There is always something peculiar—something a little “off”—about each one of the parables Jesus tells. The parables we heard in our lessons last week about the lost sheep and the lost coin are peculiar because of the way the seeker reacts when the object is found. What kind of shepherd that you know throws a party for lost sheep? And who invites neighbors over after finding a lost coin? We could go through each every parable that Jesus tells in the gospels and figure out what makes it odd, but this parable really takes the cake. Depending on which version of the Bible you’re reading, it may bear the title of the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, or the Parable of the Unjust Steward or the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. Regardless of which name you prefer for it, you have to admit it is one of the more complex and altogether strange stories that Jesus tells.
It’s hard to see at first why Jesus lifts up the actions of this rogue businessman as actions that are somehow worth imitating. First, he is accused of squandering someone else’s money, a charge we have to take seriously because he doesn’t defend himself. In other places—namely, the parable Jesus tells immediately before this one, the Parable of the Prodigal Son—people who squander property are not used as good examples. Secondly, when his job is put on the line, he does nothing to rectify the situation with his master. He doesn’t say, “Look. You’re correct. I repent. Let me work extra hard to make this right.” Lastly, he takes advantage of his master one final time by slashing the amounts people owe his master by significant margins! Caring nothing for the amount with which he was entrusted, he comes up with a plan that makes him sound selfish and self-centered. Carelessness, dishonesty, “me-first” thinking: it’s difficult to imagine how his actions could be seen as examples of living in God’s kingdom of righteousness. At yet, at the end, Jesus seems to use his behavior as a positive example for his disciples and other children of his light!
If you’re having a tough time understanding what is happening in this parable, you’re not alone. This parable has long stood as one of the most puzzling stories in the entire New Testament. Perhaps it might help if we were to re-tell the scenario of the Shrewd Manager with a contemporary feel:
The CEO of a national retail chain got wind that the franchise manager of one of his local stores had been grossly underperforming. The ledger sheets showed losses that might never be recouped made by consistently poor business judgment and lackluster marketing and advertising. The CEO calls the franchise manager on the phone and says that at year’s end he’s out of a job. He’ll be finding someone else to take over the store. The manager hangs up the phone and immediately starts to think about what he’s going to do to polish up his resume so that when the year is out and he is terminated he’ll be have something to show potential future employers. He remembers that people spend a lot more money at the holidays than at any other time of the year. So, even though it’s mid-September, he gets his store clerks to pull out all of the Christmas decorations and put them on the floor. Christmas trees, life-size snowmen, strings of twinkling lights…even though school has barely started, it may just work. People might grumble a bit (especially a few pastors who worry about the over-commercialization of Christmas) but deep inside they’ll be spurred to start their shopping.
And then the manager starts to think about the day after Thanksgiving: everyone’s sitting around, off-work, and with nothing to do. Why not open the stores even a little earlier this year and offer shoppers crazy discount offers? Sure, store security will be a mess. There’ll be people running all over each other for killer deals, but in the end it’ll win customers over. And the fiscal year’s bottom line? In the black! The ledger books will look amazing, the brand’s name will be associated with clever marketing—it may even help him get back in his boss’s good graces. But if he has to apply for another job elsewhere, he’s now got a record that will more than get his foot in the door.
No matter where you stand on Christmas decorations in September or Black Friday extravaganzas, you have to admit they are clever methods to the real-world problem of being in the red. Those marketers and managers are brilliant. And no matter whether you find this manager’s business practices dishonest or unjust, you have to admit he is shrewd in dealing with his situation. That is, he senses the urgency of what he’s going through—that he is about to face a new reality of unemployment—and it causes his creativity to kick into gear. It causes him to begin thinking about creating a new future by putting himself in the debt of people who owe his master great amounts. By slashing their bills by up to a half, he creates a group of people who, in the way ancient middle eastern culture works, will now feel obliged to take care of him in some way.
Yes, an odd story, but Jesus tells it because he wants his disciples to understand that they are facing a new reality, too. That new reality is the life of discipleship in Jesus’ name. That new reality that God is turning the world upside down in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That which was lost has now been found. The last will be first. The poor will be satisfied and the rich sent away empty.
Whatever you may think these things mean for Jesus’ disciples, at least one thing should rise to mind: this is not a reality to be squandered mindlessly nor it is a vision of the future into which we just mindlessly coast. Just as the manager senses a change coming and reacts to it in a way that helps further his cause, so should Jesus’ followers sense an urgency about the moment…so should Jesus’ followers feel OK about using some worldly wisdom and human cleverness about advancing the cause of the gospel. We can ask ourselves in each moment: what does it mean for me or for us right now that Christ, who was crucified, is now risen and Lord of all? What does it mean for me in this moment that I am dead in sin—no future of which to speak—but yet Christ has claimed me and made me alive?
Like the manager in the parable, we are so often good at responding to our own personal crises with creativity and cleverness. The store manager who pushes Christmas shopping season a little forward each year is using what resources he’s been given to respond to his own call as salesman. Why not apply these skills to the life of faith? Why not become shrewd and resourceful with all that God has entrusted to us as if our livelihood depended on it?
There is a Youtube video thatmakes the rounds every now and then called, “What if Starbucks marketed like the church?” It is a parable that pokes fun at the way congregations often end up turning off more newcomers than they attract without realizing it. Today’s parable might be re-written as “What if the Church marketed like a Starbucks?” Look at what they’d done with the Pumpkin Spice Latte. Very shrewd. It’s everywhere! What if the church had the whole world believing they couldn’t get through their day without Jesus? Are there any other successful practices followed by the world—business or otherwise— that could help Jesus’ followers in their mission?
Speaking of urgency, I get the sense that there is a real urgency among many of you about the call of a new senior pastor for this congregation. There is an energy, a pulse of mission and purpose within many of your conversations, along with an anxious desire that things move along faster or in a different way. We can assure you that people are working diligently and thoughtfully as they tend to that process. But the question from the odd-parable teller today reaches a little farther: how are you as a congregation and as individuals of faith sensing a similar urgency about your mission in general? Can you bottle that urgency about your staffing situation and administer it somehow to the overall work of sharing the love of God in your daily life? Are you shrewdly using the resources you’ve already been given to adapt to a kingdom that is graciously turning this world on its head?
Whoever is faithful in little is faithful in much, and much is precisely what you’ve received in Jesus Christ. Forgiveness of sins…unconditional love…compassion, wisdom, courage, and other gifts of the Spirit…the communion and fellowship of other believers…life eternal…these are just a few of the true riches with which we may say we’ve been entrusted. It is this Lord who senses the value in our lives and whose death upon the cross slashes all of our debts so that we may be made truly rich.
For, to our surprise, it is not only the parables that are a little odd, but it is those who listen to them and are transformed by them. In the end, it is not just the characters and lessons that are a little peculiar (this shepherd, that manager) but those who are brought in line with the God who brings dead things to life, those who are claimed by a God who always seeks out the lost and is overjoyed when they are found. These folk seem a little out of place at times…for their witness and their faith in God’s new reality. They are like, dare I say, Christmas decorations in the middle of a September world—or they are like the clever manager who shrewdly puts them there—signs that there is not just one master in this universe, but rather only one master worth serving.
It is the only master who gives himself as ransom for us all.