Sunday, September 23, 2007

it concentrates his mind

Pentecost 17, Proper 20, Year C
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 or Amos 8:4-7 * Ps 79:1-9 or 113 * I Timothy 2:1-7 * Luke 16:1-13

Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. – Dr. Johnson

Today’s gospel lesson can be divided into a parable, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager (v. 1-8a), five moral lessons (vv. 8b, 9, 10, 11, and12) and an after-thought (v. 13).

First, we have the story of the shrewd manager who, called onto the carpet, turns ill-gotten gain to good account.

Then we have five points:

1. The children of this age – the worldly – are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the ‘godly’ – the children of light.

“Be wise as serpents” – you don’t have to be a snake, but “gentle as doves” does not mean foolish dependence.

2. Use worldly wealth to prepare a place for yourself where it really matters – in the eternal dwelling-places of the kingdom of God.

3. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much, and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.

Remember the story of Abraham Lincoln walking for miles to return a debt of maybe $5? You can trust a man like that – goes the moral – with the welfare of the nation.

4. If then you have not been faithful with worldly wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches – the riches of heaven?

5. If you have not been faithful with what belongs to another – the wealth that belongs to this world, who will give you what is your own – your inheritance in the kingdom of God?

Each of these five proverbs offers a moral to the story, a lesson to be learned about God and material prosperity.

Then, in the final verse, we must choose between two masters: you cannot serve God and wealth.

Who do you identify with in this story?
Who would you rather identify with?

It was not unusual in Roman Palestine to see large tenanted farms with absentee owners, run for a profit, or to see poor farmers, crushed by debt, turned out of their homes, living by the roadside or ditch, in a shanty or shelter-less. Or to see them hanging on to the outskirts of a city, hoping to find work, or food, or shelter, or pity, there.

The Talmud records the sight of a once-proud lady of quality, broken to sudden poverty, following the horses of Roman soldiers hoping to pick grains out of their dung to get something to eat.

What if you were a manager for an absentee landlord, and the owner got wind of your mishandling of his holdings? What would you do if you knew you were about to be fired? And it was time to turn in your accounts? Knowing you were at the end of your management career, and knowing that back at corporate headquarters they would shed no tears over your fate, what would you do?

When you are about to be fired, you begin to wonder who your real friends are.

The shrewd steward – or manager – realizing that the people around him, his landlord’s debtors, whom he has been squeezing for payment, are the very people who can help him out: who can save him from living on the streets. Does he suddenly begin to see them – and himself – with new eyes?

“Here is the note that you signed – give yourself a big discount.” Now, whether that new note says 50 or 80, and whether it is the owner’s profit or the manager’s commission that is cut, it is too late to try to collect the older, larger debt. The evidence has been destroyed: shredded, erased from the tape, or deleted.

The steward’s action is a relief to the debtors, and they won’t volunteer to pay more. Very likely some of them were being pushed to the edge – as all over the world, from Roman times to modern times, small holders, tenants, sharecroppers, living on the edge of starvation, are easily pushed into debt, debt they cannot repay, and lose their land and their livelihood.

Out of gratitude – this debt relief may mean, to a small farmer, the difference between a lean winter and a starving one – just maybe they’ll take this manager in. He has decided, now that he can no longer identify with the bosses, to make up to the masses, the ordinary working people.

He has undergone a worldly sort of conversion, hasn’t he?

What welcome he got we don’t know. We don’t know if the master forgave him, either. We do know that the master praised him, for in his worldly way, the soon-to-be-ex steward was wise. Resourceful. He had used what he had, his position and the wealth at his momentary disposal, to make himself as welcome as possible in the dwellings of his neighbors.

Should we not be shrewd too? The gospel exhorts us to serve God, not gain – but here it shows us how even ill-gotten gain can be turned to good account.

The steward, whose mind had been wonderfully concentrated by the news he was about to lose his job, shows remarkable resourcefulness in making the best of a desperate situation. Confronting the simple and immediate need to have a roof over his head once his master turned him out into the street, he responded with real ingenuity.

The challenge for us is, when we turn our attention to the true master, God, and prepare for the lasting dwelling-places, in his kingdom, to be as resourceful as the shrewd manager.

Sources & Inspirations

The Lessons Appointed for Use on the Sunday closest to September 21 (Proper 20 - Year C - RCL): Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

The Lectionary Page

Mary H. Schertz, “Living by the Word: Shrewd steward”, The Christian Century, September 4, 2007, Vol. 124, No. 18, p. 19.

Jennifer Copeland, “Living by the Word: Shrewed investment”, The Christian Century, September 7, 2004,

Barbara Crafton, “Your Money or Your Love”, September 21, 2007, The Geranium Farm

Herbert O'Driscoll, The Word Today: Reflections on the Readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3 (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2001), p. 112, 115-116.

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Life Of Johnson, Vol. 3, by Boswell, Edited by Birkbeck Hill

Gildas Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine, First Three Centuries C.E. (University of California Press, 1990)

Oremus Bible Browser

The Famine Museum at Strokestown Park

Sharon H. Ringe, Luke. Westminster Bible Companion (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005)

Labels: The Parable of the Dishonest Manager, The Parable of the Unjust Steward, The Parable of the Shrewd Steward, The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

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.

Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

Notes for a sermon to be given at St. John's, Lakeport, California,
September 23, 2007.

No comments: