Luke 16: 1-13
Once in a while I like to share with you one of the rules I created for myself. So far I have 13 of them. Today, let’s talk about rule number 5: Sometimes you have to choose the less damaging option. I know. It is not very positive or uplifting. It is sounds more like a variation on the concept of catch 22, the proverb “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” or the myth of Inakalé. Let me explain this last one… of better, since we have the data projector installed in our sanctuary for my presentation about the future of the United Church right after our worship service, let me show it to you. I did my first Master’s degree in African History. My director had a huge collection of popular paintings from central Africa, and one of the recurrent themes in those paintings was the myth of Inakalé. On this painting we can see a man in a very dangerous situation. He is at the top of a tree that is about to fall. On another branch we can see a snake. The man cannot jump on the land because there is a lion waiting him. He cannot either jump into the river because of the crocodile. The man cannot stay put, and every possibility in front of him does not seem to offer a better solution. Sometimes you have to choose the least damaging option.
I taught of this rule after reading today’s text from the Gospel according to Luke. During his ministry, Jesus told many stories we often call parables. The meaning of some of them is quite straightforward while others are a little more obscure. This parable is probably the strangest of the New Testament and it has left a great number of commentators perplexed. Maybe this is why this story has so many different titles. Some Bibles used the subheading ‘the Parable of the Dishonest Manager’. However, in others we can read, ‘the Unjust Steward’, ‘the Clever Manager’, ‘the Shrewd Manager’, ‘the Resourceful Stewart, and ‘the Crafty Manager. The Common English Bible version, probably confused by all of this, prefers the title ‘Faithfulness with Money’.
Let us look back at this story. This parable has two main characters who are the owner and the manager and neither are not necessarily likable. First we have a rich man whose story is unknown beside the fact that many are significantly indebted to him and the owner does not seem to lose much sleep over this situation. Then we have a manager who is charged with squandering the property of the rich man. Without any form of investigation or further questioning, the rich man fires his manager. You’re fired! Facing impeding unemployment, our manager who does not want to work in the field or beg on the streets of the city, decides to do some dealing. He goes to a few of the owner’s clients and settles their debt at much lower conditions. You own 100 of jugs of olive oil? Write down fifty. And you, how many containers of wheat? 100? It’s 80 now. We should remember that the manager is not making deals with his own money. Also he does not have authority to reduce these debts. Nevertheless, he does it because he figures that the clients will be grateful and take care of him in the future. His apparent generosity is highly motivated by his own welfare. Then, the owner shows up and begins to praise his manager for doing exactly what led to the manager’s dismissal, squandering the resources of the owner. The manager who shows no regret, transformation or change of behaviour, moves from scumbag to hero. Everybody seems to be happy. The end.
Many has tried to analyze this parable through the lens of economic justice. As the expression says, money is the root of all evil. The broken relationships in the community and the manager’s arguable behaviour are caused by greed. Since we cannot serve two masters, we ought to choose God over Mammon. This interpretation is interesting if one overlooks the fact that the people’s debts are not completely erased. Others have come to this parable by trying to find God in this story. If God cannot obviously be the questionable manager, God has to be the rich owner… who does nothing to forgive or reduced the debts of the people. Once again we have a problem. The more I look at it, the more I am convinced that this parable has nothing to do with money. It is not about God either. This story is about all of us and our inability sometimes to keep our eyes on the big picture.
Many years ago, when I still had time to watch day time television, I came across an episode of Dr. Phil who was talking with a young couple. The wife was complaining because her husband was absent and never took her out. The man who was working 12 hours a day was saying he was too busy or too tired to find a restaurant, make reservations and plan everything. Dr. Phil suggested to the couple that the wife could choose a day she would like to go out, select two or three restaurants she would like to have dinner and the man would pick up the phone and make the rest of the arrangement. The wife replied that it was not very romantic. Dr. Phil looked at her and said, ‘Do you want to be right or do you want to go out?’ Do you want to be right or do you want to go out? This sentence stayed with me since then. Just ask the staff about the amount of time they heard me saying, ‘Do you want to be right or do you want to win?’ ‘Do we what to hold on to your principles at all costs or do we want to see this project being accomplished?’
Let me give you another illustration. On September 4th, the Roman Catholic church has canonized Mother Teresa, meaning her life should be considered to be an example for all believers. If the wide majority agrees with this statement, some has raised concerns about some of her questionable relationship with some dictators like Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier or Albania’s Enver Hoxha. Others highlighted that Mother Teresa’s order accepted money from the British publisher Robert Maxwell, who stole 450 million pounds from his employees’ pension funds. There is also the case of Charles Keating who donated millions of dollars to Mother Teresa and had lent her his private jet when she visited the United States. Keating was charges with fraud following high-profile business failures. Should have Mother Teresa accepted this tainted money from questionable individuals who were trying to use her for public relations? Was she right to deal with political realities of the time in order to lobby for her causes? And yet, what was the alternative? Doing less work with limited resources? Letting the people die literally in the street of Calcutta in the name of some sort of purity? Which is the less damaging option, getting a bad name or the suffering of vulnerable people?
Of course, in a perfect world, we would not have to choose. Everyone would do the right thing for the right reason. Every project would follow the proper process. Every individual would be generous without being reminded. Every good initiative would receive the appropriate funding. Unfortunately, it is not always the case. Large corporations offer to give money to universities if they name a building after them. Organizations like the Canadian Cancer Society have to sell tickets offering the possibility to win trips and cars in order to raise money. Some people hit the jackpot at the casino and want to share their good future with their church. What should we do? Should we stay pure and adopt a holier than thou attitude? Should we remain on our moral high ground? Most importantly, what would be the cost of our rigidity? Will we have to choose eventually between our organ or our youth ministry? Will we have to decommission this building because the roof is leaking and we are unable to adapt to a new reality? Who will help the vulnerable in this neighbourhood? How important is the sustainability of our congregation?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we have to sell out. I am not saying that everything goes as long as the money comes in. It is just that sometimes we need to be pragmatic. We need to keep our eyes on the big picture. In today’s parable, the manager is a self-interested man. His motivations are less than pure. He forgives the debts of the clients for all the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the actions of the manager made a difference. The level of debt of a community was reduced. For some family, maybe it meant being able to buy enough food, helping a sick neighbour or pulling resources together to upgrade local facilities. It would have been great if the manager had a change of heart and give unselfishnessly his own money. But even if it was not the case, something good emerged. Maybe it was a bit messy, but the lives of many were improved. Imperfect actions led to positive outcomes.
Today’s parable featuring an unrighteousness manager helps us, Church people, to remain focus what is really important. Do you want to be right and do everything according to what we consider the proper reason and way, or do we want to build what Jesus called the kingdom of God? In our imperfect world, sometimes we have to choose the less damaging option. Sometimes we have selected the best means to do all the good we can. By all the means we can. In all the ways we can. In all the place we can. To all the people we can. With every imperfect individual we can find. Amen.