Jesus the Compromiser?
Luke 16 : 1 - 15
Jesus was not a black and white person. He was a colour person and his colours were full of subtle shades and nuances like a wonderful painting. In the parable of the shrewd manager, he really makes us think. On the face of it, this manager is corrupt and an embezzler, dishonest and untrustworthy but Jesus seems to commend him for his pragmatism and for getting himself out of a bad place.
The first accusation against this manager is of wastefulness and this was on such a scale that he was to get the sack. We have heard horror stories about wastefulness in government and business and. I am sorry to say, in the Church of Scotland also. BBC executives spend thousands on parties. Local cooncillors install shower suites in their offices. We remember the MP with the duck house and another with a moat maintained by taxpayers. Glossy colour publications by the hundred thousand were spewed out from 121 George Street for years. Business men and women indulge in fancy cars and personal registration numbers. It is easy to spend someone else’s money. Britain is in huge debt due to wastefulness in part. It is so wrong because in other places in the world, people struggle for food on a daily basis. The luxury of wastefulness defines a society which has lost its core values.
The manager in Jesus’ story realises that he is soon to be out of a job. The manager was a slave but a skilled one in charge of the estate. We might call him a factor. He knew he wouldn’t get another position as good. Being a slave he had no home of his own and no money. If he was dismissed he was literally put out on to the streets. He says “I’m not strong enough to dig”. Maybe he was once but his years of soft living had made his arm muscles and hands weak. There’s no way he could go out into the fields and labour for eight hours a day. He would not even make morning break time. He does not want to suffer the ignominy of begging in the streets since he has been a locally influential person with good contacts. He thinks of his wife and children who would be ashamed. Sir Fred Goodwin’s wife and children must suffer acute embarrassment. Signing in at a hotel for example or being recognised in the street. Goodwin has plenty of money but he is despised by many. It is hard to fall on bad times if you have enjoyed a luxury lifestyle. So this manager decides on a clever strategy. He has been indolent and inefficient in running his master’s affairs and his master is owed a fortune in unpaid bills. Rather than just disappear, and, indeed, rather than sabotage his master’s property further, he tries to help himself by negotiating deals to redeem some of the debts and let the debtors off the hook. So he goes round the people who owe his master a lot. He says to one “Give me cash now - half of what you owe and I’ll settle our bill at that”. The debtor is delighted of course to get off so lightly. He takes 20% off another account for immediate settlement. This is false accounting or ‘creative accounting’ as it is sometimes known. Perhaps some future stock-taking would highlight the discrepancy but he would be long gone by then. It was also a kind of blackmail. He had involved the debtors in fraud and he could demand favours in return.
His master is pleased that he did not just disappear but that although he was to lose his job he did his best to make amends. But he was not interested so much in his master’s fortunes as his own future. He would come back to these very people and say ‘You owe me - have you got a job going?’. In other words, he used his master’s money to buy himself future employment. He was lazy, corrupt, self-interested and clever. There was an interesting episode on the radio during the week. A former prisoner who had murdered his landlady with an axe had led a campaign for prisoners to get the vote. John Hirst has become an internet hit as he is seen smoking cannabis and drinking champagne and gloating over his victory against the government. You can just imagine David Cameron and Teresa may watching that! A rascal without any sense of decency or regard for his victim’s family’s sensibilities, he even boasts about his new found international internet fame.
Jesus says that “the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light”. What does he mean? He means that people do not seek God in the way they seek money. He means that the imagination, cleverness and deviousness with which people seek money and wealth is different from the sleepy, sloppy way people think of God and of salvation and their spiritual destiny. He means that many people spend their lives thinking of ways to make money but not thinking about their souls. People will try anything and go to extraordinary lengths to make money but they will not so easily do that for Jesus Christ. People also will spend more time and money on their hobby than they will on their Faith. They can spend hundreds and thousands on their pleasures but grudge giving a proper offering to their Church.
Jesus tells his disciples, “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings”. What does he mean? Jesus also says that a better way to use money is to build up friendships that will be helpful in the future. Business works that way. Expense accounts, lunches, dinners, corporate entertainment. The charity industry works that way too. People befriend one another by supporting causes with funding from charities in which they have a role. Royalty is very influential in all this and a royal approval or patronage secures extensive inroads to many large charity funds managed by the in-crowd of establishment society.
There is also a good motive possible here. The rabbis had a saying, “The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come”. Jesus himself taught the same things that we should store up goods in heaven rather than on earth. He also taught that the wealthy person who ignores the plight of the poor will see the reversal of these conditions in the next life. Real wealth is to give away not to keep and hoard. Both Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates, the two wealthiest men of their respective generations agreed that they should not keep the wealth they had accumulated.
Jesus also makes the point that money runs out. It is good to prepare for the day when money is of no use. Most people agree that health is far more to be desired than wealth. Jesus taught that the ingathering of fortunes is a poor existence in itself. Brian Souter and Ann Gloag his sister and Tom Farmer are Scottish philanthropists inspired by their Christian Faith. At the end of their lives and ours - it is not what we have that matters but what we did with it.
Jesus then talks about trust and responsibility. Faithfulness in early years, on the way up. Honesty in financial matters when no-one is looking. Working hard for little reward can lead to greater things in time to come. If we establish credibility of character we can expect to succeed in later life.
In those days a slave was a slave 24/7. He or she had no outlets and no part time work and no extras. No slave had two masters. But Jesus is talking about money again - to his disciples. He is teaching them what it will take to be true disciples and effective apostles. The disciples were ordinary men with family responsibilities. Some were small businessmen. It was not easy to change them into followers who did not put money first in their lives - even if it was only enough money to live a decent family life.
The story closes with Jesus’ criticisms of the onlooking Pharisees. They liked to appear righteous but in God’s sight they were greedy and materialistic. It says 'the Pharisees who love money'. This is the caricature of the Jew throughout the world to this day.
Jesus was full of colour and interest and challenge. He was not a compromiser but he was a realist as far as human intention and motive is concerned. He knows our thoughts and motives too as Church members. He wants us to be 100% for Him. Always.