St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Notes for Reflection

September 22                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:  Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

[Note.  Because of the overwhelming nature of our gospel reading today, and the relative insignificance of the two lessons, I am abandoning my usual format.  What follows is almost exclusively focused on the parable.  Normal service will (probably) be presumed next week.]

Theme: For lovers of John Milton, what about "Confusion Worse Confounded"?  Or, for those of more contemporary literary tastes, perhaps "Fifty (At Least) Shades of Grey"?  For Beatles' fans (and for those concerned for Shane Warne and Liz Hurley) we could go with "We Can Work It Out".  [I tell you, spending hours with this week's parable can really mess with your mind.)   More biblical might be "Children of Light in a Dark World".  In some desperation I'm going for "Luke's Unique Trilogy".

Introduction.  The scene is set for us today by a challenging little cameo from Amos, one of the so-called minor prophets who pack a major punch.  He has an almost cartoonist's gift for caricature as he describes his targets' obsession with making money.  He reminds us that our happy idea that "Sunday is our day, when we can do whatever we like" is a reversal of the biblical understanding.  Sabbath means a rest from pursuing our own interests and focusing on the rights and interests of others.  Our second lesson is also pretty clear, though quite what we are to make of it is open to argument.  And there is the parable, generally agreed to be the most perplexing of the lot.  Or should that be, the most realistic of the lot?

Background.  Over the last few weeks we have had quite a few reminders of the importance of observing Sabbath, and of the importance of reputation, which seems to play some part in this week's parable.  I'm wondering if there might be some connection between these two issues.  One thought arising from the Amos reading is that the people he is going after would rather embrace the world of 24/7 business, but are constrained by the fear that being seen to breach Sabbath would damage their reputation, lessen their social acceptability, and therefore reduce business opportunities.  Is that too far-fetched?  In a roundabout way this reminds me of a man who suddenly started attending the local Anglican church.  When asked why he explained that he had recently attended a seminar that "really opened my eyes".  It turned out that the seminar was a business forum on the importance of building up good social links.  The local church, he had learned, was particularly useful because membership tended to affirm "your personal integrity", and that was a priceless asset.  A few shades of grey there, surely!

Which gets me to another issue of contemporary interest – that of "tainted money".  Some years ago I was asked by my then Archdeacon to lead our clergy in a discussion of various ethical issues.  On most of them there was fairly wide agreement; but we almost came to blows when I raised the issue of whether or not the Church should accept money from whatever source, or whether we had some responsibility to ensure that only "clean" money entered the Church coffers.  The idea for this particular topic had been prompted, rather late in my preparation, when I happened to be in the church office when a rather disreputable-looking guy came in and announced that he had "a few dollars for the Lord".   The receptionist obviously knew him, greeted him warmly, and reached for the receipt book.  Our benefactor then produced a bundle of notes from inside his old coat and handed them over.  Five hundred dollars entered the church coffers at that moment!

It seems that Jimmy (why are such people always called Jimmy?) was a regular donor of such sums.  When he first appeared on the scene the Vicar was a little concerned.  He happened to have a good friend in the local police at the time, so he asked his friend to assist him with his inquiries.  The friend knew exactly who Jimmy was and where he was getting the money from.  He was a "back-room bookie" who operated from one of the local pubs near the church!  He was always scrupulously fair in his dealings with his customers and in the absence of any complaints the Police had more important matters to deal with.

I had intended to use Jimmy's story as my second example, but we never got past the first.  As we had vigorously and publicly opposed any increase in gambling outlets should we decline to accept grants from the Lotteries Commission or other sources where funds came from gambling?   It was amazing how many planks of Western civilization – including, most importantly, our own bell-tower – would be put at risk if we were to adopt such a ludicrous "holier-than-thou" attitude.  (The idea that some priests were vigorously arguing against the church being holier than some unnamed thou still strikes me as somewhat bizarre all these years later.)  Shades of grey there were not: black and white was the order of that particular debate.

