“Well, that’s not right.” That’s what one of my high school friends used to always say as an understated, deadpan response to anything that was clearly very wrong: a particularly gruesome death in an action movie; finding something in his food that shouldn’t be there; one time after swerving to go around a car that had spun out and was now stopped facing the wrong direction on the highway.
I thought about him as I read this crazy story of Jesus’ to prepare for this sermon: a rich man discovers his manager has been wasting his money, so he demands an accounting from the manager as he fires him. The manager, realizing he’s in trouble, goes out to the people in debt to the rich man, who don’t know that he’s been fired, and cancels significant portions of their debts.
Then the rich man, discovering what the manager did, doesn’t punish him! Instead he commends him for being so clever. And that’s the end of the story! And then Jesus seems to say “go and do likewise,” once he’s done telling it. So, what, the moral of the story is that Jesus wants us to be as good at cheating people out of their money as this dishonest manager? I can hear my friend right now: “Well, that’s not right.”
I think it’s telling that we want to make this right; we want to make Jesus’ story make sense in a domesticated sort of way. But the whole point of parables is that they are disruptive. They are specifically designed to upend our expectations in order to make us think about something important differently. When Jesus tells a parable about a man who was robbed and left for dead on the road to Jericho, the person who stops to help him was not a good priest, but a good Samaritan (well, that’s not right, his audience would have said).
When Jesus tells a parable about a lost sheep, the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine who stay with the flock unprotected while he goes and searches for the one that is lost (well, that’s not right, his audience would have said). When Jesus tells a parable about a young man who asks for his inheritance while his father is still alive, the father gives it to him (well, that’s not right, his audience would have said) and he runs off and promptly squanders it. But when he finally comes home, the father throws a huge party for him instead of punishing him or rejecting him (well, that’s not right, his audience would have said).
The difference is that we’ve heard all those stories so many times, and inherited a long tradition of interpreting them that is so powerful, and we ourselves are so culturally distant from them, that they’re not disruptive to us or our understanding of how God works and how we’re called to respond. We might struggle to put the lessons in practice, but we’re not shocked to hear that there’s such a thing as a good Samaritan, or a shepherd who risks everything for one lost sheep, or a father who responds to his selfish and irresponsible son with unbounded grace instead of righteous judgment.
But a hero who squanders the property with which he was entrusted, and then connives to wriggle out of the consequences by using his boss’ own business against him to ingratiate himself to the clients? That’s pretty shocking. “Well, that’s not right,” we say.
Why would Jesus make someone like him the hero of this story? Well, first of all, heroes aren’t always heroic. For the last 20 years or so, we’ve been in a so-called “Golden Age of Television.” But more specifically, it has been a golden age of gritty dramas and dark comedies that are full of anti-heroes: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones are among the most notable dramas; Orange is the New Black, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Veep, are among the most notable comedies.
But it’s not like the archetype of the anti-hero was invented around the year 2000. Shakespeare is filled with tragic anti-heroes: Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear are perhaps the most obvious ones. And if tragic heroes are the forerunners of the gritty TV dramas, then tricksters are the ancestors of the dark comedies. The trickster is one of the most ancient types of characters.
Long before the New Testament was written, Odysseus was the trickster king of Homer’s ancient Greek epic poems, from winning a war with the Trojan Horse to escaping a whole series of scrapes through clever tricks in his long travels back to Greece from Troy and finally reclaiming his home and family. And to go back even further, most traditional cultures around the world have some form of a trickster character in their myths and legends: Zomo the rabbit or Anansi the spider from west Africa; Coyote plays the same role in many Native American cultures, as does Maui among the Polynesians. Tricksters use cleverness and shrewdness to deceive and defeat more powerful opponents, often using their more powerful or prestigious nature against them.
Jewish folklore has a long tradition of trickster characters, as well. In fact, there is a stock character in many stories called the schnorrer, which is a person who lives by his wits to avoid either working or outright begging, instead tricking the wealthy into giving him what he needs to get by or get ahead in life. That sounds an awful lot like this manager in Jesus’ story, who plays his trick of canceling the debts owed to the rich man because he doesn’t want to do manual labor or beg.
And it’s a clever trick. You see, the debtors didn’t know that the manager has been fired, so they would have interpreted the cancellation of the debt as an act of great generosity that reflected on the rich man. Now the rich man can’t re-impose the debts the manager cancelled without a serious loss of face in that culture, because he would lose the prestige from the supposedly generous act done in his name. So the rich man instead concedes defeat and congratulates the trickster manager on his shrewdness.
