September 16, 2010

Redeeming Shrewdness

by Doug Lee
Luke 16:1-13b

Eugene Peterson observes that the story of the dishonest manager ranks as our least favorite of Jesus’ parables. What is there to cozy up to in a story where cheating goes unpunished and cunning is seemingly commended? Are we to use money to buy friends the way we buy objects for consumption?

Can Jesus truly be recommending such scandalous behavior?

But the scandal we hate in this story is precisely the scandal we love in the immediately preceding parable. Artificially separated by a chapter divide, the parable of the dishonest manager is actually meant to be heard alongside the parable of the lost son, most beloved of all the parables.

Both deal with underlings who squander wealth and violate a covenantal relationship. Both trust-breakers experience a moment of clarity that allows them to see their true condition. Both of these dubious characters hatch schemes to regain some measure of lost dignity. But both stories stupefy their hearers with the foolishly gracious response of the one in authority. Ignoring by-the-book justice and the insufficiently-gracious scheme proposed by the prodigal, the father will not have a slave but a beloved son. Similarly, the master responds to his manager not as a Bernie Madoff-class swindler but as a praiseworthy financial officer who has at last exhibited acumen instead of dullness. And both parables resound with implications and possibilities by leaving their hearers to supply their endings.

Juxtaposing the beloved scandal of Luke 15 with the stomach-turning scandal in Luke 16 strengthens and clarifies both. The outrage we feel in the second story can refurbish the surprise we have lost in hearing the father’s response to the prodigal. And the grace we so readily see in the father’s embrace of his son must be extended to the master’s commendation of the manager.

What is Jesus’ aim in telling these stories? What is the common thread that runs throughout, even to the story about another rich man and Lazarus at the end of Luke 16?

Jesus’ consistent vision of salvation in Luke’s gospel is one in which good news is proclaimed to the poor and the rich are judged for their dullness to the inbreaking of God’s good future.

It was a riveting moment for our congregation when our friend and Nigerian theologian Sunday Agang delivered a pointed assessment: “Your wealth persecutes you.” He said this in most sympathetic way possible, yet it was jarring nonetheless. His assertion paralleled Jesus’ declaration of woe to the rich (6:24-26), a lament over the deathliness that riches bring.

To be more truthful about all of this, Jesus laments the lifelessness that our riches bring. If you have the time and access to be able to read this blog, then you, like me, qualify as one of the very rich in terms of the whole world.

Still more to the point, Jesus’ message to us who are wealthy is that our riches divide us from the poor. The rich man knows nothing of Lazarus, who sleeps at his doorstep. Wealth hinders the have’s from showing hospitality to the have not’s.

But the persistent way that Jesus interacts with the rich is not merely to condemn but to save. Jesus’ appeal in the Luke 15 parables is for the older brother/Pharisees to rejoice in Jesus’ embrace of the younger brother/sinners. His desire in Luke 16 is for the rich/Pharisees to exhibit the same shrewdness as the manager, who finds scandalous grace by using temporal wealth to build eternal friendship. When Jesus employs “shrewdness” in this and other parables (“wisdom” in Matthew 7:24; 25:1ff), the word applies to those who have grasped their position at the inbreaking of the Kingdom and take clear action.

Luke’s Jesus has a lot to say about the destructive power of riches. But what if all his attention on wealth is not ultimately to condemn the rich but to evangelize us? What if hearing Jesus rightly means not handwringing but our conversion? What if Jesus’ message is not just good news for the poor but also good news for the rich?

The manager wins the commendation of his master by avoiding rationalization for his misconduct and using “what belongs to another” to build relationship. It is no coincidence that the shrewd manager does so by forgiving debts in a way that resonates with Jesus’ Jubilee campaign (4:18-19; 6:32-36; 11:4).

We receive God’s commendation instead of condemnation by employing His wealth to build relationship with the poor. We who are rich are to see our needy brothers and sisters as those who are ahead of us in hearing the gospel. Indeed, we are the needy ones who are to hunger for the blessing and joy of the Kingdom shared among our poorer brothers and sisters in our own communities and other parts of the world.

The Church is to be characterized not by greater effectiveness or more stringent disciplines, but by the scandalous generosity of God. The parable’s open conclusion beckons us to complete the story by entering into friendship with the poor. Then we will be able to hear Jesus’ hard words about Mammon as good news for the poor and good news for ourselves too.

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