. And after all of that, he was able to return to the owner with some portion of the outstanding bills. “His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”
Jesus knew this parable was a tough one. He knew the disciples, the listeners, the readers, the church wouldn’t get it. He knew the disciples would understand and it would leave a bad taste in their mouths, even a knot in their stomach. It wouldn’t make sense and it wouldn’t feel good either, the parable of the unjust steward. Like a mystery novel that leaves the reader disappointed because the resolution wasn’t as satisfying as the rest of the book. Like one of those British police dramas where the protagonist has a dark side and some demons and isn’t very easy to like or root for. It’s not just that it’s hard to understand, the parable leaves a visceral negative reaction.
Most English translations place a semi-colon hereafter “he had acted shrewdly”. Semi-colon and then “for the children of this age are more shrewd” Some offer a period there. A hard stop before Jesus continues. You have to figure Jesus flat out stopped, paused, waited a bit to let the whole uncomfortable parable sink in. “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.” Shrewd. Shrewdly. Prudent. Thoughtful. Wise. Shrewd. It’s an uncommon word in the bible. At least in English translations. The King James uses the word “wise.” And Greek forms of the word are easy to find in the gospels when it comes to the teaching of Jesus. Like the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids and when Jesus tells the disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” With Jesus’ first attempt at an explanatory word after the parable proper, he repeats the word for wise, prudent, thoughtful shrewd. The translators opt for the “shrewd” instead of wise. As if to emphasize the edgy, disorienting wisdom the manager displayed. He was shrewd.
“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.” And the disciples, the listeners, the readers, the church, you and I still aren’t getting it. So Jesus keeps going. “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.” Jesus, now you’re just messing with us, aren’t you? Dishonest wealth. Make friends for yourselves with the mammon of injustice is a closer translation. Maybe not messing with us, but it doesn’t help at all with how much your head hurts trying to figure it out and how it all just doesn’t feel very good. It doesn’t feel right.
So, I am thinking at this point even the Gospel writer Luke knows this parable isn’t going well. Luke anticipates the lack of an “ah-ha” moment for his readers. So, Luke tosses in some more teaching from Jesus; a familiar theme from Jesus that runs all through Luke and it runs deep. When the lecture gets bogged down and the student’s eyes glass over, come back to the basics. Get back to what they’ve heard before. Give them something familiar. So, Luke’s Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much, and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest in much.” Yes, Lord, we can understand that. “If then you have been faithful with the dishonest wealth who will entrust to you the real riches?” Ah, okay. If you can’t be responsible when it comes to things of this world, why would God entrust to you the matters of salvation?
“And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.” Jesus isn’t just teaching now. He’s meddling. That’s what one faithful listener of sermons here at Nassau used to say to me at the church door when the sermon would hit too close to home with the discomfort and challenge of the gospel. “You were meddling today, preacher” Then, in case the disciples, the listeners, the readers, the church, you and I still aren’t getting it, Jesus and Luke bring it home. “You can’t serve God and mammon” Boom! Jesus and your money. You may not like that either, but you can understand it!
But the parable ended way back at “his master commended the dishonest steward because he acted shrewdly.” Shrewdly. Shrewd. Shrewdness.” So, it’s not just about money. It can’t only be about money. In the parable of the unjust steward, what Eugene Petersen calls the story of the crooked manager, Jesus is calling the disciples to manage all that has been entrusted to them by God with a wisdom that even the world would admire. To bear witness to and work for the kingdom of God while being so boldly prudent and jarringly thoughtful that the world admires it. The world admires it even at the risk of being completely turned upside down. To discern how to make this incredible gift of faith that God has given us, to figure out how to put faith together with life. And to put faith and life together in a way that changes you, those around you, and the world for that matter. In the movie “Good Will Hunting” a friend in a bar describes the South Boston character played by Matt Damon as “wicked smart”. With the puzzling, jarring parable of the crooked manager, Jesus is calling his disciples, his followers to be “wicked smart” when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ and your life of discipleship. The parable is about the shrewdness of servanthood.
Professor Matt Desmond is a sociologist here at Princeton University. Together with Tessa, also a university faculty member who led adult ed last week, and their kids Walter and Sterling, they are also part of our church community. In his compelling Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”, Matt writes about the national crisis of poverty, homeless, and affordable housing. My experience with most books written by sociologists is that they are intended to tell of research, either quantifiable or qualitative, and the conclusions reached through the observation of human society and behavior. There are fewer sociologists who write about or are willing to offer solutions to the human predicament being studied; in the case of “Evicted”, it is the problem of affordable housing. In the epilogue to the book, Matt Desmond does offer a road map of solution.
“All this suffering is shameful and unnecessary,” he writes. “Because it is unnecessary, there is hope. These problems are neither intractable nor eternal. A different kind of society is possible and power solutions are within our collective reach.” In offering both small and large parts of a solution, Professor Desmond argues convincingly that the crisis isn’t from a lack of resources. It is the absence of the will to serve the common good. These are the last sentences in the book, “Whatever our way of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering—by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”
It is a plea for both the will and the wisdom to offer a solution to poverty, homelessness, and affordable housing. It is a plea for faith communities to have the voice and vision of the prophets. The world’s sinful cynicism and the powers of darkness would say there can never be, there will be a solution. Jesus would point to will, wisdom, voice, and vision. And plea for those who follow to be more shrewd. Shrewd: to manage all that has been entrusted to you by God with a wisdom that even the world would admire.
“His master commended the dishonest steward because he acted shrewdly.”