Mark Twain once commented that he did not trust the scripture as a teaching tool for morality, because it is filled with liars, thieves and con-artists who are all beloved by God.
Did you hear what Jesus said in the Gospel? Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth. What do you think he means? This is a startling contrast to our collect, which admonishes us to love heavenly things.
It seems that Jesus really did say this, and that someone remembered the story. Luke is the only gospel to include it, and Luke places it in the middle of the section of Jesus’ stories of divine mercy. This is not the sort of parable we are used to hearing – it is a little shocking. What is Jesus up to? The hero of this parable is a scalawag, and we do not include this story in most Sunday is particularly memorable precisely because it is outside the boundaries of any conventional moral teaching. This is like the rest of our life, in which the beauty of holiness is revealed in the paradox of ordinary messiness.
Caught in the act of cheating his boss, the manager is going to lose his job. To ingratiate himself with people he knows he will need in the very near future, he cheats a bit more, by reducing the debts of his clients. This is not a pure act of kindness: he is motivated by self-interest. At the same time, he indirectly benefits people who are in difficult economic situations. Even a selfish scalawag can be an occasion of grace!
Jesus commends the shrewd – or shady – manager as an example, not for his dishonest dealings, but for his clever solution in a time of crisis. He observes that this manager – who is “of this world,” meaning someone whose values are entirely selfish – has maneuvered his way into a better situation. What could his good-hearted followers do, Jesus asks, if they committed to the way of God with the fervor of the corrupt?
Jesus believes that his followers are capable of what he himself has been busy doing: healing, forgiving, telling the truth, and proclaiming the kingdom. We need to embrace the holy economics of God, to be as clever as the manager in today’s gospel, with a different goal: serving our real self-interest, alongside the best interests of the world that God loves, by building up the Kingdom of God. What will happen when the good people are as clever and ambitious as the scalawags?
Today’s collect contrasts being “anxious about earthly things” with “loving things heavenly.” Sometimes, we might imagine that “loving things heavenly” as some kind of ethereal, spiritual experience, bathed in soft light, with angelic song and harp music playing in the background. However, the stories Jesus has been telling about the serving God as he walks toward Jerusalem are not ethereal at all. They are earthy, everyday stories that connect with regular human lives. This is one of the central mysteries of Christian life: in order to “love things heavenly,” we turn toward the dust and flesh and blood of which we are made, and use those to build the Kingdom. After all, we are not angels: we are flesh and blood. Remember that it was the flesh and blood of Jesus, mixed with the dust of Calvary hill, which have given us the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life.
We are living in a time in which all churches are managing internal issues affecting rebuilding after the pandemic. At the same time, we confront the issues of the world (hunger, violence, poverty). Your Cathedral is embarking on a capital campaign, because we need a new organ and hope to expand our fellowship space. We are in a process of moving onward, in a context of challenge, and possibly with some anxiety because life and the world are imperfect. Do you think that Jesus expects us to quit because we are afraid of the challenge? Or do God and our community need us more than ever?
Jesus invites us to be shrewd about recognizing that God’s grace and love are present in a very complicated real life, here and now. God has given us everything we have and has called us to be stewards, generous managers of God’s gifts. If we are passionate only about our self-interest, we will never rise above the level of the greedy manager. If instead we acknowledge our service to God – we will find freedom to be generous and loving. We can become stewards who make friends for God. Jesus invites us to be smart and creative in our community life, with our financial life, and with our commitment to service of the needy. Jesus expects that we will give this work our best effort, because the life of our parish and the lives of our neighbors depend on our commitment.
I have no doubts that in the economy of God, we can accomplish great and heavenly things, if we set our hearts to do it.