What the rich man and the trickster manager have in common is that they both understand the logic of this world and both use it to advance their goals. In this case, the trickster manager used it to get the better of the rich man and achieve his goal of making a living without manual labor or begging. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “the children of this age are…shrewd in dealing with their own generation.”
But that’s not the really disruptive part of this parable. The really disruptive part is where Jesus criticizes the “children of light,” his followers, for not being as shrewd as the children of this age. He doesn’t mean that his followers should be just as shrewd in the ways of this world; he never says or even implies, “be like the manager.” He says they should be just as shrewd in the ways of the world to which they belong, the kingdom of God, as the manager was in his own world.
That’s a pretty important difference, and like any good parable, it is very disruptive. Because when Christians start trying to act shrewdly, to be “tricksters for Christ,” we often quickly lose sight of the ways of Christ’s kingdom and start becoming shrewd tricksters for our own purposes and power. But neither is Jesus content for his followers to disengage from this world and focus on their own spiritual purity and growth. What he’s really concerned about here is calling on the children of light to use their wealth not for the purposes or according to the ways of this world, but to do so shrewdly for the purposes and according to the ways of Christ’s kingdom.
So how do we do that? Well, like all the other parables, Jesus doesn’t spell out a to-do list of clear activities and objectives. The point of a parable is to disrupt expectations, and in the midst of that disruption is where true creativity and bold faithfulness can take root.
My home church of First Presbyterian in Atlanta recently began giving a creative response to that opportunity. They are a large downtown church with a big campus, numerous programs, and many wealthy businesspeople as members. It would be easy for them to simply focus on building themselves up as an institution. But that would be neither shrewd nor faithful in the ways of Christ’s kingdom.
Instead, they recently announced the launch of a new initiative: Epiphany, they call it, which means a manifestation of the divine, often in unexpected ways or circumstances. Epiphanies, like parables, are always disruptive, and in this case, they are funding a church-based social entrepreneurship effort to provide start-up capital to, quote: “help launch entrepreneurs with innovative ideas to address social challenges, as well as harness the capabilities of one of Atlanta’s oldest churches in impactful new ways. The five ventures selected [in 2019] include initiatives targeting some of Atlanta’s most pressing social needs: a home-sharing model to increase the supply of affordable workforce housing; job training in the automotive and hospitality sectors for at-risk young men and refugees; a mobile app to enable more successful court outcomes for thousands of low-income tenants facing eviction each year; and a new social enterprise to fund more healthy meals for vulnerable seniors.” That is a fantastic example of what it means to be shrewd for Christ, shrewd in building up the kingdom of God in this world according to the logic of the kingdom, not the world.
So I want to challenge us here at First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem to relentlessly consider what it means for us to be shrewd in the ways of Christ’s kingdom, shrewd with the resources and opportunities that we have for building up the kingdom in this world according to the logic of the kingdom, not the world. One of the most obvious ways we are trying to do that is with our literal building, the extraordinary resource of these facilities here at 2344 Center Street.
The Session actually has a Facilities Usage Task Force hard at work on these very questions, and its mission is a shrewd one: to develop and recommend a set of strategies to the Session that will utilize these facilities creatively in a way that is both mission-centered and financially sustainable. It is one of the efforts that I am most excited about in the life of this congregation, and it is a question that is hardly unique to us. Churches all over the country are realizing that the old models for using church buildings are increasingly less effective, often becoming a drain on their mission instead of a resource for it. When our strategic work is done and its fruits are harvested, I believe we will become a national model for how churches can utilize their facilities in the 21st century in an innovative way that shrewdly builds up the kingdom of God.
I consider that to be one way in which we are striving to be faithful in much, as Jesus puts it in his response to his own story. And the temptation is to always focus on the “much”: on what makes the biggest impact, the loudest noise, the most bang for the buck. Which is not bad; it can be good stewardship. But it also misses that you can’t do the much without a lot of the little.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much,” he says. Which is perhaps the best news of this strange, wonderful story, because focusing on the much can be overwhelming, even paralyzing. But every moment of our lives, as a congregation and as an individual, is a little opportunity to hammer a board, sand an edge, lay a brick to help build up the kingdom of God.
Every gift of time, thought, prayer, money, hands, spirit, and presence is another little opportunity answered in the name of Christ. And when we faithfully do so, we begin to realize how much is already built and how much is going up all around us; how much is left to do, and how much we can do, in a little bit of much and a whole lot of little, to help Christ the Builder until his finishes his work, saying, “Well, that’s finally right.”