Saturday, September 21, 2013

18th Sunday after Pentecost (22 Sept)

A few years ago there was an ad on TV for a car yard where, the claim
was, you could get a really really good deal. It involved physical
pain, so if you were squeamish about brutalising pimply-faced young
car salesmen then this method wouldn't be for you. The customer had
the unfortunate salesman in a half Nelson and was bending him over the
bonnet of the car. "I want bucket seats for no extra!", he demanded.
"Done", said the salesman in obvious discomfort. "And leather
upholstery" – "Done!" "A spoiler" "Done" "Air conditioning?"
"Done!" "Oh, and I want 10% off" "Done" "and a minimum $5000
trade-in?" "Of course"

So, what was the point? Obviously they didn't really want you to
assault the staff, and most of us were probably astute enough to
realise that we couldn't just demand anything we wanted. I guess it
was a way of saying, here the customer really is right. We really
really want your business, so you have the upper hand. In fact we all
know that they were selling their cars for exactly the amount they had
worked out would give them a comfortable profit margin – you simply
don't run a business giving stuff away. If your junior staff were
taking it on themselves to give over the top discounts just because
they were getting their arms twisted, they'd soon be out of a job.

So, what's going on in today's Gospel story, and what's Jesus' point?
On what possible level can he be recommending that we act like – well,
like anybody in this fairly unsavoury little tale? So the business
manager has been caught out – in what? Incompetence? Dishonesty? We
don't know, but clearly he has been playing fast and loose with the
boss's money. So he is given notice – but before he clears out his
desk he goes out and rips the boss off some more, this time by extreme
discounting. "Here, you owe my boss a hundred barrels of oil? Just
change that IOU, cross out 100 and make it fifty. No problem, good
doing business with you." Now he really is costing the boss some
money. But here's the first twist in the story because when the
business owner finds out he commends this behaviour! "Good for you!"
– maybe he even gets to keep his job. So what exactly is going on?
In fact, what is this fellow even doing? Well here's the first
problem, because we don't really know, there simply isn't enough
detail in the story and Bible commentators have argued over this story
for centuries.

But it's clear enough what the soon to be ex-manager gets out of the
transaction. Maybe it's just out-and-out fraud, or else maybe it's
the manager's own commission he is discounting or maybe he has been
artificially jacking up the prices all along and pocketing the extra,
so this is his way of putting things back to rights. Maybe this is
his way of covering his tracks, before the boss finds out the true
extent of how much he has been ripping him off. One commentator,
determined to find something commendable in the manager's approach,
suggested he was actually making more money for his boss by getting
some stagnant bad debts at least partially paid. But in any case what
he gets out of the deal, when he cuts the bill in half, is extreme
customer satisfaction. This is one strategic fellow – what he is
doing is networking, creating some obligations that will give him some
fresh opportunities down the track.

And the business owner commends him – why? - well, it's still not
especially clear, maybe just for his cleverness in ensuring that when
he goes he'll be able to take some customers with him. But then
here's the second, even more surprising twist in the story, because
then Jesus also commends the dishonest manager: "be a bit like him",
Jesus tells us. "Splash it around! Use your shady assets to make
some friends so when it's all gone at least you'll be welcome
somewhere" - but where??. The place where Jesus says we will be
welcome after we have finished ingratiating ourselves with our
ill-gotten gains is "in the eternal homes". The Greek original
actually is in the "eternal tents" – a phrase that sounds like a bit
of a clue. But then just to turn the whole thing around again and
confuse us utterly, Jesus goes on to say, "of course, if you can't be
trusted in little things you are going to untrustworthy in big things"
– which rather undercuts his first comment that the children of light
should be a bit more worldly and act like the dishonest manager.

So, what is it all about? For a start, is this passage even about
money at all? And I think the answer is, "yes and no". On one level
the whole chapter is about money – this story ends up with Jesus
telling us bluntly – "you can't serve both God and money". You have
to make up your mind which is most important to you and where you are
going to find your true security. But they can't both rule your life.
And of course the chapter ends up with the story of the rich man and
Lazarus, the beggar, with Jesus very clearly telling us that how we
use the wealth of this world and the choices we make between our own
comfort and the needs of others are fundamental if we want to be God's
people. So, yes, it is about money.

