Sunday, September 23, 2007

Pentecost 17 - Year C

I read a lot of business books. I find them to be the best source of cultural criticism around. I read them much to the chagrin of my leftier friends and colleagues.

Some books are dry and academic, filled with charts and stats that make my eyes crust over.

Others are the motivational type. Tony Robbins on caffeine pills. These books make my wife roll her eyes in either amusement or bemusement. I can’t tell which.

Most are feet-on-the-pavement practical. Which is the chief reason I read them.

I started reading these books while I was an intern. Which was new for me because I was told that business was about money. Period. And money meant greed. Greed meant oppression. And God wasn’t into greed and oppression. So whatever businesspeople brought to the church table was to be resisted or shunned. At least, that’s what my mentors and professors preached. And I drank the Kool-Aid. I believed unquestioningly.

But suddenly, I wasn’t in a classroom anymore. I wasn’t surrounded by folks who believed what I believed, where we could be as sanctimoniously abstract about the world as we wanted.

Where we could debate the finer points of theology, never letting the messiness of real-world-living interrupt our dissection of a bible verse - in the original Greek, of course.

Where we could pontificate about how sinful the world was – the world being large corporations and certain brands of politicians. Sinners.

The business world and their puppets in Parliament sullied the purity of the church world and were destroying the whole world.

Then I found myself immersed in a church where people expected more than jabbering. Nor were they interested in the self-righteous musings of a snooty-nosed kid who never had a real job. They wanted something more spiritually cavernous than hoity-toity thoughts about God or angry political sloganeering.

They wanted me to DO SOMETHING for the Kingdom. All of a sudden I had programs to develop, meetings to chair, and ministries to oversee. I had people to visit and prayers to pray. And no one was going to hold my hand along the way!

My supervisor then played the best trick – ever - on me. He showed me to my office then disappeared. I didn’t see him for a week. I was on my own. He wanted to see what I would do when no one told me what to do.

So, for a day or two, I sat in my office twiddling my thumbs waiting for the phone to ring, surrounded by my personal library, I look at my shelves and realized that most of these books had appeal only for theology nerds like me. They talked a lot about God but said little about life.

So I wandered into my supervisor’s office and examined his bookshelf. At first blush, I was appalled. He must have been sick the day at seminary where they told us that the business world and the church world are as friendly to each other as Stockwell Day at a Gay Pride parade.

So, I pulled out a couple books on church management and church growth. They must be worth something because my supervisor was an exceptionally effective pastor. I thought I’d start within my comfort zone. And all of these books kept pointing to certain business books and magazines. So I picked up a couple recommended volumes.

The scales fell from my eyes. Suddenly, I knew what I was missing – the practical element to running an organization.

When my supervisor re-appeared the next week, he and other congregational members helped me initiate a bunch of new ministries. But these new books were also a big part of my broader education.

However I couldn’t get my professors’ voices out of my head. But if it was true, like I was told, that business and church mix as well as grape juice and motor oil, then verses 8 and 9 in today’s gospel made my brain ache. It’s the part where Jesus says:

“…for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And 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.”

I read that as saying that the “children of this world” know how to get things done. They don’t just sit around thinking lofty thoughts and praying pious prayers. They’re getting their hands dirty; they’re working the system; they’re making things happen. If they can work so hard for what doesn’t really matter in light of eternity, we, as God’s people, can do the same – or even more.”

Kinda sounds like the ends justify the means, doesn’t it? Dirty money is still money, we might as well put it to clean use for the Kingdom of God. We can shake our puritanical fists at the system or we can work the system for God’s glory. We can be pure and ineffective, or we can jump into the fray and dirty ourselves while doing something worthwhile. Is that what Jesus is saying?

If so, what does that mean for us? Does that mean we should accept lottery money to help solve our accessibility problems? Should we care if the church invests in companies who employ child labour? Should we put an ATM in the lobby for folks who forgot their offering- getting both the offering and the $1.25? Or how about a Coke machine downstairs for the youth who drop in on Friday afternoons? Should all ethical reflection around money be tossed on the compost heap?

But then again, those things aren’t dishonest. Ethically ambiguous, maybe. Morally unacceptable, perhaps. But dishonest? No. Not like the dishonesty of the shrewd manager.

Let me say that this passage rubs me like a cheese-grater on sunburned skin. I guess I still hear my professors’ voices in my head.

3 years ago when this passage last came up I began my sermon by saying that “NO ONE really knows what this passage means.” I talked about how no two preachers interpret this passage the same way. All my bible commentaries point me in different directions. My colleagues are all taking divergent paths in their sermons, ending up in completely different places.

Even the different bible translations have a different spin on this parable. One bible calls this story the parable of the “Unjust Steward.” Yet another calls it: the “Shrewd Manager.” Another says he was “dishonest.”

Well, was this guy “unjust,” “dishonest,” or was he “shrewd”? Or are they suggesting that shrewdness requires a little tampering with the scales, some creative accounting, or blatant wrongdoing?

That can’t be what Jesus means, can it?

After my sermon, three years ago, no less then four of you came to me with what you were CERTAIN this passage meant. And again, I heard four distinct interpretations.

That was three years ago. This year I’m no closer to unlocking this passage.

What we have is a guy who really likes his job and wants to keep it. Or at least to clear a smooth exit for himself. So he goes to each of his clients and takes an axe to their invoices. It looks like he’s more interested in keeping these guys as customers then in keeping his boss happy. Maybe he wants to strike out on his own since he knows that a pink slip is waiting in his mailbox when he gets back to the office.

But when his boss finds out what the manager has done, the pink slip becomes a promotion. Apparently, the boss liked the way his manager played the game. A weird reaction, isn’t it? Or as one commentator put it, “ethically reprehensible.”

The punch line to this story makes even less sense, “You can’t serve God and money.” Especially after the story he just told.

So, which is it Jesus, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” or “You can’t serve God and money”? You can’t have it both ways.

Unless Jesus is saying to make friends with money but don’t let it become your master. Be the manager, not the boss. Work the system. Don’t let it work you.

Good luck. Given our human appetite for wealth it sounds like Jesus is setting us up for failure. We have to live in the real world, where our messy hands leave a grimy film on the purity of God’s ethical demands.

But maybe that’s the point that Jesus was trying to make. Perhaps Jesus is telling us in a round about way that there is no clear division between clean and unclean, between good and evil, between comedy and tragedy. Just as there is no such thing as clean money there is also no such things as a pure person. We are mixed both with the blood of Jesus which declares us clean, and the blood of Adam and Eve which announces us broken and sinful. We are, as one writer puts, “citizens of heaven and tax-payers on earth. It’s no excuse for the trouble we get into, but it does explain our spotty record.”

So what does this story mean? I still don’t know. I’m no farther ahead than I was three years ago. But what I do know is this: the world will behave shrewdly and with calculation. Perhaps Jesus is asking us to make the best of a bad situation by being shrewd and calculating ourselves, not worrying about following every rule, but daring to colour outside the lines, knowing we aren’t saints, forgiven stewards trying to figure out how to live faithfully as Jesus’ followers, serving one master who is merciful and loving and in who’s name we are saved - and living with another master who asks us to be shrewd and calculating. And all we can do is ask for the wisdom to tell which one is which.



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