Reflectionary

With a Wink and a Nudge

23456789Jugs6145
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a
manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering
his property.
So he summoned him and
said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting
of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’
Then the manager said to
himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position
away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.
I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’
So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’
Then he asked another,
‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’
He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’
And his master commended
the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children
of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than
are the children of light.
And I tell you, make
friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is
gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

(Luke 16:1-9, NRSV)

Well. That’s certainly an interesting gospel lesson, isn’t it? Our Lord tells a story of first century commerce, reaches one incomprehensible conclusion, and then tacks on a few more for good measure.

This passage from Luke has been raising hackles from early on in the history of Christianity. St. Augustine said, “I can’t believe that this story came from the lips of our Lord.” And you can understand why Augustine might feel that way. Could Jesus really mean it when he says,

16:8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
16:9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

What relationship can this story possibly have to the other stories we have been hearing in Luke’s gospel over the last few months? It’s puzzling, because that phrase, “And I tell you” is one of those key phrases used by Jesus to signal that something REALLY important is coming.

For people who insist that the meaning of all Bible passages is obvious and straightforward, and even for those who insist we can grasp the meaning by looking at the historical context, this passage is a challenge. Many scholars have dismissed it as corrupted; others simply describe it as “difficult.” We can probably safely join the latter group. If you are looking for the core message Jesus taught, can you find it in this story?

Since Pure Luck left for Mitten-Shaped State last week, we have spent some time each day typing messages to each other in little boxes on the computer screen. Sometimes we follow a sentence with a smiley or a winky, those little “faces” known as “emoticons.” I like to use them, because they help the reader understand the tone intended by those little black letters on that plain white screen. Without them, a joke may become an insult, or a statement may become a challenge.

Words on a page or a screen may not be read the way they were intended. We talked about this at the retreat yesterday as we considered how important tone is in our communications. For the past few months, as I’ve been reading the stories of Jesus and his journey toward Jerusalem, I’ve often found myself wondering whether we properly gauge the emotions in his words. I think we imagine Jesus sitting placidly, a guru under a tree, making pronouncements in a state of bliss.

But some of these stories suggest frustrated anger, as we heard in Chapter 12, or the chiding familiarity he showed Martha, or even, dare I say it, dark humor.

It’s hard to know how else to relate to the story of the dishonest manager.

16:8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
16:9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

Wink, Wink. Nudge, nudge.

Jesus, talking to his disciples, his intimates: could he be playing with them? “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light”. Even a dishonest manager seems to know more about dealing with people than you do, my friends. You knuckleheads. Get it? Get it?

Verse 9 is so difficult, perhaps it makes us forget about verse 8. Perhaps it makes us want to shut the book.

We talked yesterday, too, about the differences inherent in communicating facts – so easy to get something wrong, to hear it incorrectly or remember it in a slightly convoluted fashion.

We illustrated the difficulties with a game of telephone. We all worked hard to pass the message along as we heard it, even some of us who felt pretty sure we couldn’t remember it right! Our context, our focus, our abilities and even our regional loyalties influenced how we repeated the message. Mr. Overhill’s original statement that Penn State would be playing Michigan at 3:30 became an assurance that the Pats would be playing at 3!

Michigan beat Penn State, by the way, 14-9.

We had a hard time passing a message about a football game. How much harder is it, then, to communicate beliefs?

You use whatever means works. I believe Jesus is teaching with humor. And while it is certainly possible that some word was mis-transcribed or mis-remembered, we can still find something in this story.

First, we learn that owners and managers have been taking advantage of laborers since long before Enron or the labor movement or the printing press. And our passage from Jeremiah reinforces that it’s no news for people to be just generally out of relationship with God.

Second, we can remember that previous stories in this gospel encourage us to care for the lost because that pleases God.

Third, we can see that in his own way, the manager does help the people. We may apply the description of shrewd to his deal-cutting with the poor farmers, but it’s really his dealing with the master that is brilliant. He helps the laborers and helps himself, too.

Fourth, chances are you can’t give the little guy a break and make the largest profit for the big guy at the same time.

