Monday, September 16, 2013

Preaching Shrewdness

This Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 16:1-13) contains a parable that gives me great trouble. The parable of the dishonest manager is so strange, so confusing, so…wrong!, that I read it and read it and look for a clear answer only to find half-guesses and unconvincing conjectures. Whether you’re preaching on Sunday or simply showing up to hear a sermon, you’d better start preparing now if it’s going to make any sense.

Speaking to his disciples, Jesus tells the story of a dishonest manager whose master had discovered his treachery. When an account of his management was demanded by the owner, the manager panicked. “What will I do? I am not strong enough to be a laborer, and I am too arrogant to beg.” After considering his options, he did what many people in a similar position would do—make friends with his master’s creditors by using under-the-table deals to curry favor with them. “What, you owe my master 100 jugs of oil? Make it 50! And you—you owe 100 containers of wheat? Make it 80!” Then, what is surely the manager’s worst nightmare comes true: the master discovers the plot. And then the unthinkable happens. The owner praises the dishonest, deceitful, self-interested manager for his shrewdness.

What? Just in case the disciples missed the point, Jesus finishes by saying, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Yeah, that’s right. Crazy town. How do we deal with this madness? What do you do with a dishonest manager who neglects his duties in order to provide a golden parachute for himself? You praise him for his cunning. What is the lesson we are supposed to learn from this bizarre parable? Use whatever means necessary to make sure you’ll be taken care of in the end. I can’t wait to hear how the children’s sermon in children’s chapel goes.

Really, though, what’s the point? I think the mistake is trying to read too much into this. The preacher who attempts to cast this parable as Jesus’ prescription for the entire Christian life will find herself or himself in some trouble. The point can’t be that we’re supposed to be dishonest. But it also can’t be a sarcastic or satirical portrayal. I don’t think Luke would have portrayed Jesus telling a parable whose meaning isn’t apparent to the reader. And that’s where I think we should stay—on the surface.

This parable is about doing whatever it takes to get a place in the kingdom. Period. Say no more than that. It’s not about honesty v. dishonest. It’s not about a heartless owner who demands too much interest from those to whom he lends. It’s not about Jesus calling into question the capitalist influences that are taking over first-century Palestine. It’s about kingdom-first living.

Is Jesus being controversial? Sure he is. It’s a parable. It’s supposed to get your attention. Is Jesus saying some things that don’t really make sense? Absolutely he is. It’s a parable. It’s not supposed to be an allegory for discipleship. I believe most parables are like modern art. They are supposed to leave you with a feeling, an impression, without needing to be explained. What’s the point of this parable? That the kingdom is what counts. That nothing else should stand in the way of getting into the kingdom. The construct Jesus uses to convey that message is powerful, but it can be misleading. Stop on the surface. Be amazed that the kingdom is so important that Jesus can even tell a fanstastically strange story about it, but make sure you leave with the impression Jesus wanted you to have.

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