“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.” This is the explanation Jesus gives for what can only be described as the strangest parable he ever told. Eugene Peterson calls parables “narrative time bombs” because their meaning explodes forth long after the story is told. Some two-thousand years later, Biblical scholars are still waiting for the parable of the unjust or shrewd steward to crack open and share its wisdom because, on the surface, it makes no sense.
How on earth can Jesus tell a story that lifts up lying, cheating, and stealing as worthy virtues? It is just plain wrong, and so most of my “go-to” resources went with an Old Testament lesson this week, better ignore this text than get caught up in a trap of your own making. But that is just plan weak. If we ignored all the difficult texts in Scripture, there would be nothing left to read.
And honestly, how hard can the text really be? Jesus himself interprets the parable immediately, he blows up the time bomb before it even hits the ground. I tend to think that the explanation should be read in two parts, so let's look at them broken apart.
Immediately after finishing the parable, Jesus says to his disciples, “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Shrewd is a particularly troubling word, one that we don't use much anymore. In my experience, shrewd carries a negative connotation, as if a person who acts shrewdly is one who outsmarts another to take away their money or their power. Foxes are shrewd. I'm not exactly sure, though, why it gets such a bum rap. The Greek word that Luke uses here is phronimos which is used by New Testament authors to mean “the quality of one's thinking resulting from insight” Synonyms include wise, intelligent, and sensible. What Jesus seems to be saying is that children of the world are wiser in their dealings with each other than are the children of the light. And, my friends, I'm afraid that statement is just as true today as it was two-thousand years ago.
In my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to study the shrewdest of all disciplines, Marketing Research, “the systematic and objective process of generating information to aid in making marketing decisions.” Systematic and objective... wise, intelligent, and sensible sounding enough. In that class we studied all sorts of marketing research techniques; the survey, the focus group, the experiment, the test market, and the most shrewd of all, observational information gathering. Consider, for a moment, that Winn-Dixie card on your key chain. Why do you have it? To get cheaper groceries, right? Of course, but why did Winn-Dixie give it to you? To give you discounts on your groceries? Absolutely not. To avoid giving discounts to someone too lazy to get the card or someone who lost their card or who can't remember their phone number from 3 houses and 5 years ago? An added perk, for sure, but not the main reason. The real reason Winn-Dixie gave you that card so that they could observe you. AHHHHH – how shrewd. Every swipe of that bar-code dumps every purchase you make into a database; a database shared by Winn-Dixie and probably Rite-Aid and Petsmart and maybe even the Foley Public Library. They do this because they know the best way to find out about your purchasing habits is to not let you know that you are being observed. Otherwise you might not use the card when you buy that second bottle of wine, the extra bag of chips, the play-do you didn't give to the kids because you had too much fun with it, or some other unmentionable items. Winn-Dixie gets to know you and your purchase making decisions through shrewd planning and wise execution. Oh, if only the Church would be so wise.
How do we get to know someone? Well, before the service we have an unidentified Vestry person (good thing everybody in the world knows what vestry means) in the Narthex (Another unintelligible word meaning the area just inside one of our four possible entryways) waiting to shake your hand and welcome you. After the service there is a guy in a dress and the still unidentified vestry person waiting to say “hello,” while a greeter stands next to a tiny table with a precariously placed notebook ready to take your name, address, and email if you make it that far and don't cause the book to fall the floor with a crash. We sincerely hope you will join us for breakfast or coffee hour, but by then you've made up your mind about us before we've even shown you our greatest talent, eating. If you did sign the book, you'll get a letter thanking you for joining us and inviting you to get to know us better, but as any marketing researcher will tell you, everything we've done to get to know you by that point has changed you in some way. Heisenburg's uncertainty principle states clearly that “to observe is to disturb.”
The children of this age are most certainly shrewder with this generation than children of the light, and it has nothing to do with getting after your money. What if the story of the shrewd manager has nothing to do with money and everything to do with how we reach out with the Gospel of Jesus, the Good News of God in Christ? What then does it look like for the children of the light, that is to say, you and me, to act shrewdly? At our meeting on Wednesday, Dr. Lawrence, principal at Foley Elementary gave a great vision. “What you are doing [in volunteering at the school] is ministry. You don't have a Bible in front of you. You aren't handing out tracts. You aren't praying with students, but you are creating relationships. And then, when that kid sees you at Wal*Mart or in the park and runs up to you arms wide open saying 'Hi, Miss Karla!' You have an opening, a chance to meet their parents and say, 'I volunteer at the school with my Church, St. Paul's Episcopal here in Foley, we'd love for you to check us out some Sunday.' You already have their trust because their child knows you and loves you; the relationship has already begun.” That, my friends, is shrewd. The lesson we learn from Jesus in this parable is that it doesn't matter if your motivation is to save souls, teach children, make yourself feel good, or by some crazy kharmic blunder help you odds at winning the jackpot in Biloxi – God will glorify himself by way of your developing relationships. So whether it is at Foley Elementary School or the Foley Women's Club or the Bowling Alley or Big Daddy's, the key is to tend to and develop relationships.
Which brings us to the second part of Jesus' explanation, “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.” The sad truth here is that all of us have made our friends by way of some percentage of our wealth having come from dishonest sources. It is unavoidable. If you take part in the modern commercial system, you are also taking part in its seedy underbelly. Investment firms unknowingly invested in African blood diamond mines. Clothing made by women working 16 hour shifts for less than a living wage. Cashiers stuck working 36 hours a week so their employer can get away with not providing benefits. We can't avoid our dishonest wealth and so we have two choices. We can hem and haw and wring our hands while feeling guilty about our role in the military industrial complex and its degradation of human beings and the environment. We can give it all away and sit in sackcloth and ashes while the unjust world economy continues to go on without us. All of that to say, we can do nothing of any real consequence. Or, we can follow the instruction of Jesus and use our dishonest wealth to make friends. We can share it with those in need. We can use its power to shop at places that respect the dignity of every human being and see God's hand at work in the world about us. We can cook meals and drive to appointments and send cards and make phone calls. We can join clubs and go bowling and eat at Big Daddy's. And we do it all by means of our dishonest wealth. And we do it all in the name of building relationships that are true and lasting and mirror the perfect relationship of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is not a pretty picture that Jesus lays out for his disciples. He knows that despite his best efforts sinful people will continue to do sinful things until the day he comes again. He knows that his disciples and you and me will have to live in this world and ride the tide of shrewd marketers and unjust wealth. He knows that there is really no way around it. And so, he encourages us to redeem the system. Take its power away by sharing with those who are must vulnerable in the system; forgive debts, share resources, and build relationships. It is through those relationships that the Kingdom will grow causing more people to live the way Jesus would have us live, until that day when the choice between God and Mammon no longer exists and God and his Kingdom reign alone and God himself will welcome you into your eternal home. Do not be anxious about the mess that is earthly things, instead, rejoice in God's work at redeeming this mess for his eternal glory and hold fast on to those things that shall endure. Be wise, be shrewd, be blessed. Amen.