St Titus, Durham Luke 16:1-13
You know very well that reliable television and newspapers report that the world around us is violent and corrupt. But the Bible, on the other hand and Jesus specifically, tells us that no matter how violent and corrupt the world around us, we are obliged to love it and care for it. That’s our vocation. Being a Jesus follower is not and cannot be, as is too often been alleged, an isolated private affair between just God and me or God and you. And neither is it a viable option for Jesus’ disciples either to embrace the world uncritically or abandon it self-righteously. My favorite Southern author, Flannery O’Connor, put it this way: Christians have to learn that a holy life cherishes the world at the same time that we struggle to endure it. I think she meant that our relation with the world is dialectical – or as St. Paul put it, we are in the world but not of it.
The gospel reading three weeks ago was a parable about who should be invited to dinner. In that story Jesus said ‘when you give a feast, invite the uninvited – the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed’. The next Sunday we were confronted by his claim that if he cannot be our exclusive and only lover we cannot be his disciple. And last Sunday we were reminded, in parables about a lost sheep and a lost coin, that God’s business is finding the lost. Now today’s gospel continues Luke’s ongoing concern with the proper use of wealth and posses-sions in the puzzling and enigmatic parable of the dishonest manager .
After addressing the crowds who were following him, Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them a story that is unique to Luke’s gospel. There are 2 main characters – a rich man and his business manager. The rich man is probably an ‘absentee landlord’ who entrusted the day-to-day oversight of his business to the steward who served as his agent. But the rich man learns that his manager has been not only dishonest but an incompetent manager – so the owner confronts him, gets an account of his mismanagement, and fires him.
That’s when the fired manager has an inspiration. Word of his firing had not yet hit the street when he decided to do his master’s debtors a favor and let one hand wash the other. If you do something nice for someone they will feel obligated to reciprocate. The prevailing view among scripture scholars is two-fold. The steward was willing to sacrifice some or all of his commissions in order to recover the debts – and he did favors for people who owed his boss so that when word got out that he was no longer employed, those people would be indebted to him. So he went to a man who owed his boss money and asked, “How much do you owe?” The man said, “A hundred baths of oil”. That would have been olive oil, and a bath was the equivalent of nine gallons. So this man owed 900 gallons of olive oil to the absent owner. That’s a lot of olive oil and worth lots of money. So the manager said, “Let’s just adjust that and cut the amount in half. Cross out 100 and put in 50”. Then he asked another debtor how much he owed. The man replied, “A hundred cors of wheat”. A cor was the equivalent of 10 to 15 bushels – so this man owed between 1,000 and 1,500 bushels of wheat. That’s a lot of wheat and also worth lots of money. So the manager said, “Let’s adjust that – say from 100 cors to 80 cors”.
I think I understand to this point. The manager, who had been incompetent, turns out also to be both shrewd and dishonest – and now uses his position to make friends who would help him when they know he is out on his ear. But here is the part that I find difficult to understand. When the master learned what had happened, Jesus says that he “commended the dishonest manager be-cause he had done wisely”. Did you hear that? The master “commended the dishonest manager because he had done wisely”. I would have expected him to call the police and have the manager arrested. I’d have expected the manager to end up in jail. But instead the master commended the manager for his shrewdness – for being smart to prepare for his future. I read once of Christians whose ministry, they said, was learning the art of card-counting in order to beat casinos at their own game. So is that the point? Is that what Jesus suggests when he says that ‘the worldly are more astute than the other-worldly in dealing with their own kind’? I want to ignore such sayings because scholars say that they do not belong to the original parable – and because I can’t imagine Jesus applauding the dishonest steward as an example of the right use of wealth.
