The reading ends: “The Gospel of the Lord.” You respond: “Praise to you, Lord Christ.” Most days that works. Some days I wish the Prayer Book gave options, like for today: “Praise? You’re kidding.” Let’s just admit it – Jesus’ parable is confusing, if not bizarre.
Someone reports that a rich owner’s manager is ripping him off. He calls the guy in, “Clean out your desk, give me your keys and bring me the ledger. I’ve got an auditor coming.” The guy leaves, muttering: “Darn, where will I work? I don’t do manual labor.” Maybe he should have gone to seminary rather than business school. And then he says, “And I am too proud to beg.” He’s afraid, and nothing like fear gets your mind in gear. He concocts a clever debt reduction program, calls in those who haven’t paid his boss’s bills, tells them to cross out what they owe, and put in a lesser amount. Of course, the boss will find out. What’s he going to do – fire him? No – he commends this dishonest manager for acting shrewdly – securing his immediate future. You don’t expect our Lord and Savior to tell a story like this – and recommend this guy’s behavior – sort of: “The children of this age are shrewder than children of light. So, children of light – wise up!” He’s just making sure we are offended—because he means us. You’d figure Jesus would say, “Don’t act like this manager – dishonest, cunning.” We children of light dress up each Sunday and come here, while the children of this age – the shrewd ones, are still in bed because maybe they’ve partied all night, or they are sipping coffee and reading the newspaper.
One Monday years ago, after preaching this parable, a retired vice-president of a Fortune 500 company paid me a visit. For some reason, he thought I could explain Jesus’ point. “I wish I knew,” I said, “But I can see no reason why Luke would include such a story.” “No, I’m serious,” he pressed me. “Yes, I know you are,” I answered. “You were paying attention. You are a good member of this church, and I know you try to be a child of light rather than one of this age. You rose to a pretty good job. You must be smart, and shrewd – right? Maybe Jesus thinks we could learn from you – how to apply those smarts for God’s business.” I’m pretty sure he was not moved by my suggestion, or my explanation.
After years of preaching this text, I still slam into the same wall. I’m not sure what Jesus means. Why does Jesus use a dishonest character for a parable? Jesus promotes honesty, right? But acting shrewdly – that’s not so bad. We are shrewd when we need to be, right? I talk with you about being generous, because God is. I am shrewd about my retirement account. I am for justice – treating people fairly and with dignity. Yet I like a bargain when I see one, regardless of who made it. Let’s face it, we can be smart – shrewd, like children of this age, but are we shrewd for God’s kingdom? I think that’s what Jesus is getting at.
In the micro-bacterial world, I have learned that microbes are shrewd. Because we take so many antibiotics, bacteria can detour a specific antibiotic. Scientists scramble to find a new one. I think that is rather amazing – something unseen, a life force so shrewd. We promise in the Baptismal Covenant to resist evil. Maybe we need to learn from bacteria how to flee what’s not healthy and helpful for us.
Jesus commends shrewd behaviors, but not dishonest ones. When we come to the table – we present our gifts, money, bread and wine. I say: “All things come of you, O Lord.” Listen carefully for what you say in response: “We’re giving you what is already yours.” We have nothing of our own – even ourselves, though we like to think we are in control. Like this manager, we, too, use borrowed stuff. We kid ourselves and think it’s ours. We can be shrewd when it comes to our stuff – but what about serving God? It’s easy to forget what, who – is in our future – the larger picture. Jesus hints that some shrewd arrangements work for a time – like the manager trying to leverage another job. In a weird, shrewd way one might say he’s just sharing wealth – not his, but his boss’s. What about things that have a lasting, eternal quality – like God’s kingdom? Do we spend more energy and passion here? Or do we expend ourselves more in the children of this age realm? Our Master Card bills might help us here.
It’s people like us – good, respectable children of light that gave Jesus a hard time. Remember, Jesus spent a lot of time with the children of his age, sinners, the sick, the marginal – those shrewd enough to recognize he’s giving them something they need. Some of the most unlikely ones see him for who he really is. Children of light were not as welcoming to Jesus. They orchestrated his death. Maybe we need to keep learning from some of the children of this age. Maybe we need each other. And only a Lord and Savior, who could play with both groups of us – because let’s honestly admit it, we are simultaneously children of our age, and trying to be as children of God’s light – only a savior like Jesus could save and rescue the likes of us. I suspect Jesus tells a story like this because he knows us already as God’s children, not just children of our age. If we are shrewd, we’ll trust that Jesus is right, and figure out how to live like children of light – you know, dwelling in things that matter and last – in the business God owns. There’s no reason not to. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love and grace. We just have to respond to it. Well, is it an owner who laughs at us, loves us, seeks us – as children of this age, trying to live as children of light? I think so.