Whenever the scripture turns to a really complicated concept, I have a tendency to turn to the experts. Today is no exception, however our ‘experts’ are none other than Abbott and Costello. See what you think of this skit: [Play DVD]
They have an interesting way of tallying mathematical concepts! When we first look at this parable of the shrewd manager, you have to wonder a little about the master’s response, don’t you? Look at the details. Right off the bat, the manager is getting fired. Charges were brought against the manager and the master wanted a full accounting of what the manager had been doing. So what does the manager do? He immediately works the problem.
I don’t know if you have ever worked with someone who would literally shut down when problems would arise, but I know I have. You can picture the scene – a sudden influx of customers, a surge of patients in the ER because of a bad accident, accountants on April 14th. There are those who cannot handle any deviation from their norm of operation. For some reason these folks simply cannot adapt to difficult situations – denial seems to be their only recourse. It is almost as if their brains cannot compute the added burden and literally pulls them into a safe place. I believe a lot of us were there on 9/11 as we recalled those events of 15 years ago just last week.
I have also worked with people in crises who were absolutely phenomenal in their approach to handling extreme situations. My guess is you have worked with these folks as well, or perhaps you were the people managing the crises. Prior to becoming a pastor I worked as a Medical Technologist. When the hospital where I worked called a code yellow, that was its disaster code. All leaders of each division were called to the board room which was quickly converted to a command center. This occurred during two blizzards which occurred in the same winter season. When a majority of techs and nursing staff and physicians could not get in to the hospital for their shifts and those who were stranded there couldn’t leave, the hospital declared a code yellow. Suddenly there are issues of housing, food, basics such as showers and rest time. How does one shift rest when the next shift cannot arrive to relieve them?
But those who find themselves in charge of a disaster like this often do rise to the challenge. They become single-minded in working the problem from the bottom up, looking at all areas of concern, delegating tasks and keeping things operational. Hospitals are one entity that cannot shut down, so the single-minded task is always to keep patients and employees safe and cared for throughout the crisis.
The shrewd manager in our parable was faced with a serious problem – a crisis. He was losing his job. So he quickly assessed his options and realized he had very limited skills for work. Yet he is quite shrewd and very clever. He puts his single-mindedness to the task of solving his problem in a very inventive way.
This parable mirrors the environment of the time. The Roman government put huge tax burdens on the people of Jerusalem. Many quickly found themselves in debt far beyond what they would ever be able to repay. Jewish law held to a ‘Year of Jubilee’ which occurred every seventh year. At that time, all debts of neighbors were forgiven. But the Romans were not interested in recognizing Jewish law on this point. Many Hebrews would have to sell their land in order to pay taxes and in turn become workers on their own land. When the seasons were bad, they would borrow against what they hope the crops would produce during the next season until many became so far in debt there was never any way to repay the master.
Also, we are not given any details about whether the master or the manager followed Jewish law. Perhaps the manager was like Matthew the tax collector, or Zacchaeus who ended up repaying 4 times what he had taken. Charging interest was against Jewish law – perhaps the shrewd manager was trying to show he was adhering to the law on this account by forgiving the interest he was unlawfully charging.
So when the first debtor came to the manager and said he owed the master 100 jugs of olive oil, it constituted a debt this person would never be able to repay. He would be like many who find themselves buried in credit card debt today, with a balance that never decreases. It is quite possible this shrewd manager was cutting his own interest but at the same time he was making the debt more manageable for the debtor and making a life-long friend.
The shrewd manager does the same with the next debtor and probably all the other debtors, making friends and literally cutting his losses. One thing this manager knew was that he was also placing these debtors in debt to him in a different way, and he knew that very soon he would be calling in that debt in order to be cared for when he lost his job. These were truly shrewd business practices in a corrupt system.
I wonder how many of us would want the master to extend harsh judgment on this manager. He is clearly cooking the books! He’s been cooking the books all along! Like Costello in the movie clip, he could show you just how perfect things seem while at the same time robbing you blind. But instead the master commends the manager for knowing how to operate well within the corrupt system, for when one serves money as his/her master there can be nothing else as important.
I think the whole point of this parable comes down to verse 13: “No one can serve two masters; for you will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” What does it look like to serve God – I mean to really serve God in all ways, at all times, and in all things?
Today we are focusing on stewardship and I want to look at being good stewards in three areas – stewards of our talent, stewards of our time, and stewards of our treasure. With each of these areas I will be using the tried-and-true standard of the tithe. What exactly does it mean to tithe? The literal interpretation is 1/10th of all we have. If we truly want to follow God and make God Lord of our whole selves, it involves giving back a portion in appreciation to our Creator.
When we consider a stewardship of our talent, what does that look like? How can we serve when we are unsure of our talents or spiritual gifts? It is easier to say we don’t have any gifts or talents, therefore we cannot possibly give back anything to God. Here’s a stark reminder – all that we have, all that we are, all that we will be belongs to God. We can try to reverse this focus but it does not make it less true. We don’t own anything. We are stewards of all God has blessed us. We may have honed our talents, but ultimately our entire being belongs to God. Tithing of our talents is a sign of gratitude – a way to give special thanks to God for our abilities.
But if we are only driven by money and are never satisfied with how much we have, we are literally serving wealth – wealth becomes our master. The pursuit of wealth is the force behind all we do. Our work becomes a quest to satisfy ourselves. We become shrewd in our tactics to get ahead and build our bridges so we can have fall back options that will keep us on track toward power and importance and yes, wealth.
I remember a job interview I had for a sales job. I was asked what drives me to do good work. I noted being motivated by the satisfaction of helping meet a customer’s needs, feeling good about the product I was selling, knowing I was making a significant impact. I did not get the job because I did not say that my primary motivator was money. I think we live in those times. So many are making wealth their master – it becomes hard to trust those who genuinely care for one another. We become a bit skeptical, wondering what the other person wants out of our friendship. Yet when we share God’s love with others, we need to let our actions speak for us. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel always, use words when necessary.”
How can we tithe of our talent? You are aware of your talents and gifts. Some of you are good with children while others are good with numbers. Some of you can cook – others are good at organizing events. Some of you have marketing savvy – others are good at visiting the sick, swinging a hammer, writing cards, driving the church van, praying for others. I think many of us would prefer to stay on the bench, but God is putting us in the game!
Our community is watching us. They are looking to see that what we say God’s love is and how we live out God’s love are one and the same. Let your light so shine in the darkness that everyone may know which Master you serve. God is the center of our lives, of our church community, of our neighborhood, and of our world. Is God the center of your life? Our talents are gifts from God – let us go against the culture of our world and present a tithe of our talents. We will know the joy of giving as we honor God in all we say, all we do, and all we are. Amen.