Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
The parable we heard from Luke’s Gospel is one of the most problematic of all the stories Jesus told, because, on the face of it, it appears to be condoning some rather dodgy financial practice! It is a preacher’s nightmare, frankly, for in trying to undo its knots, it is very easy to tie yourself up in fresh ones. But bear with me for a few minutes and let’s at least give it a go.
Three things in particular strike me about this story. First is the story’s profound humanity, and how that ultimately holds within it the capacity to speak to us of God. What we have in this story is the image of an all-too-human manager trying to make the best of a difficult situation. Faced with the stark reality of losing his livelihood, a strong survival instinct comes into play, alongside an awareness of his own limitations: ‘I’m not strong enough to dig and I’m ashamed to beg’, he says. So all he has left is the capacity to influence others by doing them a favour – ‘take your bill and make it fifty/eighty’. It may not be a heroic strategy, but it is a shrewd one. ‘If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?’ I was thinking how that statement reads if you substitute the words ‘imperfect humanity’ for the words ‘dishonest wealth’. For most of us don’t occupy the territory of the land of the hero; most of us occupy the land of limited gifts and many faults. We all have our own peculiar mix of being lovable, vain, capricious, selfish, ambitious, forgiving and many other characteristics – some more commendable than others. Most of us, like that shrewd manager, are driven by a variety of instincts, among which survival and self-preservation rank fairly highly. Yet it’s in this apparently unpromising manifestation of imperfect humanity that we called to be faithful to image of God within. It’s in this school of flaws, faults and fallibility that we learn what it means to follow Christ faithfully and, in so doing, to catch glimpses of the true riches in the most unexpected places. Bizarrely, it’s in the awareness of our human limitations that we find the glorious possibilities of the divine. ‘If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?’
A second factor in appreciating this parable lies in the fact that we are held accountable for our stewardship of what belongs to others. A salient reminder here about the sort of world, environmental and political legacy we pass on to the generations that follow us. What we do with our own personal possessions, on the other hand, doesn’t normally involve such answerability to other people, so that any deceit there can easily go unchecked. We have to have our own internal moral standards, which we learn by being held responsible for our actions.
On the wider financial canvas, in his comment at the end of the parable, Jesus brings it down to what masters us: ‘You cannot serve God and wealth’. This comes as a particular challenge to those of us in this part of the world who are, on the global scale, relatively wealthy. On another occasion, Jesus said: ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. It ties in with today’s parable as well, for the dishonest manager is asked by his rich boss to give an account of his management.
Here, too, the words resonate with us as to how we account for our own management of all the things at our disposal: our time; the social and political choices we make; the organisations we support (or don’t support); our buying power; our investments; our skills and talents and, not least, our money. To what extent are we prioritising the many needs of our world, particularly those of the poor, and how much vision do we have on behalf of succeeding generations who will have to live with the decisions we are making today? In the Gospel economy, there is no room whatsoever, it seems, for a ‘me first’ attitude: quite the reverse, in fact: it is actually ‘me last’. Not for the first time, the Gospel proves to be counter-cultural, putting before us difficult dilemmas only we can resolve, hard choices only we can make and tricky questions only we can answer.
The third thing that strikes me from this parable, and how Jesus uses it, is how much it speaks of growing up – morally, spiritually, emotionally. It speaks of learning to use our critical moral judgement in areas that are not black and white, but in all those uncomfortable places that appear as varying shades of grey. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus uses a story about money, riches, wealth and possessions to try to teach these lessons. Money: we can’t live without it and yet we often find it disturbingly difficult to live with it. It’s one of those uncomfortable grey areas for us, both as individual Christians and collectively as the church. But perhaps it’s part of ‘growing up’ spiritually to try to engage with those areas where all our instincts tell us it’s easier to walk away. Perhaps the real growing up happens when we move beyond seeing such places of disturbingly uncomfortable compromise as a necessary evil, and actually find in them the possibility of glimpsing the divine – yes, even there. ‘If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?’ We are a flawed and fallible community, and we are a curious mix of lovable, changeable, vain, unforgiving, forgiving and forgiven people – a people entrusted with these imperfect riches we call our humanity. But it seems to me that very close to the heart of the Christian Gospel is the notion that it is as much through our imperfections, rather than in spite of them, we begin to find glimpses of those eternal riches which Jesus says are our inheritance.