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For the greater good

Picture – climate protest, Salisbury, Friday 20 September

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For the greater good

Posted By : Robert Titley Sunday 22nd September 2019

Picture – climate protest, Salisbury, Friday 20 September

A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley on 14th Sunday after Trinity, 22nd September 2019

Reading Luke 16: 1–13

 

‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management.’

Accountability is in the air just now. Friday saw half the world take to the streets, calling those who wield power to account for their management of our overheating world, and calling us all to account for our planetary responsibilities to one another, ‘for the Greta good’, as one headline put it. This weekend, eleven judges are reflecting on what the law might have to say about a government’s accountability to its parliament. Last week, the Social Care Institute for Excellence audited the Cathedral, and we gave an account of our safeguarding policies and procedures, and our culture of care towards any of us who is vulnerable.

So, a story from Jesus about accountability sounds just what we need – but what use is this tale of corruption? Ah, no (someone may say), you misunderstand. Jesus’ parables aren’t like that. Today’s story is not a TED talk on management accounting, any more than the parable of the sower is offering tips on successful arable farming. Parables are speech events: listen to a parable of Jesus and in the moment when the penny drops you meet God, rather as you meeting Jesus in the bread and the wine of the Holy Communion.

Well, let’s see. In this story, a corrupt manager is under suspicion and given notice, redoubles his corrupt efforts (to give himself a soft landing after he is sacked) and is then congratulated by his boss for being so canny in his corruption. How does this help us meet God?

No-one I've found has come up with a way of reading this story that is entirely convincing. One scholar (writing in 1910!) described all that had been written about this parable as 'voluminous and unrepaying'. I sense that even Luke the gospel writer may not be too sure how to read it: he keeps the story because Jesus told it, but adds other stuff that Jesus said about money and wealth – including the dilemma of One Man, Two Guvnors – rather like footnotes, as if to say, ‘This is a puzzling story, so here is some other stuff from Jesus on the same theme that may help.’

Because it’s Jesus’ story, people have gone on telling it, and have kept worrying away at it to see how it might help us see God. So what do we think? I offer two takes on the story, each quite different from the other. The first recalls one of the early achievements of Archbishop Justin, when he took on predatory loan companies: in this take the boss in the parable is a loan shark. We might call it the Welby vs Wonga version, and it goes like this.

Jewish law in the first century, like Islamic law now, forbids charging interest on loans because of the effect debt has on people’s lives and on society. Of course, people always try to get round the law, and the boss is doing that by charging interest in goods instead of cash. Oil and wheat, both very resaleable commodities, are perfect for this purpose. It was apparently a common scam in Jesus' day; and, from the way Luke writes, it does sound as though he expected most of his original audience to know what was going on, however obscure it seems to us. Imagine a present-day story featuring mobile phone contracts, and how obscure that might sound in the year 4000 (if we survive that long).

So the boss’ business is – irregular. What of the manager? He is running some scam of his own and he is a man in crisis. He knows he’s on his way out, so he tries to become the new best friend of his boss' clients by cutting the illegal (and probably very high) interest they owe. His boss finds out, and can do – nothing. Here is his manager depriving him of income, but he can't – say – take him to court without exposing the whole racket. He has been played, outmanoeuvred, and can only say, in grim admiration, ‘Impressive. Most impressive.’

Now imagine you were in the first crowd to hear that story. You live in a society that is deeply divided, and confused about how to define itself in relation to the great power of its day. How might you respond? You might say, ‘We are a people in crisis. We have not managed well; things are precarious. So let us not be too fastidious: let’s make friends where we can, how we can, while we can, and we might survive.’

And how do you respond now? Think of our position, national, continental, global. Think of the divisions, the mismanagement, the jeopardy; the great powers and great forces that bear upon us. Think of our different groups and movements and parties. Who might need to heed that pragmatic advice today?

And now, a quite different reading, what we might call the tongue-in-cheek take. In this version the boss (whose own operations may be quite legitimate) pays an ironic compliment  – 'Oh, congratulations! – to the manager he has just caught cooking the books, and Jesus is being ironic too when he says, 'Make friends by means of dishonest wealth.' On this reading, Jesus is saying,

Go for it! Play the system, fiddle those expenses, be ‘worldly wise’, and see if it makes you finally secure. Perhaps it will. Perhaps you will be the first person ever to serve God and wealth faithfully, to be pro-having cake and pro-eating it. Good luck with that.

