Monday, September 23, 2013

Shrewd business and the reality of fear

Some final thoughts from Sunday’s “dishonest steward” Gospel (Luke 16:1--13).

I’m not sure that this story translates particularly well to the 21st century.  Even when you restore it to Luke’s narrative (and not standing alone in lectionary format), its meaning is hard to decipher.

The first thing worth mentioning is that this is one of multiple stories told in the presence of multiple audiences.  Before this was "Prodigcal Son/Forgiving Father/Angry Brother", and after it is "Rich man and Lazarus".  We have “the disciples”, who are not just the twelve, but the “tax collectors and sinners” that Jesus was eating with.  They were those who worked for the wealthy, doing the “dirty work”, and living monetarily well for it.  We also have the “Pharisees and scribes” who are rich in comparison, higher up on the food chain.

Remembering this, we don't need this story to be the central teaching of Jesus.  Also, we are less tempted to make “the rich man” the good authority in this story.  It is in fact seldom that a rich man is the good example in a Luken story.

The text says that “charges were brought to him that (the manager) was squandering his property.”  His response:  “What is this that I hear about you?” suggests that the rich man has only an accusation, not the proof.  But he acts on it:  while he asks to see the books, he declares even before doing so that “you cannot be my manager any longer.”

Is the steward actually guilty?  Is he dishonest?  There’s no way for us to know what has happened in the past, only that he is convinced that looking at the books will not restore his place.  Perhaps he has given himself too much of the profits.  But it is also possible that the books will show that he is not dishonest in the personal profiting sense, but rather that he has not come down hard enough on the clients to MAKE money, as shown in other parables:  “throwing people in prison” until they can pay (Matthew 18:23-35), or earning exorbitant interest (Luke 19:11-27).

What he does next seems dodgy:  he cuts people's bills in quick fashion, but it is tactically brilliant because everyone stands to profit.  Those who owe the rich man pay less, but then again, some is recovered so the rich man profits without great effort.  Furthermore, those who borrowed are more likely to do business again with the rich man because they associate the forgiveness of some of the debt with the rich man (because they assume his steward must be acting on his behalf).  And yet, the rich man now needs to rethink his letting his steward go.  If he fires him, the debtors will know the steward acted on his own accord, and all the good opinions of the rich man will vanish.

Jesus’ praise of the steward is ultimately based on this shrewdness.  Perhaps the best translation for us today is to be both shrewd in our financial dealings, but in a way that does not hurt others.

While I shared these thoughts with the Littleton congregation Sunday, I also thought that there are more relevant things to hear in the rough relationships of boss and employee.  I shared this brilliant offering from Hanan Harchol’s Jewish Food For Thought: The Animated Series.  I hope you enjoy it as well.