In my former life as a teacher, I often encountered pupils who found it difficult to grasp the ideas I was trying to get across. Notably when I tried to differentiate between diffusion and osmosis. It’s a difficult concept but relax, I am not going to give you a biology lesson. Their responses ranged from “I don’t understand, Miss” through, “I don’t get it, Miss” to “This is doing my head in, Miss”. I know how they felt.
When I first looked at our readings for today, I thought “O Good, the gospel of Luke. It will be a nice parable. But Oh no. A very difficult piece –and when I read the other passages it did not get much better. I didn’t get it. It was doing my head in.
I am sure Dave had no ulterior motives when he put me down to preach today but it would have been so much easier last week. The parable of the lost sheep. Oh I could have managed that. I can easily relate to losing something: car keys or mobile phone, and know only too well the joy of finding them. I could have relished developing that theme and it would have had a really personal feel.
But this parable – a tale of devious people acting in ways that we wouldn’t expect Jesus to be using as examples n his teaching, I can’t really relate to that. My only consolation is that in my research I came across the phrase: “this is the most difficult parable of Jesus” so many times. At least I am not alone in finding this parable challenging.
I found lots of reasons not to start writing this sermon, I even did some ironing – it was that bad. I made trifle for the Thursday lunch and used my cold as another reason for not getting on with it. All excuses to put off the moment of truth.
I mentioned to friends at Mothers’ Union that I was finding it difficult and there was a variety of response: Oh change the reading, no one will know; another said you’ll get a Eureka moment – you’ll be alright. I didn’t – and I am not. And one person pulled me up short: perhaps you are meant to tackle this. Keep going! I am not sure about that but I committed the sermon to God – and prayed.
There comes a point however, when you just have to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
So let’s look at the parable. A rich man, who is probably an absentee landlord, hears that his manager is squandering his property and calls him to account. And then he sacks him. In today’s world he would have been told to leave his desk immediately, put his personal belongings into a black plastic sack – and go. Immediate removal from the post. But it appears that this manager still had time to take action.
He realises that his life has taken a sharp turn for the worse, no job, no income, possibly no home. He realises that he cannot do manual labour and his pride will not let him beg. And then, like Baldrick, he comes up with a cunning plan.
At that time Jews were forbidden to lend money and take interest but often landowners would let out fields to tenants who would then repay them with goods, rather than money, with the goods exceeding what was really due, the difference being like interest. The landowner in our story was probably using this scheme to get money from his tenants.
The manager calls all the people who were in debt to the landlord and looks at their bills and reduces them. For the man who owed a hundred measures of oil he reduced it to 50, to the man who owed a hundred measures of wheat he told him to reduce it to 80. In both cases a significant percentage reduction. Probably bringing the amount down to what the people really owed.
Immediately the manager had made friends. Who wouldn’t value someone who had just saved them vast amounts of money. They must have been overjoyed. The manager would certainly be welcome in their houses. So now the manager’s future was much more certain, he had friends, people who would give him work, welcome him into their houses, his network was up and running. All thanks to some dodgy dealing.
Cooking the books
And his boss finds out what he has done and – wait for it – he praises him! Praises his manager for cooking the books and defrauding him of his income.
Well, perhaps he wouldn’t have a lot of choice if he had been involved in dubious practices himself.
All of the commentators I’ve read, agree that the landowner was not praising the dubious business dealings but rather applauding the manager for finding a way out of his difficulties. He didn’t just sit back and let events override him but thought out a plan to improve his situation. He, in that current phrase, “thought outside the box” and came up with a solution. The landlord praises his wisdom and determination.
Immediately after this statement, we are told that the children of this world are wiser than the children of light when it comes to dealing with their own generation. The children of light, Christ’s followers, are encouraged to use this stuff, money, to make friends. Are we really being told to buy friendship? I don’t think so, but we are encouraged instead of hoarding land and wealth, to use our resources, including money, wisely in reaching out to others – to non believers. To be as ardent in developing our own faith and reaching out to others as the people of the world are in acquiring wealth.
Trust with the small things
At last in the final words of our gospel reading there is something I can really understand easily. A strong comment that if we cannot be trusted with small things then we certainly cannot be trusted with larger things. I think that is self-evident. Honesty, faithfulness, trust if not there in the small things of our lives will not be there in the big ones.
And finally there is that well known statement that no man can serve two masters. In the peasant economy at the time of Jesus it would be very difficult for a servant to serve two masters. The whole of their time, would be devoted to meeting the needs of their master. Nowadays people do have two jobs, for many it is essential in order to have sufficient funds to meet the expenses of everyday living. But the message is clear, we are not to spend so much time concerned with worldly things that we cannot find time for God. Being a Christian is not a part-time occupation. The values implicit in following Jesus must be reflected in all our activities.
Outside the box
So what has this passage to say to us today. It is certainly not promoting illegal financial and business practice. That would run counter to the two great commandments. But perhaps, like the manager, when we find ourselves in a difficult or new situation we have to think outside the box to find a new solution. This can apply equally to our church life.
In today’s world the church is passing through difficult times and frequently has to reassess what matters and what doesn’t. The decline in church attendance, the increasing secularisation of marriage and bereavement mean we have less opportunity to reach out to others. Perhaps we need to think outside the box, reach out in different ways in friendship across traditional barriers to bring the gospel of hope to all. Perhaps we need to use our resources imaginatively to encourage others. For if we do not, then the message of love, hope and salvation which we are tasked to spread, will be lost.
Trust and persevere
I don’t know if I have fully-understood or conveyed the meaning of today’s reading but I know that I have been challenged. I have learned something from my studies, and I think my friend who encouraged me to keep going was right.
In our lives, both secular and Christian, we will encounter difficulties, find things we do not understand, things which worry us. But if we trust in God and persevere we can come through them.
In the week to come, may we use our imaginations and our resources, to further God’s kingdom.
‘The shrewd manager’ was preached by Margery Spencer at St John with St Mark on 22nd September 2019. It’s based on Luke 16: 1-13. For Margery’s earlier sermon, on possessions, please press here. For more by Margery please follow this link.