[Uucf-bible] On the parable of the shrewd manager from lectionary
RevRonRobinson at aol.com
RevRonRobinson at aol.com
Tue Sep 14 14:47:14 EDT 2004
Here with a perspective on Jesus' parable in this week's lectionary reading I
bring excerpts from a recent (8-15-04) sermon by the Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine of
the UU church in Toledo, Ohio. Gary was one of my professors in seminary, and
he quotes another of my professors, Brandon Scott, in his interpretation of
this parable. Here are some excerpts from Gary's sermon found on his church
website where you can read the full sermon (which I also recommend).
One of the things that Brandon taught, that I hadn't picked up on in earlier
exposure to the parable, is about the dishonesty and bad behavior of the
master, and the exorbitant fees, etc. As Gary points out, when we see it as a
parable about corruption all around, and how grace can invade there, especially
there, it becomes a powerful critique of our social systems but also of our
lives, and yet full of hope as well. Brandon writes on this parable again in his
latest book, Reimagining the World, published by Polebridge Press.
Here is a section of Gary's sermon. He has begun by talking about the
difference between the "church" and "the kingdom". :
"Now I hope that we do not think I am just talking about some other church.
Unitarian Universalists are just as culpable on the hypocrisy charge as
anybody else. Our vision of church and kingdom imagines that we are always
reasonable people; that our institutions and her leaders are professional and beyond
ethical reproach; and that our members are the avant-gardes of the arts and
letters, human rights, and environmentalism. We believe that people have a
center of goodness within them that only requires an education to make them
productive and moral citizens of the world. We are chagrined to learn that while
these qualities may be found in our members, we are also capable of making
decisions based on raw emotions; our leaders are not only professionally fallible
but morally compromised from one degree to another; the magnetic field of our
moral compass is often the pull of self interest; and we have made up our minds
about some things that no amount of information is going to change.
With these thoughts in mind I invite you to look with me at the
parable of the shrewd manager. The manager is confronted by the patron, or
landlord. He is told that his position is being terminated and that an accounting
of his books will be required. Note this sequence. If the actions of the
manager were in question we would assume that the audit would be conducted first
and termination would then follow. But in this story the patron has already
made up his mind. We do not know on what basis he is firing the manager.
There have been rumors of misappropriation of funds or some other fraudulent
behavior. He is said to have squandered the money, which suggests more than an
accounting error. It suggests recklessness. We are not told exactly, but we are
given the impression that the patron is taking action without evidence. He
appears as a heartless man, much like the corporate leader who is sending jobs
overseas with little regard for current employees, or senior management who
raid pensions funds and leave their retirees destitute.
The manager sees that he is in a tenuous situation. He will be put
out of work immediately. There will be no severance package, no pension fund
to fall back on, and certainly no unemployment income. Finding a similar
position is improbable. He will be thrust onto the streets and face poverty in
short order. Luke invites us into his mind as he wonders about his future. We
see that he is not above pride as he admits that he could not dig ditches or
beg for a living. Brandon Scott points out that digging may refer to work in
a mine, which would be tantamount to a “death sentence.” One might
suspect that he has lived a relatively comfortable lifestyle. Perhaps he has put on
a few extra pounds. His soft hands would easily blister on the handle of a
shovel or pickax. And nobody wants to stand in front of the department store
with a tin cup extended, mumbling about spare change. Steam grates and the
Salvation Army are tough places to live, and the manager has enough
self-knowledge to know he could not bring himself to do it, much less survive.
The manager turns to the only people he can think of that might
secure his life. Modern unemployment counselors would call it “networking.” He
appeals to the very people he has often taken advantage of. He approaches
the people who are in debt to the patron and invites them to alter their
accounts to their advantage. Some scholars think that he was able to do this by
eliminating the usurious fees or interest that he would have charged to the
collection of debt. In the ancient world it would be common for such a manager to
apply his own fees for services to the patron. Tenants would be required to
pay the patron rent for the use of land. The manager would add on fees for the
collection and accounting. Likewise, tax collectors layered on their fees to
the taxes they collected for the government. To my knowledge there was no
hard and fast rule for how high these fees might go, but they all had the
reputation of being exorbitant. Tax collectors were considered sinners because they
abused the rules of usury.
The manager’s hope is that this gesture will gain their good will and allow
him to survive his unemployment. One example was the man who owed the patron
five hundred barrels of olive oil. Without the usurious fees the bill is
reduced to 250 barrels. Think about that – 50% of the debt was in interest and
fees. You can imagine how thankful these debtors would be, and their praises
would extend to the patron. It is highly unlikely that he would overturn the “
generosity” of the manager and demand full payment. The manager trapped the
patron into the appearance of generosity. And we are told by Luke, “The master
praised the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”
Aye, and there’s the rub. We were seduced by this parable into feeling
sympathy for the manager. He was in a desperate situation, under the thumb of a
rich and powerful man. He was the underdog who displayed Yankee ingenuity to
outwit the patron. He played the system and the little guy seemed to come out
on top. But then Jesus reminds us that the manager was dishonest. The
collection of interest and fees was an evil practice that kept people in poverty,
regardless of the patron’s bottom line. Maybe the manager was also cheating the
patron. Perhaps the patron had good reason to fire him after all.
The economic context of this parable reminds us that the entire patronage
system of the ancient world was corrupt and oppressive. In such a system both
the patron and the manager would be at the top of the corruption pyramid. What
is more, we do not know whether the actions of the manager saved him or not.
The parable does not tell us whether he was reinstated. There is no moral
certainty and neither character deserves their “Citizenship” merit badge.
What is Jesus trying to teach us in this parable? The parable is
fraught with difficulty. Apparently Luke struggled with it. His solution was
to edit the parable by putting these words in Jesus’ mouth, “for the children
of this world exhibit better sense in dealing with their own kind than do the
children of light.” Does Luke mean to say that the children of light
should become dishonest, conniving, and corrupt in managing their own lives or the
community of faith? Should we treat each other as rogues with slight of
hand, fast talking shell games? Is the kingdom of God about or brinkmanship or
some kind of spiritual skullduggery?
I think there are two aspects of this parable that the faithful can
take with them. The first is the caution that economic structures seek moral
justification or absolution. They need such absolution because they
invariably and without exception take advantage of large segments of the economy to
the advantage of a few. Economic institutions frequently turn to religious
institutions for their blessings. In Jesus’ day it was the system of economic
dominance that was represented by the patronage system. The Roman occupation
stripped landowners of property that had been in their family name for centuries.
These properties were seized and consolidated, throwing many people into
poverty. In fact, about 98% of the masses of 1st Century Palestine lived in
abject poverty. Granted, their family plots would be akin to truck farming today.
But it was a sustainable economy that afforded families a livelihood. The
patronage system destroyed all of that. The patron and the manager were agents
of a debilitating economic system, and neither of them deserves moral
sympathy. The system and its agents are morally culpable. Even the debtors who
gladly changed their bills participated in perpetuating an oppressive economic
system. The whole system was a corrupting system, and the seemingly innocent
were stained by it.
I am also reminded in this parable that because we are all corrupt, we are
not in the position to condemn or judge others. As Gandhi once said, “We are
all such scoundrels we should leave the judging to God.” The parable of the
shrewd manager suggests that God’s kingdom is in the midst of corrupt economic
systems and the people that are corrupted by them. The grace of life transpires
in the crowd of hypocrites."
Ron again: I like Gary's take on it, and to that last sentence just add a big
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