Mark Twain observed that “If you pick up a starving dog and feed him, he will not bite you [and] that is the principal difference between a dog and a man”? Some have said that Jesus used this little story to teach his disciples that, in order to propagate the gospel effectively, one must learn the ways of the world. Others have gone so far as to suggest that the example of the dishonest manager is meant to teach Jesus’ followers that they should use the things of the world as astutely as the wiliest swindlers and cheats in the service of God! I’ve known students and pastors and entire congregations who didn’t blush at saying that they would do ‘whatever it takes to make the church successful and popular’. You have seen signs on churches and announce-ments in the local newspaper heralding innovative projects that are designed to convert the godless, bring in members, and entertain the faithful. What do you think? Would an ‘anything goes’ ap-proach at St. Titus be worrisome? Is this a place where ‘whatever it takes’ needs to be embrac-ed? The historic preference of Anglicans is for ‘decency and good order’ so preferences are more than ‘different strokes for different folks’.
In a culture where pragmatism and utilitarianism have a death-grip on moral conscious-ness, it’s clear that projects that embrace the ‘do whatever it takes’ approach enjoy popular ap-proval. The 2 slogans every American learn are ‘the end justifies the means’ and ‘an action is right if it produces happiness’. But thoughtful people know that pragmatism and utilitarianism do not always correlate. ‘Right and good acts’ are acts that are useful for good purposes or ends – and classical utilitarianism says that pleasure and pain are the only things good or bad in them-selves. That means that the right purpose of any means is the production of pleasure or the re-moval of pain. So while torture may be a ‘good’ means for securing information, its utility for using pain to produce information disqualifies it as right or good. Means that produce pain – like a torture – are therefore not good. And cheating hurts the cheated as it benefits the cheater. To put this another way – the end is always pre-existent in the means – the end is embedded in the means – and a bad means cannot produce a good end.
I’ve been in churches with all the trappings of a health club or an athletic association, bas-ketball courts and bowling alleys – and I’ve known pastors whose patois in the pulpit is hardly distinguishable from the jargon in a boardroom. And my sense is that an approach to Christian ministry that embraces ‘whatever it takes’ is an invitation to spiritual disaster. Of course I know I’m not wired that way. I’m not a ‘Bible-thumping, saw-dust-stomping, hellfire preaching tent evangelist. And we don’t routinely give ‘altar calls’ and sing “Just as I am” every Sunday. But this room is beautiful – our liturgies are the ‘familiar home of our spirit’ – and we strive to make this place friendly and hospitable. Over many years, people tell me that this is a place where they sense the presence of God. Is there more could we do to welcome people in Jesus’name?
All things considered, I think this parable does not offer the unjust steward as an example of the right way to behave. He was quick-witted, astute, and crooked. He possessed an intuitive knack in practical matters, a keen intelligence combined with shrewd judgment. And he was not commended for his honesty but for his shrewdness. So I tend to think Jesus told this parable as a warning to his disciples against being so worldly-wise as to be virtually useless in his service.
There is something to be said for the children of this world who are materialistic and sel-fish people whose hearts are focused on the things of this world. They know how things work. They’re smart about money. They know how to go along to get along. That’s how it is with the children of this world. The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of light. That seems clear enough. The usual translations of the last sayings in Luke’s parable seem to me not very helpful – so here is a transliteration that I hope is better. After commending the manager Luke’ Jesus is reported to have added, “But shall I tell you to act that way – to buy friendship through cheating? Will this ensure your entry into an everlasting home in heaven? No, I tell you – if you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; if you’re crooked in small things you’ll be crooked in big things. If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store? No worker can serve two bosses – you will either hate one and love the other or adore one and despise the other. You can’t serve God and wealth”.
Our work in the world is to be formed into the kind of people who learn, as Flannery O’Connor put it, that ‘a holy life cherishes the world at the same time that it struggles to endure it’. A holy life embraces the world as its mission and resists the temptations to be seduced by it. Or as St. Paul said, we must be in the world but not of it. If we can learn that, we can become God’s people in this violent and corrupt world. I believe that’s what our fellowship is about here in our praying and singing and preaching and teaching. Our worship and adoration of God has no other purpose than to worship and adore God. It is a good and right thing in itself. With our priority rightly fixed, that is also the well-spring that equips us do the work of God in the world.
Today’s collect seems to me the perfect summary of today’s lesson so let’s pray it again. “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.