Blessed are the Shrewd [sermon 3.13.16, 5th sunday in lent]

by susan on March 14, 2016

shrewd managerThen Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. -Luke 16:1-8, NRSV

I grew up in a home where everything seemed to fit together neatly. Both of my parents, and mostly my mom, made sure our home was clean enough that you could literally eat off of the floor. Everything had a place. My dad, a woodworker and a perfectionist made furniture that was as least as good as what you could buy from Pottery Barn. He used the sturdiest wood and carved grooves that fit together so perfectly you can’t even tell they are there.

Fitting things together neatly was an ideal I learned from an early age.

As you can imagine, this ideal has created more than one crisis for me, because this journey we are on is a messy one. I am a mess more often than not.

I’m learning, though, that the messiest moments are not just obstacles to be overcome. They are shaping me – they are shaping us, in ways that our happy-clappy-everything’s-in-order moments just can’t do.

For those of us who love for things to fit together neatly, this parable creates a problem. Not only is this story Jesus tells about a steward hard to make sense of, the comments added by Luke afterward seems disconnected to the story and only muddy the waters even more.

I won’t even pretend to have this one figured out and I’m thankful that’s not the point anyway. Remember: parables are intended to stir imaginations into the kingdom of God – they aren’t riddles to be solved.

So, here’s the crazy story.

The middle-man for a certain company has gotten called into the CEO’s office becaue there are rumors that he is “squandering” the company’s money. He’s doing what the prodigal son in last week’s story did – he’s wastefully spending on the wrong things. Whether is was intentional or unintentional or a false rumor, we don’t know. This middle-man knows one thing for sure though. He is losing his job. Unless he does something quick, he’s going to end up a beggar on the streets.

That’s what happened to middle-men in first century Israel when they lost their jobs. The job market was competitive and the economy was a tough one. There were the wealthy top 2-3 percent, another 6-8 percent who were fairly well off (the steward would fit in there) and the rest, about ¾ of the population were poor.

This crisis, as crises tend to be, presented a critical moment.
And, at this critical moment, this man,
like the last two central characters the parables we have explored,
begins talking to himself.

The question he asks himself is this:
‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?
The short version is “What am I going to do now?”

You know you’re in trouble when you start asking that.
I feel the weight of that question in my gut, don’t you? We’ve all asked it at least once.

It’s usually asked when our options seem limited,
our resources have been depleted,
we’ve run out of time or
we’re at the end of ropes.

What am I going to do now?

I lost my job.
The relationship has failed, again.
This problem isn’t going away.

The world isn’t what it used to be. The church isn’t what it used to me.

Things no longer fits together neatly and I have no idea how to deal with the mess!

“What am I going to do now?” moments can be terrifying, paralyzing ones. They can also be the moments when something significant happens.

Sitting with that question causes the middle man to get creative. He comes up with a well thought-out plan and he follows through.

He meets with several people who are indebted to the company and in an effort to win friends who might help him from becoming homeless, he reduces their debts. Whether olive oil or wheat, he tells the borrowers to cut their debts to a more manageable size. He knows the system and he works it – he has them rewrite their debts in their own handwriting as was the requirement.

He uses what he has, both his relationships and his experience, to make a way forward.

Let’s be clear. His motives are not selfless.
His life depends on the outcome.

Those hearing this story would be completely baffled by what this man is up to – wouldn’t this only serve to make his boss angrier?! What they expect to hear next is how the steward was fired for good, perhaps even punished for more extravagant squandering. After all, he just decreased profits!

All parables have a surprise though. The surprise in this one is the response of the CEO.

Instead of punishing him, the rich man commends the steward for his shrewdness – and Luke adds that shrewdness is a quality that is lived out by the culture, but not often enough by “children of Light” (followers of Jesus).

Shrewd.
It means to act with wisdom and insight.
It means to be intentional.
It’s not doing what you’ve always done
or what everyone else is doing to solve an old problem.

It’s being brave enough to do something new.

We know what it means to be a good steward in an empire:
you do what you’re told,
make your master (or company) lots of money
and never question anything.

But, what does it mean to be a good steward in God’s kingdom?
This story opens up a new, surprising way.
It’s not just doing what you’re told,
it’s not just fitting in neatly,
it’s not becoming a cog in a wheel.

It’s using what we have to tackle life-threatening problems in a new way.

In light of all that is happening in our world, what are we going to do now? is a question that should be on our minds.
It’s time to get a little creative ourselves.

When we hear that political leaders are threatening to erect barriers to loving our neighbors,
it’s time to get creative.
When we see that another life is lost to gun violence,
it’s time to get creative.
When we hear about
human trafficking,
discrimination,
unjust payday lending
and all of the ways things are not as they should be,
it’s time to get more creative than giving the same tired answers and looking to the same broken systems to solve everything.

We are not helpless.
We have so much, and as followers of Jesus,
as stewards in God’s kingdom,
we must become creative and wise with what has been entrusted to us.

What might this look like? A few images came to mind this week.
I thought about…

corner gardenA gardener & artist in our community. When confronted with blight in our neighborhood, this neighbor uses his love for gardening to bring life and color to our streets (pictured to right).

A friend who founded Healing Springs Acres. When confronted by poverty in the place where he is from, Don used his farming background to creatively cultivate healthy food, jobs and community.

Activist Bree Newsome. After the hate fueled murder of 9 black church-goers in South Carolina and a week of debates about the confederate flag, Bree climbed a pole on the statehouse grounds to take down the flag herself. She was jailed because of it, but a couple of weeks later, the flag came down for good.

Maybe you have some images you could add to this list.

This life is not about fitting in neatly.
It’s about using what we have to be part of God’s new, unfolding order of things.
It will be unconventional and it will put us at odds with the old order.
Don’t let that stop you.
In the words of out-of-the-box entrepreneur Seth Godin,
“Please stop sitting around. We need you to make a ruckus.”

Earlier in the gospel of Luke, Jesus shares some of his most central teachings (Luke 6). He announces a series of surprising blessings. Maybe this parable is really another of those teachings. If I may be so bold, consider this:

Blessed are those stuck between a rock and a hard place,
for they will discover a way forward.

Blessed are the shrewd, for they will cause a ruckus.

Be shrewd.  Make a ruckus for the life-giving, love-centered kingdom of God.

Lent practice 5

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