Sermon for Sunday, September 18, 2022 Luke 16: 1-13 Shrewd. Often, when I’m wrestling with a text trying to figure out how to preach on it, I read it with an eye to a particular word or phrase that either seems to shimmer on the page, or one that rubs against my skin like some gritty sandpaper. This week, that descriptor “shrewd” is the one that has rubber me the wrong way. And when Jesus seems to applaud shrewd actions or behavior, it leaves me even more confused… …because all I can think of is how dishonest this whole set of actions appears to be. What could Jesus be thinking? Well, we’re going to take a little trip to Jesus’ day, and what the rules were about debts and such in that time. First factoid: The ancient laws in the Torah said that charging interest on debt was against God’s will.1 Second factoid: The ancient laws in the Torah said that every seventh year (the jubilee year), all debts should be completely forgiven. 2 So how do we have the situation in this parable, where the fellow who is about to lose his job adjusts the debts of those who might prove helpful to him once he’s fired? Unscrupulous landlords and lenders would often roll the interest into the whole debt, rather than saying “I’m going to charge you x percent on the principal of the loan, so your payments will cover both principal and interest.” It was more like “you’re asking to borrow $100, but your loan will be for $120, just because…” Technically, they’d be within the law about charging interest. And as for the Jubilee Year forgiveness of debts, that seems to have fallen by the wayside in Jesus’ time. So there are people who have means who are gaming the system to exact their payment. This fellow wants to make sure he’s got some friends, because he doesn’t know how he’ll survive once his paycheck goes away, so he cuts deals with some of the master’s debtors to gain their favor. Just like his boss, he’s going to game the system, too. In other words, in a financial system that clearly rewards the rich at the expense of the poor, this guy is Charlie Hustle, figuring out a way to survive. And it’s hard to blame him. And his boss commends him. That’s a surprise, but I can imagine the boss saying “smart hustle! I’ll get it out of you somehow, but you’re a sharp cookie.” Not so much a benediction for his semi-noble work of reducing debts as it is an expression of admiration for his underling working the system. This dishonest manager is nothing if not a sharp observer of how things work – he finds a way to work within that dishonest system to protect himself. And Jesus is quite clear that the system is corrupt. His reference to a “dishonest generation” as opposed to “the children of light” is one that actually names the sinfulness of those who play these games. He calls these actions “shrewd.” 1 Exod 22:25-27; Lev 25:36-38; Deut. 15:7-11; 23:19-20 2 Deut. 15: 1-3 Now when we think of that word, we think “astute, alert, sharp-witted.” Sounds pretty positive, right? And that’s how we get so confused when we wonder where Jesus is going with this parable. But the derivation of the word is actually from the word “shrew,” meaning and evil person or thing, and in the first appearances of the word shrewd, in Middle English, it is taken to mean “evil in nature or in character.” Somewhere in the late 17th Century, it gets its more benign or favorable connotation. Imagine the boss saying “I’m proud of you: you did just the nasty thing that we do all the time around here in this lending business. You’re one of us.” It changes your perspective, doesn’t it? And imagine Jesus saying “yes, everybody these days is acting like this evil nasty guy. In fact, we have a whole generation of folks who think that this is the way to succeed: by being evil and willing to do anything to succeed. But if you are one of my followers, you choose the path that doesn’t align with the evil and nasty things that seem to be applauded. And that goes for money matters as well, because people think they’ll get more money if they act this way. Don’t do that.” In a world where many will do bad things to accrue wealth, followers of Jesus are told that this isn’t the path to eternal life. If you have money, use it in service to those who need it. That was the point of the Torah laws about no interest on debt and the Jubilee loan forgiveness program. If you’re not willing to let go of your money to serve God’s plans and God’s people, you’ve missed the point. If you hang on to it, you spend all your energy in keeping it. It becomes the sole point of your existence, and that’s not right. Such teaching feels odd to us: aren’t we supposed to provide for our families? Aren’t we supposed to pay our bills? But isn’t there a difference between provision for needs and competing to show who has the biggest house or the plushiest vacation trips? I led a service of Holy Eucharist and dedication for teachers in a private school a number of years ago. Many of the teachers had worked in this school for decades. Their pay was modest. And I knew that some of the pupils had handbags or sports gear that cost the equivalent of a month’s salary for some of these teachers. It was a situation that could lead to a certain amount of bitterness. But what I saw in the teachers warmed my heart. Yes, by the numbers, it seemed an unfair system. But they felt it was their responsibility to teach the children in their care to see beyond the never-ending competition over who had the most expensive basketball shoes to the more important values, the values that Jesus has taught us. And they did it faithfully and well, that teaching, even as they themselves saw the brokenness in a system that was inherently unfair. This is what Jesus was talking about: focus less about amassing wealth and more about living a righteous life. The money is the money: use it to help others. Don’t play games with it, and don’t take advantage. We are not called to be Charlie Hustle. We are called to emulate Jesus, to live into the virtues that Jesus teaches. Is that shrewd? Not in the real meaning of that word, to be sure. Given a choice between being shrewd like that and being a little more naïve and a little more virtuous, I know what Jesus would ask me to do. Let us pray for the grace and will do actually do it. Amen
Stay in Touch
Enter your email below to subscribe to our weekly newsletter!