by Geoffrey Lentz
1Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10“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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
– Luke 16:1-13 (NRSV)
Presented 9/19/04-Helena United Methodist Church, Helena, North Carolina
Three terrified young people sit in a boardroom in a New York City skyscraper. They are awaiting a decision from one of the richest men in the world. They have been managing his company for the week-or more often than not, mismanaging his company. He singles one of them out—-“You’re fired!” he decrees as he gives his famous cobra hand-gesture. I imagine that all of us are somewhat familiar with this scene in America’s currently most watched TV show-The Apprentice.
This scene is not far off from our gospel lesson today. This is probably Jesus’ most controversial parable. As preachers and teachers have read this scripture throughout the centuries, we have wanted to clean it up and sanitize it. “Surely, this is not the way Jesus told it”, we say to ourselves, “it must mean something else.” We try to apologize for Jesus and explain his message away. We dress up our Jesus in nice clothes-give him some stage makeup, nice bright white teeth, and perfectly styled hair that doesn’t move when the wind blows. The Jesus in our minds is a nice Jesus of Children’s Sunday School class, not the Jesus that turned over the money tables in the temple, not the Jesus that two weeks ago in our scripture reading told us to “hate our family” in comparison to our love for God and the church. No our Jesus is a porcelain doll Jesus-that we can play with when we want to and put back on the shelf. Our Jesus is a Hollywood Jesus-that has all the glamour of a superstar. Our Jesus is a Hallmark Jesus-that gives us sweet syrupy messages to make us feel better. That is why it is so difficult to understand this text. How could our Jesus whom we have so carefully domesticated tell a story as scandalous as this?
Clarence Jordan, the founder of the Koinonia Community in Georgia once said that all of Jesus’ parables are like Trojan horses. If we don’t look closely-all we see is a beautiful safe horse, but if we open up the gates of our hearts and let that Trojan horse within the walls of our lives–bam we are under attach. If that is true of all Jesus’ parables, then it is particularly true of this one.
In order to see this story with new eyes, let’s think of the scripture in a different context. I am going to tell you Jesus’ parable-but the names and faces have been changed to protect the innocent or guilty rather. There was a rich man named Donald Trump. He hired for himself a manager to help run one of his many companies. This manager mismanaged millions of Trump’s dollars and properties. Upon hearing this information, Trump invites the manager into “the boardroom”. There, the manager sits trembling, as Trump demands to hear his account of what happened. “You’re fired!!!” Trump asserts as he gives the cobra signal. Trump then demands that the manager give an accounting or audit of the present situation. As the manger is preparing the files for Trump he thinks to himself-“What am I going to do? I am not strong enough to dig ditches, and I am too ashamed to beg for hand outs.” Then he comes up with a solution. He lets all of Trumps debtors off the hook. Slashing prices-lowering interest rates-cutting and eliminating Trumps profits. “You owe Trump a million dollars—quick let’s change it to 500,000. It’s a half off sell today. And you-you owe Trump 100,000 dollars-hurry up and make it 80,000. The mis-manger goes though the whole ledger “cooking the books”. The story gives us the clue that he is doing this in order to shrewdly secure a job for himself later-in order to make friends and influence people-not to mention get back at the master. All these people that he has let off the hook now owe him. Surely he can cash in with them after his two-week notice has expired.
Wow, what a weird story. The mis-manger has out trumped The Trump. Tricked Trump at his own game of greed. Now we all know what follows-don’t we. The Trump gets angry and the manager goes to Jail and Jesus tells us all to be nice people-and to never color outside the lines-always do what is right. Wrong——-that is what we wish that it said-because that is so much easier to deal with—especially when we white middle-class Americans are the rich managers of the world. But that is not the way Jesus tells the story.
Instead the Trump calls the manager back into the “boardroom” and says-“Wow I am impressed—you really have a keen business sense. You’re hired.” Jesus then tells us that “the children of this world are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Jesus does the unthinkable. He tells us Christians to be like the shrewd manager. He calls us to be shrewd in using all of our resources in creative ways. Eugene Peterson paraphrases the end of this story this way:
Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way-but for what is right-using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.