And last, if we believe verse 9, it’s possible to do the right thing the wrong way.

Have you ever achieved a right outcome through a questionable method?

No need to raise your hands. I’ll tell a story on myself.

You may remember the Sunday after September 11th. In the wake of tragedy, people wanted to go to church. I had signed up to teach a class of 5th and 6th graders, and September 16th was the first day of Sunday School. Typically, that age group didn’t come to Sunday School much. We had about 30 families, on paper, with children in those grades, but I would have sworn we wouldn’t see more than 12, and I could probably have predicted which 12 would be there.

September 11th changed that. I found myself a solo teacher in a small classroom suddenly crowded with 28 children and the parents who had accompanied them on that first day.

I was in trouble. Big, big trouble.

After church, I began thinking about who might help me. I knew, because it had been my job to recruit teachers, that no one else felt excited about teaching that class. That’s why I was teaching it! I decided my best strategy had to be seeking assistants, preferably teenagers. I asked a high school girl, and she agreed, but we had a large group of boys, and I had a feeling I would need two helpers most of the time. I wanted a high school boy.

I had one at my house.

He did NOT want to assist with 5th and 6th graders. He preferred sitting in church, in fact.

So, we made a deal. It had something to do with a video game system, but perhaps you’ll understand if I have blocked out some of the details…

And the Superintendent commended the bribe-wielding Sunday School teacher because she had acted shrewdly…

Now, honestly, do we want to take this as a model? Or do we want to dig deeper into our own minds and hearts and hear the full gospel instead of picking out one verse at a time to “prove” what we believe is right?

Let’s go back to our passage. Is it possible that Jesus is worried about how his friends will manage after he is gone? That time is coming in Luke’s gospel, and the intensity of the storytelling journey increases as the party of Jesus approaches Jerusalem.

It’s possible that because I’m a card-carrying member of the Professional Organization of English Majors, P.O.E.M., I am looking for the literary thrust, the interplay of words. I know that various recorders, transcribers, editors and translators have had their way with these texts over thousands of years. I trust that despite all the human hands and minds involved, there is some essential truth in the whole, and that if I approach the texts faithfully, I’ll get a glimpse of that truth.

And here is what I mean by approaching them faithfully:

  • Don’t swallow the words whole. I don’t assume that one quick, superficial reading will get me where I need to go, and I don’t assume that my first conclusion is correct! Yes, scholarship gives us new context, and I am grateful for it, but I don’t believe we know everything just yet.
  • Employ imagination. Sometimes I think one of the biggest sources of religious conflict today is a lack of imagination. Ancient cultures were storytelling cultures, very different from our Power Point-dependent 21st century, in which lectures and even sermons are distilled into outlines and even this one contains bullet points that I am using right now! Somehow when we move data into this form it makes us think everything is a statistic or a fact. I assure you, everything isn’t.
  • View the text as breathing, not dusty. “Indeed, the word of God is living and active,” we read in Hebrews 4:12. If we regard the text as living and don’t consign it to the spiritual archives, we will be constantly surprised by its fluidity and vibrancy.
  • Reside in the questions. If a text troubles you, ponder it further. Talk to someone about it. Talk to me! It may bother me, too.
  • Be open. This was the first quality on the list of communications skills we studied on the retreat yesterday, and it applies to our reading of the Bible, too. It’s just possible God may have something to say to you through the living word of the Bible, and the Living Word, Jesus.

16:8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
16:9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

This passage still bothers me, and I imagine it will when it rolls around in the lectionary in three more years! I can’t master it; I can’t be sure of getting it right. Last time I closed the book on the passage, literally, and preached about something else. But in wrestling with it this time, I’ve begun to look at Jesus in a new way, to see him as more fully human, a teacher who didn’t consider himself above using whatever technique might have a chance of working with his stubborn pupils.

He’s teaching us now, with a wink and a nudge.

7 thoughts on “With a Wink and a Nudge”

  1. excellent Songbird- and yes this passage still troubles me too, but then we need to grapple with the uncomfortable stuff as well as the comforting stuff I guess!

Leave a Reply