Sunday, September 23, 2007

Shrewd for God

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
Year C, Proper 20: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 23, 2007

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

Shrewd for God

I’d like to begin with a shameless plug. You may have heard that on Saturday, October 20, we’re going to have a special expanded edition of contemplative prayer. I’m going to lead an exploration of the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola, Sixteenth Century mystic, best known as the founder of the Jesuits. I hope you’ll be able to join us because I really believe that Ignatius offers us a spirituality very well suited for our own time.

For me, one of the most helpful parts of Ignatian Spirituality involves the use of the imagination. When reading Scripture, Ignatius encouraged people to imagine themselves right there in the middle of the action – to imagine what the people and places looked like, to hear the sounds and to smell the smells. And then Ignatius urged his followers to reflect on how and what they felt as they placed themselves in the middle of the biblical action.

So, that’s what I tried to do with today’s gospel lesson – with this strange parable told by Jesus. I imagine myself sitting among the disciples with the Pharisees and others hovering in the background. All eyes are on Jesus as he begins another parable. We’ve already heard the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son, so we’re rubbing our hands together in anticipation of another good one from Jesus.

Then he begins telling the story of this manager who is fired by his boss and to protect his future begins to cut the debts of his boss’s debtors. At this point my eyes begin to glaze over – I don’t have much of a head for finance and this story is nowhere near as interesting as the prodigal son. So my mind is drifting, thinking about what to have for lunch, when Jesus snaps me back to attention by saying that the unjust manager is praised by his master for acting shrewdly.

So the manager is praised for ripping off his boss? Does that make any sense?

And then, here comes the kicker – Jesus says “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.”

What?! Even Luke seems to have some trouble with this parable because he ends it with a set of Jesus sayings that sort of relate to the parable but don’t seem to match up exactly. Luke quotes Jesus saying “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Fair enough, but how does that fit with “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.”

This really is shocking! It sure got my attention! Could Jesus be actually encouraging dishonest behavior? Is that possible? Well, as I’ve reflected on Jesus’ words this week it seems to me that we have here one of the rare instances of the gospels capturing Jesus’ sense of humor. Although not much of his humor is found in the gospels, I’ve always thought that in reality Jesus must have been very funny.

Here it seems to me Jesus is being sarcastic, essentially saying – “Go ahead, make friends with people here so they can invite you into their eternal homes.” But, of course, no one here on earth has an eternal home. Instead, in a humorous way (probably a lot funnier in the original Aramaic) Jesus is reminding us of the most important thing – Jesus is reminding us that we should be friends with God so that we will be invited into the eternal home – life with God forever.

OK, so one problem down. But, what about the supposedly crooked manager being praised by his boss for trimming the debts that he was owed. And remember, the boss had fired the manager for squandering his property. Huh? How can this make any sense? Do we praise people for ripping us off? No, of course not.

So what’s this about? Well, first of all we have to admit that we don’t know for sure that the manager actually was fired for just cause. Who knows, maybe the boss was wrong for firing him. Secondly, commentators suggest that it was customary for people like the manager to earn their money by taking a percentage for themselves. So when the manager reduces what these people owe the boss, in reality he’s eliminating his own cut in the hope of making people happy so that he won’t be out on the street when he loses his job. So, he’s not really stealing from the boss and that’s why he’s praised by the boss for his clever thinking.

To me that’s the only way this parable makes any kind of sense. But, what does this story have to do with us here today? Why did Jesus tell this story and why did Luke decide to include this confusing parable in his gospel? After all, Luke could have just left it out.

Luke includes this parable because it offers another way for Jesus to tell us to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Shrewdness usually has a negative connotation, but there’s bad shrewd and then there’s good shrewd. Jesus is telling us to be good shrewd – to be shrewd in our faith life. Jesus is telling us to be shrewd in figuring out how best to serve one another and to serve God. Jesus is telling us to use the same shrewdness that we might use with our investments, our 401ks, our real estate, our career planning – Jesus is telling us to use that same shrewdness to take care of our souls, to take care of one another, so that we can be with God in the one true eternal home.

Jesus is telling us that a life of faith requires us to be shrewd. Jesus is telling us to be shrewd for God.

And that message really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to us. When we look back at the history of the Church over and over we see holy people using great shrewdness in order to build the Kingdom of God here on earth.

I’m told that in two weeks Grace Church will become a real zoo when we remember St. Francis of Assisi. I can’t wait to see all the pets that will be brought here for a blessing, although I’m not so sure about poisonous toads!

Of course, St. Francis is a much-loved saint but there’s a danger that we over sentimentalize him by sticking him out in the birdbath. In reality Francis was very shrewd. In a time when many in the Church were more concerned with worldly power and wealth, Francis chose the exact opposite. Francis believed that it was possible to truly live the gospel life – by imitating Jesus and giving up everything to serve God. Francis helped to reform the Church not through argument or confrontation but by example. And sure enough, while the high and mighty of Francis’ day are all mostly forgotten, Francis’ example of simplicity, faithfulness and generosity continue to inspire the Church.

Francis was shrewd for God.

Closer to our own time we have the example of Martin Luther King, Jr – someone else who can be over sentimentalized. The fact is, Dr. King was very shrewd. Following the example of the Mahatma Gandhi, King chose non-violence not just because he thought he was being true to his Christian faith but because he knew that would be the most effective strategy to achieve the goals of the civil rights movement. Although certainly he felt rage against the injustices faced by his people, he was shrewd enough to know that violence against the racist white authorities would be counter-productive. Instead, of course, all the weapons in the world would have little effect against the sight of thousands of people from all walks of life peacefully protesting.

And of course today Dr. King’s opponents are all mostly forgotten while his example continues to inspire us. Martin Luther King was shrewd for God.

Now, a little closer to home. So far I’ve seen a good bit of shrewdness for God right here at Grace Church. On Monday I had the pleasure of attending the Outreach Committee meeting – what an amazing experience to be part of a serious discussion on how Grace Church can most shrewdly use its resources to serve God by serving our neighbors. We could of course just give away money and congratulate ourselves on our generosity. But instead the group seriously reflected on the best course of action. And sometimes that meant saying no. It was a business-like meeting in the best sense of the word.

Our Outreach Committee is shrewd for God.

Finally, back to Ignatius of Loyola. One of the principles of Ignatian Spirituality is the idea of the magis – which literally translates as “the more.” Very often people interpret Ignatius’ meaning as “what more can I do for God?” And that’s true enough, except you’ll be happy to know that Ignatius doesn’t mean it necessarily as putting a few more things on our already full plate. Instead, Ignatius means “more” in the sense of depth – how can we deepen our commitment to God? How can we serve God and serve others more deeply?

In reality, Ignatius is challenging us to more shrewdly use our resources to build the Kingdom of God here on earth.

And so in today’s Gospel, through this very unusual parable, Jesus is challenging us to learn from the shrewd manager – not to be shrewd for our own benefit, but to be shrewd for God so that we may be invited into God’s eternal home.