Reading Luke 16.1-9
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Before a congregational meeting on the development of St Mary’s building
People who know about architecture talk about ‘reading’ a building. Buildings tell stories, make statements; they say things, and we want our building to speak of the promise of meeting God – God’s otherness, God’s welcome, God’s love. Jesus, of course, doesn’t need a building. He invites people to meet God in himself, in what he says, and does, and in who he is.
He tells stories (parables, we call them) in which – if you hear them right – you will encounter God. But some of these stories are – troubling. Take this parable of the unjust steward. In this story (which could supply material for a whole episode of The Office) a corrupt manager is under suspicion, redoubles his corrupt efforts (to give himself a soft landing after he is sacked) and is then commended by his boss for being so canny in his corruption.
No-one has come up with a way of reading this story that is really convincing. The New Testament scholar Alfred Plummer, writing in 1910, described all that had been written on this parable as ‘voluminous and unrepaying’. And you see the problem: the story is outrageous, immoral. How can this help us meet God? Because Jesus said it, however, people have not discarded the story but have kept worrying way at it to see how it might. Here, for instance, are two quite different readings of the story. Who is to say which is closer to what was in Jesus’ mind when he told it? Or even that he wouldn’t see something in both? Classic stories – like classic buildings – can be read in more than one way.
If you have followed the Archbishop of Canterbury’s attack on payday loan companies, you’ll understand why I call the first take the Welby-Wonga reading. On this interpretation, the boss is a loan shark. He gets round the law against charging interest by doing the deal in kind instead of in money. Oil and wheat, both very resaleable commodities, are perfect for this purpose. It was a common scam in Jesus’ day. The manager, realising he’s on his way out, tries to become the new best friend of his boss’ clients by lopping off the illegal (and very high) interest they owe. His boss wryly compliments him, knowing he can’t take him to court without blowing his own cover. The message to the Israel of Jesus’ day seems to be: these are times of crisis, so don’t be fastidious: make friends, where you can, how you can, while you can. Where might Jesus offer similar advice to us, today? You be the judges. Perhaps Mr Obama is having to do something like that with Mr Putin over Syria.
Second, what we can call the tongue-in-cheek reading. Here, the master pays an ironic compliment to the manager he has just caught frantically cooking the books – ‘Well, you are a wise man, aren’t you?’ – and Jesus does the same when he says, ‘Make friends by means of dishonest wealth.’ On this reading, Jesus is saying, Yes, play the system, fiddle those expenses, be ‘worldly wise’, and hope that will make you finally secure. Perhaps it will. Perhaps you will be the first person ever to have your ethical cake and eat it too. Perhaps. Good luck with that.
One little string of sentences, but which story do you hear? A call to be bold in a crisis? Or a gently mocking mirror held up to our dishonesties and evasions, which prompts the question, ‘Is there really a future in this?’
One little string of sentences, which each of us will hear in our own way. I guess if we each let God meet us in the story, we shall know which story we need to hear.
For the Archbishop’s critique of payday loan companies, see http://www.channel4.com/news/wonga-pay-day-loans-archbishop-of-canterbury-church-england
For the ‘Welby-Wonga’ reading see Tom Wright Luke for Everyone, SPCK 2001.
For the tongue-in-cheek reading, see Stanley Porter, ”Irony is the Key’ in The Bible in Three Dimensions, Edd David Clines, Stephen Fowl and Stanley Porter, JSOT Press, 1990 https://www.google.co.uk/search?tbo=p&tbm=bks&q=isbn:0567540375