The Shrewd Manager

Br Michael’s sermon on today’s Gospel – Luke 16:1-15…

The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.

I have always found this particular parable rather confusing, it seemed to make no sense to me. A rich man has a steward who is accused of dishonesty, so in order to prove his honesty and his worth, he tells his master’s debtors to each pay a small proportion of their debt. I am sure this would please the debtors: they avoid paying half their debt, but I wouldn’t have thought it would please the rich man very much: he only gets half his money back. In order to understand what Jesus is trying to say, we need to fully understand the parable.

The first thing that I had to realise when reading through this parable is that the rich man is not purely the victim. Although it is a nuisance, having a dishonest servant, it seems as though the master had been engaging in some rather dishonest practices himself.

Jews were, at the time, forbidden to lend money at interest, but many of them got around this rule by lending in kind, with oil and wheat being easy commodities to use for this purpose. What is most likely, in this story, is that the money the steward deducted from the debtors’ debts was simply the interest the rich man would have charged. This would have delighted the debtors, as they would only have to pay back the principal – the simple amount that was lent, instead of paying back interest also. The rich man, however, could not lay a charge against the steward without first admitting his own dishonest business practices. It was a safe way out for the steward – he had made friends with the debtors by reducing their debts and had trapped his employer into being unable to lay a charge against him for fear of himself being found wanting. It seems, therefore, that when the master heard about the steward’s dealings, he could only admire the man’s clever approach. He had acted shrewdly – it didn’t say he’d acted honestly, or kindly, or faithfully. The definition of shrewd reads: “showing sharp powers of judgement or being astute”. It is certainly fair to suggest that the steward acted astutely.

I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

The second thing we must realise about the parable is that it is, in fact, a parable, not a teaching or dogma on money and how (not) to use it. Parables have meanings behind them. We need only look at the Parable of the Sower… the different characters and types of ground refer to different people. The same is true here. The master is God. The steward is Israel. The steward is meant to be God’s ‘property manager’, responsible to God and set over His possessions, yet Israel, as we see so much through the Gospels, has failed in the task and finds itself under the threat of immediate dismissal. What, then, should Israel do?

The Pharisees had an answer. Their solution was to tighten the regulations of the law yet further, but this served only to exclude the very people that Jesus was trying to reach out to. In this parable, Jesus tries to explain that if Israel is facing a major crisis, the solution is actually to forget the extra bits and pieces of the Law that the Pharisees have found and collected together and to make friends as and where they can. That is what ‘the people of this world’ would do and ‘the people of the light’ – that is, the Israelites – the believers – ought to do so too; learning from the cunning people of the world in order to cope with the crisis that was looming upon their generation.

Thus, instead of hoarding lands, possessions and money, Jesus’ advice was to use it, as far as possible, to make friends. A crisis was coming and the people of God had to be prepared. When I think of that, I think of the Public Safety videos they showed during the Cold War, showing families how to make nuclear fallout shelters in their front rooms. The motto was ‘Prepare and Survive’ and this was similar to what Jesus was advising.

This parable, it seems then, was very much aimed at the people of the day and, on first reading, seems to have little to do with us today. After all, Jesus’ death on the cross has saved us from the crisis to come. How then, can we use the parable to learn today?

Obviously, the parable has nothing to do with commending sharp practices in personal finances. Rather, it advises us to focus less on the extra rules and regulations that we as a church self-impose, which are over and above the Gospel teachings and values. The church, in the present day, is passing through turbulent times, with crises occurring almost daily. In these turbulent times, we as a church need to frequently assess what matters and what doesn’t.

The twentieth century saw the so-called ‘mainstream’ churches in many parts of the world – the ‘traditional denominations’ as we know them – fall into a state of decline, with many newer churches growing and spreading. We need only look at our own Diocese and town to see the Church in Wales being forced to close churches and use unpaid clergy, whilst cinemas and old shops across town are being opened as newer churches. So what can the traditional churches do? We need to learn to think slightly less conventionally, be prepared to make new friends across the traditional barriers that used to separate us and to discover again, in the true fellowship of the Gospel, a home that will last.

It is my prayer that we can all begin to do this, to ensure that we can continue to bring the Good News to the people of Abergavenny in the twenty-first century and beyond.

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