Jesus was a storyteller. For as long as this story has been read, through the many cultures and times from which it has been listened to, people wrestle with Jesus, praising the dishonesty, and shrewdness of our main character.
Listening to this story for the manyeth times I have heard it, I seem to always ask the same questions. In what way was the manager squandering the rich man’s property? Was he being a slacker and failing to collect the due rents and bills the tenants and merchants owed to the landowner? So hearing the landowner was about to call in his accounts, gathered together what he could so he at least had something to give to the wealthy master?
Or was this manager’s practice akin to that of notorious tax collectors in the days of Jesus? Did he inflate the rents owed to the landowner in order to have more for himself? Perhaps word had reached the distant landlord that his tenants were growing angry because of the exorbitant rises in rent and interest. So the manager was guilty of misrepresenting the landlord and creating an environment of discontent and resentment, while growing rich at everyone else’s expense.
In English literature we could find a similar story in the tale of Robin Hood where Prince John has been left to manage the realm of his brother, King Richard (has a nice ring to it), while Richard is away leading the crusades. The story tells us that in his brother’s absence, Prince John rules with a greedy and oppressive hand requiring Robin Hood to form a line of resistance on behalf of the masses.
Another question is why is this fellow so freaked out by what will happen after his dismissal if he does not make real friends real fast? Why does he imagine a life of digging ditches and begging after being demoted from his prestigious position? And how does the plan described in the story actually work? The cultural exposition of the story suggests that it would be understood by the listeners, the shrewd manager is the only person in the region who is aware of his pending dismissal, remember he was summoned to the far away place to receive the news. Unaware of the manager’s predicament, the tenants do not imagine the manager reducing the debts on his own, but only on bequest of the landlord. A groundswell of goodwill sweeps across the land similar to all of our responses if we went to the fuel pumps tomorrow and the sign said 1.20/gallon.
When the landlord arrives he arrives to a restored environment of goodwill and peace between he and his tenants. Furthermore, the shrewd manager is relying upon the landowner’s discretion to keep the shrewd manager’s secret that it was not benevolence of the landowner that cut the rates but the shrewd and desperate attempt by the manager. The landlord must now dismiss this shrewd dude quietly without public notice and display or risk greater chaos and discontent within the region.
The manager now has some chance to carve out a second career other than digging ditches and begging in the land as opposed to being exposed as an irresponsible or greedy and corrupt scoundrel. Unlike our own culture affirming upward mobility and ambition, it was taboo to assume any other place than what you were granted at birth. If a person attempted to raise his place in the community and then like this manager, “lost that place.” They did not simply fall back into his place amongst family and community, but was despised and ostracized for his “shameless” attempt of elevating himself in the community and reduced to a life of begging and hard labor.
So why does Jesus redeem this guy? Not only did he behave dishonestly, he got away with it! It would be like prince John avoiding being hated by the masses. That does not satisfy our desire for justice and recompense.
My own take on this very familiar story is that I relate with this fellow and I imagine that most if not all of us do. Who has not come to the place in their life when they must push the “OH SHOOT” button. (I said shoot because Ron harper counseled me not to say my original word in church). The story features a manager who began to behave either selfishly and greedily or slovenly taking advantage of the perceived great distance between himself and the master.
In the men’s group this past Wednesday the topic of us all being nearer to the end of our life naturally and dramatically changes the perspectives we once held when we were younger, and how so much life was missed or squandered or mismanaged, because the end of life SEEMED so far away. The elder years bring a value and appreciation to each and everyday and moment and person in life that was simply lost to us when we were younger and reckless.
The story also presents the philosophy or theology that Jesus implied in many of his stories, so we can assume it was what he believed — that all we have in life we have inherited. It has been entrusted to us. Gifted to us to steward, to invest, to cultivate, to nurture, to cherish, to give it forward, to appreciate but not to devour or possess. A right way to live is to live in thanksgiving and gracious accountability to the ONE from whom all move, breathe, and have their being. The joy and meaning in life is not found in the stuff itself, but in the healthy and intimate relationship with the giver and creator of all things good and beautiful. This way of looking at life can be traced back centuries before the time of Jesus in Jewish wisdom and spirituality. It is also the philosophy that emerges from the east through Buddhism. Those who attach the value and love of life to material acquisition and position will never find the treasures and peace in the divine. This is the calamitous condition of the manager. He ceased acting on behalf or in relationship with master and instead acted on behalf of self-interest or the lack of accountability. This is where we all wind up at some point in our life. We take possession of our life, or fail to value the gift of life, and all that is in it and we hoard or squander so much. We come to the place where we too must push the “OH Shoot!” button. And do what this manager did to earn the storyteller’s affirmation. He began acting in a manner that reflected the kindness, compassion, benevolence, and mercy of the master. He also acted with a mind upon living in community with all of his neighbors instead of taking advantage of his position as manager for personal and selfish advantage.
And the final nugget of wisdom attached to this story is how a wise and faithful person winds up with more placed under her care. She applies the same value, accountability, and attention to small means as she would to great means. Too many of us mismanage the little we have while believing we should have or deserve more. In our intial budget meeting this past Tuesday Phil Weaver was at the table and I heard him say, “I take care of the nickels and dimes and the dollars take care of themselves.” In the light of this story and the ancient wisdom attached to it, I found myself affirming Phil’s passing thought on resource management and stewardship. Being one like so many others who wait till the fives and tens roll in before we care about the nickels and dimes. As we enter our shared time of reflecting upon our household and communal stewardship we can begin with a re-evaluation of the precious and valuable little we have and an honest examination of our attitude and faithful care of it. Amen