Disciples’ Shrewdness

Sep 19, 2022

Sermon 9-18-22
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Luke 16:1-13
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     As we strive to be more devoted and less distracted disciples during these final weeks of this Pentecost season, I’m wondering if today’s Gospel lesson will do us much good. At least I’m not alone in that sentiment, all of the commentaries agree that this parable is tough – perhaps so connected to its context that it makes no sense to those who live in another time and place. But, perhaps there is a shrewd message here, so let’s try to understand it.
     Jesus introduces us to two characters in his story, a wealthy master and the manager of his estate. The manager has been accused of squandering the mater’s property and is about to be fired. It is important to know that in that culture a manager of an estate could act in every capacity as the owner’s agent, with full authority to buy, sell and handle the property of the master. Whatever the manager did, it was as if the master had done it himself, thus the master’s reputation was dependent on how the manager behaved.
     Evidently the manager has been caught taking advantage of his position for his own benefit or not doing his job well. We really do not know how he squandered the mater’s wealth. Yet, the prospect of being fired gets his attention, though; he’s too weak to do manual labor and too proud to beg. But he is shrewd.
     He needs friends who will help him out in a situation such as this and one way to make them is to decrease the debts of his master’s customers. That brings us to another reality of the time – while charging interest on debts was against Jewish law, hidden interest – charging it under other guises – was common. Also, it was usual for those managing the accounts to take a cut for themselves, on top of the non-interest interest.
     So, when the manager reduced the debt, he may have been forgiving his own cut. Or perhaps he forgave the hidden interest, doing what God’s law required, and causing his master to appear to be a paragon of righteousness who observed covenantal law. For these actions, the master commended the dishonest manager – whom he was about to fire – because he acted shrewdly. (In spite of the fact that he had squandered his property.) Why?
     I can think of three reasons. #1 – The master benefited in some way from the manager’s actions, even if it was only to be viewed as righteous himself. #2 – Even though it was done for selfish reasons, the master admired the “righteousness” of the manager in returning the unfair tax and his cut of the payment. #3 – While the master does not think the manager is righteous, he admired his quick thinking to provide for his own future.
     Now, if we stopped there, the parable probably makes sense to us, but we’d be in the dark about the point or message or moral that Jesus is conveying to his disciples, which, after all, is the reason for a parable. Jesus does make a summary statement, but I’m not sure it really helps us in our quest for devoted discipleship.
     He says, “…for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than 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.” (vs. 8-9) What??? Years ago, I came up with an explanation of what I think this means. It’s something like this:  If a dishonest person can be shrewd and come out on top, so to speak, then we who are the managers (stewards) of God’s gifts should be even more shrewd and diligent. So, we use our material possessions (which is what is meant by dishonest wealth, not that it was gained illegally, but that it is worldly) in helpful ways to touch people’s lives (make friends). That is, make a positive difference here and now. Then, when we die (and we cannot take it with us, so it’s gone) we will be welcomed to enjoy the imperishable treasures of eternity.
     How then, can we be shrewd for the sake of God’s Reign? How can we develop “Disciples’ Shrewdness”? That is a great word, isn’t it? The best definition for it in this context is to be “keen-witted, clever, astute or sharp in practical affairs,” but it also can describe one who is “artful or cunning”.
     What shrewdness can we develop to be more devoted and less distracted disciples? I used to think that the final four verses of this text should be considered as bits of wisdom or slogans, but now I wonder if the intention is to view these verses as ways to acquire “Disciples’ Shrewdness”.
     Let’s begin with a basic but challenging point-of-view, which is to consider everything that we have as a gift of God that is to be used to meet our needs and to love and serve others. That’s Disciples’ Shrewdness. From that launching pad, Jesus tells us to be faithful with both material and spiritual possessions, whether the money, material items or gifts of the Spirit are in small or large amount, our own or belong to someone else, manage them with as much commitment, but also creativity, as is yours to use. That’s Disciples’ Shrewdness.
     Realize that being faithful leads to being trusted with more. (It’s sort of like the saying, “if you want something done, ask a busy person.) Scripture states elsewhere that to those who have been given much, much is expected. That’s Disciples’ Shrewdness.
     And, finally, whatever you do, do it with serving God in mind. Do not consider some activities to be for God and others not for God. It’s all for God. You cannot serve two masters, whether it be God and yourself, or God and another person, or God and wealth, or God and a political point-of-view or God and anything else. The shrewd person realizes this and uses all his or her keen-wittedness, cleverness, astuteness, with a little cunning thrown in, for the sake of God’s Reign, which is everywhere, not just in “religious” settings. It’s in a football stadium, a restaurant, at the Mall, in the neighborhood, at the park, in school and at work. To live with that as a guiding reality of our words, actions, decisions, that is Disciples’ Shrewdness.
     Jesus tells us many ways we can develop Disciples’ Shrewdness; the primary one probably is “those who save their lives will lose it, but the ones who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it.” Every piece of advice we received today flows from that, AND are sure ways to become more devoted and less distracted disciples. AMEN