And on this level, the phrase that I puzzle over is the 'eternal
tents'. The steward wanted security, of course. With the prospect of
losing his job he sets about splashing around the master's money to
create some security for himself in the future. "I know", he says in
verse four. "Here's a plan so when I am dismissed at least I will be
welcome in people's houses". 'Houses' – the Greek word is oikos –
which if you have been listening to me over the last few weeks you
will already know is going to be part of the key to the riddle. It
means being part of a network of mutual obligation and care, security
based on the sharing of material resources – and whenever you see the
word, oikos, in the New Testament the background meaning has always
something to do with the oikos – the household or the economy – of
God. And then Jesus, in commending his divestment of his master's
wealth, actually undercuts the manager's fundamental self-serving
motive. The English translation we read this morning doesn't show
that, because the phrase 'eternal homes' doesn't show the contrast.
The literal translation is a bit more revealing – 'eternal tents' – so
when you have given away the wealth of this world what you are left
with is the tent of a nomad. This is the prophet after all who eats
and drinks with sinners and ne-er-do-wells, and who tells us that we
need take no thought for what happens tomorrow because – hey, just
look at the wildflowers, have you ever seen anything so gorgeous?
They rejoice and bloom in the beauty and the insecurity of the moment
and God loves them, just as God's love surrounds you every moment of
your life. This is a prophet of the open road, who preaches the
wisdom of holy insecurity – because true security is to be found not
in the things of this world but by enacting the compassion and
forgiveness of God. More than once, Jesus tells us: "Just give it
away". Of course, it is hard for settled urban dwellers such as us,
with our jobs and superannuation and houses – or even pensions – to
hear that and be convinced. But deep down we know that Jesus is
serious, and we know that deeper security is to be found in hanging on
a little less tightly to the things of this world.

But I did say, "yes and no". It's about money, of course, and how we
put it in its place – but it's about more than money because it's
about Jesus himself, and Jesus' ministry which is another coin
altogether. And on this level the manager – whether dishonest or
shrewd depends on your point of view – is Jesus himself. [1] Because
like the manager, Jesus has been splashing it around and his old
sparring partners, the Pharisees, have noticed and aren't very happy
about it. "You can't just go around forgiving debts willy-nilly, they
complain. They aren't yours to forgive, in the first place". And you
know, now, that we are no longer talking about money.

There are clues. Debt is used as a more than once by Jesus as a
metaphor for sins and forgiving debts as a metaphor for forgiving
sins. For example in the Lord's Prayer. And the whole point of the
story is the fact that the rogue manager had no authorisation to go
around cancelling or cutting people's debts. He has been squandering
his master's money, and when he is caught out he does it some more.
Clearly, it is outrageous behaviour. But Luke has been telling us
that Jesus' behaviour was also considered outrageous. His opponents
were saying he had no right to go about welcoming sinners and
declaring God's forgiveness to them. We find a good example in
chapter seven, the story of the sinful woman who washes Jesus' feet
with her tears. "She has been forgiven much, and that is why she
loves much", Jesus reminds the Pharisee whose dinner guest he is.
There is a deeper logic to the practise of wasteful forgiveness and
love, than that of counting indebtedness. And Jesus, in this story of
the profligate manager, is affirming that divine grace is a wild card,
and that the wasteful squandering of forgiveness and other blessings
is an advance payment on God's reign. And not only that, he is
linking forgiveness – our practice of forgiveness, as well as God's –
with basic material generosity because each of these is how the people
of God build a community of grace, how we get to participate in the
oikos of God.

Of course the world of debts and debtors wasn't a fantasy to Jesus
first hearers in the fishing villages and the back lanes of rural
Galilee. This is a world where an unpaid debt can mean the difference
between eating and going hungry. His hearers know the grinding
desperation of a hand-to-mouth economy, and they know the relationship
between the real world economy of money and labour, and God's economy
of generosity and compassion. In our own more comfortable world the
linkage is more easily forgotten and we forget the connection between
our own compassion and God's. But what does it all mean for us as
21st century Christians?

What it means is that Jesus is reminding us that his way is subversive
– we are not called to part of the status quo but on the edge, and the
way we live is supposed to call the status quo into question. That's
what it always means, when Jesus uses edgy metaphors for what God's
reign is all about. Shrewdness is an advantage, he tells us – be on
the lookout for where God's priorities are breaking in and make sure
that's the side of the equation you are on. He calls us to travel
light – to remember that the blessing of material goods and money
aren't ours to hoard, in the long run – and even more importantly not
to count the debts of others but to forgive generously and love


[1] I am indebted to my New Testament lecturer, Professor Bill Loader,
for this interpretation.