Right, enough of these delaying tactics: what approach can we take to this week's parable?  I want to suggest two that I have found most useful as I have pondered it this week.  First, it is striking that this is the middle of three major parables grouped closely together in Luke, none of which appear in any of the other gospels.  Chapter 15 ends with the ever-popular story of the Lost Son (incidentally, who decided we should no longer refer to this one as the Prodigal Son, and why?)  Because of the chapter structure imposed on Luke's narrative, and the fact that the preceding stories are about the lost sheep and the lost coin, we naturally assume a change of subject when we get to this week's parable at the start of chapter 16.  But is that right?  Notice, first, the third story in this unique trilogy, "The Rich Man and Lazarus".  Are there not connecting links?  Do they not form a mini-series examining our attitudes to material wealth in varying circumstances?

Here's the first clue that started me down this track.  In 15:13 we are told that the son "squandered his property" in living the high life.  In 16:1 we find the same term used: a whistleblower tipped off the rich man that his manager was "squandering his property", though without any details of the nature of the squandering.  But there is a major difference between the two cases, of course.  In the first case, the son is squandering his own property, whatever we might think of the manner in which he had acquired it.  In the second case the manager is squandering his employer's property, not his own.  It's as if Luke is saying, okay, let's now tweak the facts a bit here; what if the character, instead of squandering his own property, is squandering someone else's – say, his employer's property?  What difference would that make?

Here's a second clue.  All three stories feature a moment of crisis for the individual concerned, and of increasing severity.  The son faces starvation, but has a place to return to, albeit (he expects) with a much lower status.  The manager loses his livelihood, and has to manufacture an escape plan from scratch.  The rich man, (let's call him Dives because other people do) is beyond hope and there is no escape plan for him.  Related to this series might be the attitude of God or his alter ego in each story.  In the first story the Father's welcome of his returning son is unambiguous – overwhelming mercy and love personified.  Now brace yourself: my take is that the employer in the second story is intended by Luke to be the God-figure, for he is also shockingly merciful and understanding.  The Jewish law and custom at the time would have expected the employer to throw the guy into the debtors' prison for ever and a day, unless he somehow managed to pay reparation in full.  To simply dismiss him was an act of great mercy – less so than the Father showed his son, of course, but still remarkable.  In the third story it is too late for mercy: God's judgment is final.

And a third clue is this.  Even when the son comes to his senses he has no concern for anyone else.  His thoughts are centred entirely on his own predicament.  At most, his plan to humble himself at his father's feet perhaps recognises something of his father's hurt feelings.  In the second story, we can perhaps see some slight development of this theme.  Again, the manager's plan is primarily self-serving, but it gives a hint that he needs to have some thought towards others, albeit for selfish reasons.  In the third story, while Dives' first thought is to seek some relief for himself from the flames of hell, when he realises that's not a goer he at least turns to the interests of his brothers and asks for them to be forewarned.

So there's my first approach.  If we take these three stories together this middle one might not seem so outrageous.  It might be seen as the middle one of three case studies on the related themes of material wealth, the danger of becoming obsessed with our own fortune – building it up and retaining it – and losing our concern for the interests of others, particularly the poor.

The second approach is to remember that the whole nature of a parable is to make the reader/listener do the work – to join the dots, as it were, and apply the truth of the story to his/her own circumstances.  This works well enough for us if the parable "translates" easily into our modern practices and mores; but sometimes that is not the case.  Sometimes our social norms are so different from those of Jesus' time that we need to do a lot more "translation work" before we can understand a parable, and I think this one is a classic example.  About the most helpful scholar I have come across for this purpose is a man called Kenneth E Bailey, whose two books on the parables in Luke's gospel are called Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (subsequently published in a combined edition.)  Although a Westerner by birth he has spent much of his life in the Middle East and comes at these parables from the point of view of a Middle Eastern hearer.