One little string of sentences, then twenty centuries of head-scratching – and all because Jesus said them. Today we add our own itchy heads to the count – but which story do you hear? A call to be bold and pragmatic in precarious times? Or a mocking mirror held up to our dishonesties and evasions, and the way our actions contradict what we say we want? Or did you hear something else?

One little string of sentences. I hear it in my way, you hear it in yours, and if we are to be accountable to God and one another, we need to hear from each other. Never has after-service coffee been more important or inviting. I don’t know which of these is closer to what was in Jesus' mind. I believe, though, if we each let God meet us in this story – if we really take it in, the way we meet Jesus as we take the bread and wine into ourselves in this Holy Communion, then we might know which story we need to hear – for the greater good.

 

Notes

For the Archbishop's critique of payday loan companies, see the Channel 4 report.

For the 'Welby vs Wonga' reading, see Tom Wright Luke for Everyone, SPCK, 2001, pages 192-195.

For the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ reading, see Stanley Porter, ‘The Parable of the Unjust Steward: Irony is the Key' in The Bible in Three Dimensions, David Clines, Stephen Fowl and Stanley Porter editors, JSOT Press, 1990, pages 27-153.

A third interpretation I am grateful to The Revd Peter Ashton who offered this interpretation in response to the sermon. It is informed by Kenneth Bailey’s analysis in his Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, Eerdmans, 2nd Edition, 2000). 
 
This story opens with the manager being interviewed by the owner of the estate on which he is employed. Somebody has given the owner information about the manager’s bad conduct. This is taken to be reliable and so serious that the owner fires him on the spot, telling him he has to surrender the books.
 
In the accusation levelled against the manager, the text says literally, the manager had “scattered his (the landlord’s) possessions”. Strictly speaking this does not indicate blatant dishonesty. Maybe the manager is to be seen as a ‘loveable rogue, a ‘Del Boy’ character. This fits well with the middle section of the parable in which he finds a way out of his predicament. 
 
There does not seem to be anything in the parable to suggest the landlord is dishonest, or colluding with the manager in any dishonest practice, as some commentators have said. 
 
The manager looks for another source of income. He rejects two obvious solutions, hiring himself out as a manual labourer and begging. 
 
He realises that the landlord is a generous man. Though he was sacked, the landlord did not exact any penalties or even scold him, showing remarkable restraint, given common practice. 
 
Knowing this, would give him confidence to put into effect a rather risky plan. He has a short time in which to do this. The news of his sacking is not yet public knowledge. As far as the tenants are concerned, he still has authority. He calls them in one by one and reduces the proportion of produce they are due to hand over to the landlord at harvest time as rent. He gets the tenants to alter their agreements. 
 
At a stroke the landlord becomes very popular and so does he, the manager, who makes the tenants think it was he who got the landlord to reduce their payments. He will now be able to look for alternative employment in the community. 
 
When the landlord discovers this, it puts him in a bind. He is now very popular in the community. If he takes any action to reverse what the manager has done, he will become an extremely unpopular man, with all the consequential effects in his daily dealings with the workforce and the community in general. He chooses not to condemn the manager but to praise him for his shrewdness (wisdom). This has raised difficulties for some commentators who question how the landlord could praise the manager when earlier he had dismissed him for ‘scattering his possessions’. But the manager is not being praised for any malpractice but for a quality that was highly prized, that is wisdom. In the first century the Hebrew word hokmah (wisdom) could still mean skill and cleverness deployed in self-preservation.
 
If this is the correct approach, then the meaning of the parable can be found in the manager (representing each of us) who has behaved badly and has come under judgement but who has the wisdom to throw himself unreservedly on the mercy of his landlord and employer (representing God). The landlord bears the cost of the manager’s acceptance (i.e. the cost of human redemption). In other words, God is enormously generous, accepts us, and forgives us, if we take the wise step of trusting him. He bears the cost of our redemption. The parable is so shaped that it can apply to those who are already disciples and to those who are not yet disciples.
 
The parable has some similarities to the preceding parable of the prodigal son.