Sunday, September 23, 2007

Shrewd and Subversive Wisdom

Sermon for Proper 20, Year C
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

“I can’t believe that this story came from the lips of our Lord.”

That was purportedly the response of St. Augustine to the parable we just heard.

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager is a story that has challenged Christians from the time of the Church Fathers up to the 21st Century. And for good reason: it’s not initially clear why Jesus tells it or why he commends the dishonest manager as a role model for his disciples.

It’s reasonable to find it puzzling and to wonder, “What in the world is going on here?” So let’s take a closer look.

A man entrusted with managing a lot of property gets called on the carpet by the owner. We’re not told exactly why. Maybe he was stealing from the owner and cooking the books to hide his tracks. Regardless of the reason, the owner says, “I hear that you’re mismanaging my property. I want a complete audit of your books. And oh, by the way, you’re fired!”

It’s a moment of crisis for the manager. What’s he going to do to insure his future? He can’t beg or become a day-laborer. So he comes up with a brilliant plan. He brings in the owner’s debtors one by one, and cuts their debts in as much as half. That’s a shrewd move in a society predicated upon reciprocity, for now the debtors owe an additional debt to the manager. Once he’s unemployed, they are obligated to help him out once. It’s shrewd, but it’s also fundamentally dishonest. In fact, it’s theft.

So why, then, does Jesus exhort his disciples to follow the dishonest manager’s example by “mak[ing] friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” (16:9)? Is Jesus really advocating immoral or illegal behavior?

When confronted with conundrums like this, it helps to remember an age-old principle of biblical interpretation: any given part of scripture must be interpreted in light of the whole of scripture. We’ll go off track if we isolate this passage and read it as though it stands alone. But if we are guided by the principle of reading the part in relation to the whole, we have to look at the larger context in which Jesus tells this strange story.

When we do that, we see that this is just one of many parables that Jesus tells in response to the Pharisees and the scribes. They’ve been grumbling about Jesus’ lifestyle of hanging out and eating with sinners, tax collectors, and other riff-raff. Last Sunday, we saw Jesus’ response to this grumbling in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. And immediately prior to today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells one of the most famous and beloved stories in the Bible: the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The message there is clear: God loves sinners, the outcast, and the marginalized; God sees the good in them; and God seeks them out to bring them into the Kingdom. That’s the preface to the parable we hear today.

But there’s more to the larger context. At this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are on the move. They’re getting closer to Jerusalem. The shadow of the cross looms larger and larger. There’s a palpable sense of urgency that thickens with each succeeding chapter. An impending crisis lies just over the horizon, and there’s no time to waste on anything trivial.

Read in the light of this larger context, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager is no longer a story about business ethics, much less helpful advice for happy living. In fact, it’s not really about the morality of the dishonest manager’s actions at all. Given the larger context in which Jesus tells this story, it’s about how we as disciples respond to crisis when we’re confronted with a situation that doesn’t allow for easy answers.

Instead of being paralyzed, the manager takes bold, decisive action. Thinking on his feet, he exhibits a kind of practical wisdom that helps him navigate a way forward when there appears to be nowhere to go. And Jesus finds that quality admirable.

The scandal of the parable is that Jesus highlights something good, something worthy of emulation, in someone that almost all of us would judge as a morally bad person. There are several things we can learn from this.

For starters, we can’t write anybody off as completely beyond the pale. Yes, there are bad people in this world who do bad things. We would be foolish and naïve to believe otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that everything about such persons is bad. There can still be redemptive qualities about them, qualities that Jesus can see and that, as his disciples, we should be on the lookout for as well. In fact, - and again, this is part of the scandal of this parable – the way bad people do some things might offer lessons that we who try to be good Christians can learn from.

On that score, I think that Jesus is telling his disciples – including you and me – that we need to be well-versed in worldly wisdom. Instead of separating ourselves from the riff-raff of this world, writing off the non-religious and the morally suspect as though they have nothing to teach us, Jesus tells us – and offers his own lifestyle as a model – that we need to be fully in this world but not of this world. We need to cultivate the same kind of thinking-on-your-feet practical wisdom that we see in the dishonest managers and the Tony Sopranos of this world. Not so that we can become what they are, but so that we can take the ways of the world they know so well and use them to turn the world on its head – working with the Holy Spirit to effect the kind of transformation that helps to usher in a little bit of the Kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven.

I recently came across some thoughts about all of this from Jim Wallis, the evangelical Christian activist whose organization Sojourners champions the cause of the poor and the marginalized. Jim talked about how in some cities, gangs ruthlessly defend their territory, with drug lords marking off a neighborhood as their own. In response, Jim said: “I want churches to learn from these guys. I want some inner-city churches who will say, ‘This is our turf and we control this neighborhood … and we are going to do what’s necessary to make sure you don’t trample our turf.”

As an illustration, Jim talked about an inner-city church in Detroit whose neighborhood was overrun by drug dealers. In response, the church could have shut down and moved to a safer neighborhood. But instead, they posted some of their elderly ladies on each corner of the church property in foldout lawn chairs, armed with video cameras. Overnight, the neighborhood began to change. Mind you, these women had no idea how to work the video cameras. But the drug dealers didn’t know that. And so these church women beat the drug dealers at their own game.

That’s shrewd and savvy. That’s the kind of thinking-on-your-feet-for-the-Kingdom practical wisdom Jesus is talking about.

Like those church women in downtown Detroit, Jesus challenges us to face the crises of our world head-on, utilizing – when necessary – worldly wisdom to subvert the ways of the world for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Jesus calls us to make it clear that this city of Jackson is God’s turf, and that we Christians who make St. Andrew’s our home will do anything necessary to make sure that the unholy trinity of poverty, racism, and elitism don’t trample God’s turf.

If it means anything to be "The Cathedral in the City," it at least means that.

That’s why we support and participate in so many outreach ministries. From Stewpot to Habitat for Humanity to Meals on Wheels and the Breakfast Club, the opportunities to seek and serve Christ right in our own backyards are quite literally legion.

Yes, the harvest is plentiful. But my friends, it’s also true that the laborers are few. And so, in support of the letter Dean O'Connor sent every parish household last week, I also invite you to prayerful discern how to get involved in our parish’s outreach efforts.

We need you. We need your commitment of time, talent, and treasure. We need your hands and your feet. We need your bold and decisive action. We need your shrewd, subversive wisdom.

Jackson is crying out.

And Jesus calls us to respond.

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