He devotes a whole chapter (chapter 5, running to over 30 pages) to this parable.  I haven't the space or time to go into his argument in any depth; but one thought I want to share with you is this.  How easily we leap to conclusions, and how easily our conclusions can be unjustified, whenever we tackle a parable.  We hear the manager referred to as "dishonest", and assume that he is rotten from the start.  But read the text again, and we find that term is not used until verse 8.  The dishonesty lies in discounting his mater's debts, not in his squandering of his master's property.  He is not accused of embezzlement.  The charge seems to be one of poor management – perhaps lazy neglect of duty – but not theft.  Now ask yourself, what is your opinion of the character of the employer?  Are we not immediately prejudiced against him by the use of the term "rich man"?  And when he "commends" his dishonest manager for his shrewdness, don't we feel justified in our stance of suspicion – don't we mutter, it takes one to recognise one?

Bailey rejects most of this.  He says that those who heard this story would have had a very favourable view of the rich man in the story.  Palestinian village life would have meant that everybody knew everybody.  This landowner was not an absentee landlord screwing his tenants for whatever the market would pay.  Had he been, no one would have tipped him off that his manager was not up to it.  The landowner must have been a local and well-liked.  Bailey says the other details in the story ring true.  The debtors must have been tenants on some sort of share-cropping arrangement.  Apparently there were three types of arrangement in those days.  One was simply to rent the land, paying a rental in cash.  A second was to rent the land in return for an agreed percentage of the crop.  A third, evidently the one used in this story, was to rent the land for a specified amount of produce: the landowner gets the first cut up to the agreed amount, and the tenant gets everything above that amount.  If particular circumstances changed – storm, drought, etc, - some adjustments could sometimes be made.

The critical point here is that these tenants were themselves pretty big-time.  They were not subsistence croppers living on the breadline.  And they would not have had a bar of the manager's plan B if they suspected for one moment what was really going on.  They had far too much to lose by getting on the wrong side of the landowner.  Notice that the manager is instantly dismissed.  The landowner requires him to hand over the books: time is now of the essence.  As soon as words gets out that the manager has been fired the tenants will have nothing to do with him.  So the manager acts in great haste.  The tenants must assume that he is acting with his master's authority.  They will therefore be delighted and spread the good news.  Before the master knows any of this he is being lauded in the village for his wonderful generosity.   What can he do but go along with it – his reputation requires it!  He is snookered and knows it.  Being a good sport, he congratulates his ex-manager on a game well-played.  But the manager remains the ex-manager.

But how will all this help the manager?  Well, maybe – just maybe – he leaves the tenants with the idea that the generous discounts came about on his recommendation.  Wink wink, nudge nudge – know what I mean?

Well, that's a brief summary of Bailey's view and it makes sense to me.  I hope it helps for you, too.

And the remaining issue is what Jesus draws from this story.  Does he also commend sharp (meaning dishonest) commercial practices?  Verse 8 is not too troubling – it seems to be just a matter of fact.  Similarly, we can just about cope with verses 10-14; but what on earth are we to make of verse 9?  One possibility MAY be that money is not in itself good or bad, honest or dishonest.  It is a resource to be used for good or evil.  (The answer to Jimmy's case, perhaps.)  If that's right, then whatever we have (and however we have obtained it?) we must expend for the good of others.  Possibly, but doesn't it smack of buying friends who will then testify on our behalf at the final judgment?

Perhaps my approach is too black and white.  Do I need to recognise that in the real world there will always be various shades of grey?

Taking It Personally.

  • What do you think of the whistleblower?  If you thought your neighbour was evading taxes (by moonlighting, for example) would you tip off Inland Revenue?  If you suspected your neighbour of domestic violence would you speak up?  What about child abuse?  Would your approach be different if the "suspect" were a friend or a family member?
  • Do you find the "three case studies" hypothesis helpful or not?
  • How do you feel about the rich man (the landowner) being cast as the "God-figure"?  Do you agree that he seems remarkably merciful and understanding in the circumstances?
  • Now put yourself in his place.  Suppose someone has ripped you off?  How would you respond?
  • Are these stories really about accountability?  About recognising that in the end we must all give account of ourselves?  How do you feel about that?

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