Luke 16:1-9 & 10-15 Not everything is to be understood
Reflection by Mart the Rev
I started out preparing this reflection by typing these words: “This is the impossible parable!
Avoid it!” For nearly 30 years I have done exactly that. But this year, as I prepared the roster of parables for our week by week scrutiny, I popped it in. Why should we find the parables straight-forward or even palatable?
The parable is baffling. I have consulted at least a dozen commentators and they offer confusing and often contradictory interpretations on the meaning. It is important for you to know that this is the most confusing of any of Jesus’ teachings, and therefore, anyone who comes with what they think is a definitive interpretation on it should probably be treated with suspicion! Keep that in mind if I try to be definitive! I’m going to try and unpack it a bit but don’t expect something straightforward at the end!
I’ve included Luke’s collection of proverbs after the parable as a separate reading this morning. It would be so much easier to simply look at them and ignore the parable altogether. All I want to take from them as we look at the parable is this simple lesson – dealing with money is tricky. Money is tricky relationally – ask any couple in a marriage, and most families when dealing with deceased estates. But money is also tricky theologically. God and money don’t usually see eye to eye. Their problem is that they both demand allegiance, and primary allegiance to one makes for an uneasy relationship with the other! I recall attempts in churches I have been part of, to separate off the functions of the church – spiritual on one side and temporal on the other. The assumption there is that the spiritual life of the church has nothing to do with the finances and property. But that is not true – everything is spiritual, there is no place that God is absent…indeed, because money has the potential to have such a power over us, the handling of it should be especially prayerful! Money is tricky. One way to handle money is to shut yourself off from it and make a vow of poverty. Some have tried that but few have succeeded. For the rest of us there has to be a way to manage money and keep our centre-point intact. So to the parable…
Here are the facts:
1.A rich man detects that his manager is squandering his property. So he calls him in, announces he is losing his job and that he needs to present the accounts before he goes.
2. The manager does the mathematics on his own capacities and does all he can to avoid what would be the worst case scenario – digging holes or begging. So he shrewdly dreams up a favours scheme: significant discounts for debtors if they pay up now. These discounts achieve two things, he builds a cushion full of friendly handshakes where people will feel that they owe him something that he can call on when he is soon unemployed, and he gathers a pile of dosh.
3. Then he arrives at the rich man’s desk with those wads of cash that were completely invisible just days before and the rich man commends him for his shrewd actions.
- The questions begin, like, how come Jesus tells a story that commends a dishonest manager? And, what on earth does his sentence mean: ‘for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.’ And, what on earth does this sentence mean: ‘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.’
The short answer is, I don’t know. Actually, it is ‘we don’t know.’ The body of opinion out there is that the parable is kind of weird. But in an effort to be helpful, here are a few ‘maybes.’ Maybe we don’t need to have everyone perfect in our stories. In the previous chapter, Luke has Jesus telling the parable of the lost and far from perfect son finding his way back home and being welcomed by the father. The father seems to be able to traverse the tricky ground of his son’s imperfections, but the parable ends with the older brother unable to get over that hill. In the story of the lost son welcomed home, which way does God lean? Jesus presents for us a God who does not side with the demand for perfection that is represented by the older brother. Isn’t that music to our ears? Isn’t everyone a bit of a mixed bag of the commendable and the less than commendable? Here’s the Good News: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know…’ even though ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ [Romans 3:23] Maybe we don’t need to have everyone perfect in our stories.
Here’s another maybe, maybe the church isn’t always all that shrewd in how it handles stuff. Jesus talks of the ‘children of light’ as being kind of naïve compared to the ‘children of this age’. Maybe the church needs to be a bit smarter about how it handles the resources it has. One of the things that we have done in The Village is diversify our life in order to build a future. We operate a Community Centre in our midst that elevates our ability to host our community in our spaces while at the same time attracting some community funding that helps reduce the reliance we have on our offerings as the only means of funding our life together as a church. Let me be clear, this not at all dishonest, as in the actions of the manager in the parable, it is just a smart way of operating. All around us are congregations like ours that are shrinking and aging and whose reach into the communities around them is diminishing. As their giving decreases, so does their reach, until the day comes when all they are doing is giving to survive. In The Village, while we are also struggling to maintain and grow our congregational life, we are, nevertheless, growing our reach so that we might grow our life. I did a rough calculation of how many people participated in activities in our two buildings in just this last week. We hosted over 550 people. Most of those people were involved in activities where they were either served by or mixed with people from our congregation. This is huge, and it is clever. Maybe the church isn’t always all that shrewd in how it handles stuff. However… just maybe, it is possible to handle and manage money and keep our centre-point intact. Maybe.
There’s one other thing I want to offer as a general reflection when it comes to the faith-life. The parable has a baffling edge to it and it is tempting to try and fix it and turn what baffles into some kind of certitudes. You know, there’s a tendency in our society to want to be able to explain everything, and it is quite understandable because quite a lot can be explained. But how a plane flies, for instance, can’t be explained. Here’s the conclusion from an article written by Robert Matthews who is a Visiting Reader in Science at Aston University, Birmingham, England: “So how do aircraft fly? Some will point to Bernoulli’s Law, others to Prandtl’s boundary layer theory and some to the Navier Stokes equations. But in the end, all aircraft are carried aloft on wings made from metaphors, none of which capture the true nature of reality.”
Over the years I have been with Anne, a little saying I came up with has become a spoken-out-loud part of our interactions on a regular basis. “Not everything is to be understood.” My recollection is that the phrase emerged when Anne was mimicking something her Irish mother might have said on occasions that I couldn’t make head nor tail of. I would listen. I would attempt to show all dutiful respect. I would ask for it to be repeated. I would process it. I would ask for it to be repeated again just for clarification. And then I would utter the only thing that did make any sense, and that would be “not everything is to be understood.”These days that phrase encompasses all kinds of things – many of the things associated with how a woman’s mind works, all the things associated with how Anne’s family works, most of the things about how my family works, absolutely everything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth, quite a few of the things associated with some of how our Presbyterian colleagues think, and pretty much everything of how one’s parishioners think… You, of course, might have similar thoughts about me! But apart from all that, everything is going swimmingly!
Michael Stammer sometimes utters the phrase: “There’s nowt so queer as folk, except for me and thee – and even thee’s a little queer.” Not everything is to be understood, I say to Anne. And Anne, I’ve noticed, seems to need to say the same thing back at me – and she gets to do this quite often! Can we have a faith that doesn’t always make sense? Do we have to ‘get’ everything and everyone?
I wonder if many of the parables of Jesus are deliberately baffling. Maybe we need to be more careful with them – as careful as we are with a new-born infant. Maybe we end up limiting them if we demand they fit into our idea of what is possible. Maybe we are to treasure them, and recognise them in such a way that we let them grow into what they are to grow into, and let them shape and change us, rather than we thinking that we are to make them conform to everything we think they should be. I wonder, if we believe everything is to be understood, then we are setting ourselves up for a fall. Maybe this is how we are to be with God as well… it is not for us to always think we can understand God… even though I want to scream from the rooftops that we should not be afraid of trying.