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A Dastardly Character, a Confusing Parable: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

As many folks here know, one of the things I like to do is look at movies through the lens of our faith, hence the monthly or so movie discussions that our church hosts on the internet. And before I came to St. Andrew’s Leslie and I hosted movie nights at our old church. There was one time when I found out that one particular person had been scandalized by one of my movie choices, because there was some colourful language and ‘morally complex’ situations. Never-mind that the movie was a springboard for really deep conversations amongst participants (about mortality, and friendship, and life’s purpose). But the offended person wrote me off for months, if not longer.

And that experience comes to mind today because the parable that Jesus taught in the Gospel we just heard should be offensive to us. On the surface it’s teaching us some very morally-suspect lessons. If we want an unambiguously good character, we’re not going to get it here. If we want an easy lesson, we’re not going to get it here. If we want sparkling clear motives and actions, we will not find them here. If we want a parable that is easy for you to comprehend, or for a preacher to explain, we’ve come to the wrong place.

The Gospel explains the parable, or tries to, and does so five times in verses 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13. One expert on the Gospels has described it as “scattered notes for possible homilies.”* So following his lead. I could give a sermon where the lesson is about using “dishonest wealth” to get into “eternal homes.” Or about being faithful in small things, so to prove we’ll be faithful in bigger things. (Kind of like the parable of the talents, where the good servants invest what they’re given, but the bad one buries his single talent in the ground.) Or, similar to the last idea, being good with “dishonest” (not little) things, to prove your worthiness for “true” things. Or managing other people’s things (or does it mean God’s things?) to show we are trustworthy enough to be given our own things. Or lastly, instead of one thing being a test for bigger or better things, there’s the homily that could be written about how there is a choice before us of two masters: God and wealth; and we have to choose.

All of those possible homilies could be good and helpful. Though I’m not sure if any would perfectly solve or even reflect the parable. But that is helpful in itself: to remind ourselves that the parables, and the Gospels, and the Bible, are meant to challenge and stretch us. To fire up our imaginations, not give us easy answers or universal principles. And this applies throughout the scriptures: there are times when the world reflected in the Bible is very different from our own. Nevertheless, it is not just ‘any’ book, and it finds a way to speak to us, even if there will be times when we’re scandalized by some of the characters, or the language, or the violence, or whatever else. If one of those explaining verses at the end is about being faithful with what belongs to another, then perhaps in some sense the scriptures fall into this category. Sure, sure, I will affirm that they are ‘ours,’ in that we are part of the living tradition that inherits and passes them along. But there is always that element of ‘otherness’ to them. And so we approach them with humility, but also courage and (to use language from the parable), shrewdness.

Shrewdness seems to be one of the main themes of the parable, and one of the funny things about it. “And 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.” The manager had been “squandering” the owner’s property. (Which is the same word used for the prodigal son, who squandered the inheritance he’d demanded.) So it’s curious when the owner ends up congratulating the manager for squandering more of the property by cancelling part of the debts of the two clients we hear about.

He’s being reckless with the owner’s wealth, in order to secure a place to stay after what will almost certainly be a firing. But we might remember that recklessness in one form or another tends to come up in the parables. The sower that threw seed around with reckless abandon. The shepherd that recklessly leaves the 99 sheep behind to look for the lost one. Or the woman that turns her house upside down to find the lost coin. Some interpreters think that in reducing the debts of the clients, the manager is cancelling out the interest. Or maybe the steward’s own commission — though none of this is totally clear in the parable itself, so we have to be tentative. But whatever the case, the manager is acting shrewdly, wisely, in his own best interest. He’s dealing with the ‘stuff of this world’ in a ‘non-attached’ way (to borrow a concept from the Buddhists). He recognizes that he is in the midst of a crisis, and acts decisively. And Jesus seems to want to see more of this shrewdness in his followers.

One of the dilemmas in our own age is that we are not masters of our own lives, at least not fully. We often feel unheard by our leaders. Speaking out can get us in trouble. Our lives are entangled in webs of technology, bureaucracy, and finance. If you spend any significant time on the internet (and for some people, most of our lives are mediated through the computer or cellphone screen), sophisticated artificial intelligence curates what it is that we see online, making suggestions about what we consider, what we consume, and what commentators to listen to. So in a roundabout way we come to that last explanation: “you cannot serve two masters.” Like the wily steward in the parable who realizes that for his own wellbeing, less needs to go to absentee overlord, we may well be in a similar situation, where we need to use our God-given intelligence and wisdom to secure our, and our planet’s, future flourishing.

So those are just a few thoughts arising from probably the most confounding of the parables. Through it we are challenged to grow in our faithful use of ‘dishonest’ or ‘everyday’ or ‘little’ things, even using them in such a way that it serves a higher purpose. We can grow in our decisiveness, our action, and our wisdom. Even recklessly pursuing the good things that God has surrounded us with, and serving the common good — love of God and love of neighbour — and not the cruel, absentee landlords like the owner in the parable.

Let us pray.

O God,
you are rich in love for your people:

show us the treasure that endures
when we are tempted by greed,
call us back into your service

and entrust us with the wealth that never fails.
We ask this through our true Master,
our Jesus Christ. Amen.

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Volume 5: The Parables 209.