Jesus is telling us that we cannot just get by on good behavior. Jesus is telling us to follow the example of the Enron executives using all our skills to get by-to follow the lead of Martha Stewart who illegally swindled her own employees and company-and somehow is still going to be able to keep her company afloat during her relatively short prison stay. All of these people are able to think outside the box. To color outside the lines. Jesus is not asking us to be dishonest like the manager or Enron executives or Martha Stewart, but to be as creative-as shrewd as they are. Although often, the gospel calls us to actions that to the world seem strange or maybe immoral. Jesus effectively says-“Why is it that all the shrewdest and creative people are in the world doing wrong and not in the church doing right.” Why is it that we think that as “children of light” we are never to go against the status quo? Why is it that our politicians on both sides of the isle are able to sway the Nation with words filled with lies, but our churches can’t even sway our communities with preaching the ultimate Truth? Jesus is calling us to put our heads together to come up with creative and innovative ideas to help the Kingdom of God grow. As Luke reminds us—our goal as Christians is different from the world’s goals. We can’t serve both God and money. We can’t serve both God and our own self-interest. As Christians, Jesus is calling us to put all of our shrewdest brain-power behind serving God and neighbor not ourselves.
What might this Christian shrewdness look like? Maybe it would look like Clarence Jordan’s creative vision of a counter-cultural community in which poor and rich, black and white can live together sharing their resources in order to faithfully display the gospel of Christ in the middle of rural Georgia in the heart of a KKK stronghold. The world and even people claiming to be Christians fought against his strange idea-fired bullet rounds through his house threatening his children, but his shrewd creative community challenged and changed the world. But he had to color outside the lines-think outside the box.
Maybe this Christian shrewdness would look like the self-made millionaire, Millard Fulton. He was a work-aholic. He had been extremely shrewd in self-serving-business practices, not all of which were ethical. One day in November 1965, his wife Linda told him that she was going to leave him. In a last ditch effort, he took off work, packed his wife and kids in the car and headed to Florida. On the way, he stopped in Georgia to visit some friends living in the Koinonia Christian Community-he ended up staying a month. His life was changed-his family saved-he put his shrewdness to good use and started one of the most successful ministries in America-Habitat for Humanity. Now he uses his money and life as a tool to help cut prices and interest rates-just like the man in the story. He helps those deep in debt-deserving or not-to own their own home. The consequences have been dramatic-thousands of people lifted out of poverty, but he had to color outside the lines-think outside the box.
Maybe it looks like the United Methodist Church’s boycott of Taco Bell and Mt. Olive Pickles by using shrewd business sense to change labor practices that we believe are contrary to the gospel. Just this week Mt. Olive announced a change in labor practices. The boycott of Mt. Olive is over. But we had to color outside the lines-think outside the box.
Maybe it looks like having free pizza at youth group to draw young people to hear the gospel -even if it looks like bribery.
Maybe it looks like the churches of Person County pulling together all of our resources to make sure that there are no mouths going hungry, no people without beds to sleep in or roofs over their head.
Maybe it looks like new creative evangelism ideas—new ways to invite people to join the kingdom-new ways to teach Sunday school. Hopefully, our New Beginnings initiative is a good start on Christian ingenuity.
Maybe Christian shrewdness is best exemplified by our Savior who creatively used all the resources available-even his own life as a ransom for all our sins as the Epistle lesson proclaims—for each and every one of us-even though we did not deserve it. After all, this strategy of the cross is very strange to the world systems. But this “foolishness of the cross” as Paul calls it is our door to salvation.
Jesus calls us to “shrewd Christian living”. It is time for the church to start thinking outside the box that we have put God in. God has called us not to give just 10% of our income to the church, but to realize that all that we own is a tool to advance the kingdom. God has called us not to give just one or two hours a week in worship and Sunday school, but to see all of our time as a tool to advance the kingdom. Can the church survive the materialist-self-driven-self-centered world that we are in? I hope and believe so. As Christians, we are no longer on the world’s payroll-the world has given us the cobra. It is up to us to shrewdly live out God’s shrewd grace in the world as we dare to think outside the box and color outside the lines.
Geoffrey Douglas Lentz, a native of Pensacola, Florida is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and associate pastor of First United Methodist Church in his home town. He and his wife, Liz, have two children, Luke and Eliza. Geoffrey was a student pastor in North Carolina where he presented this sermon.