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2016.09.18 Trinity 17

Sunday 18th September 2016 – Revd Martin Dryden

The Bad Steward


One of the things that the Old Testament often does is to bring home how shocking and radical the gospel is, and this week’s reading from Amos is a case in point.  It was written in around 750 BC at a time when Israel was enjoying a rare time of freedom and prosperity.  In 805 BC, Syria was taken out by the superpower of the day Assyria, roughly modern-day Iraq, so when king Jeroboam of Israel came to power in 793 BC, he more or less had the field to himself.  And he took advantage of it.  He restored Israel’s boundaries by military means until it was as big as it had been in the reign of King Solomon; and because he was able to re-establish control over the trade routes, Israel began to claw its way out of the third division and to move up in the world in the league table of nations.


And this all brought a new sense of prosperity.  There was an atmosphere of confidence that no-one had experienced in living memory.  Israel was feeling good, doing well, people felt secure within their borders and there was money around.  Many people bought second homes which they furnished with expensive showy furniture.  They owned vineyards, they loved good food and wine and they entertained lavishly with music and song.  They didn’t stint themselves in the pursuit of pleasure.  In short, the good times had arrived.  And on the face of it there didn’t seem to be very much wrong in the religious department either.  People worshipped God.  In fact, they thronged to the main centres of worship.  They loved their traditions, they offered sacrifices as laid down in the Law, the musical side of worship was vibrant, and all the religious festivals were strictly observed. 


So here was a nation that was on the up and up, at ease with itself and at ease with God.  But that’s not how Amos saw things.  He saw a society on its last legs.  Where everyone else saw peace, prosperity and pleasure, Amos saw corruption, moral bankruptcy and spiritual emptiness: clear signs, he believed, that it was all going to end in tears.  He was really concerned that merchants indulged in sharp commercial practices - overcharging and using dishonest scales and short measures - and that the poor were trampled on.  They were often driven into debt and then sold as slaves.  Where others saw prosperity Amos saw the wealthy spending their money on drink or illicit sexual pleasure and in bribing judges to turn a blind eye to their crimes.  He thought that society had been overthrown: it had given way to a situation of every man for himself.  The rule of law was held in contempt and moral standards were going to the dogs.  You can sum up Amos’ criticisms in one word: injustice.


If Amos had been in the crowd when Jesus had spoken his parable about the corrupt manager wasting his master’s possessions he would have expected justice to be done.  But when Jesus says that the businessman approves of his manager taking ethically unsound measures to save his skin as soon as he realises that the game is up, I expect Amos would have been incandescent.  Because what the manager did was to defraud his master by massively writing down his receivables.  His master accused him of wasting his possessions and what does he do?  He wastes even more of them - four hundred gallons of olive oil and two hundred bushels of wheat to be precise.  It flies in the face of our sense of justice and fairness.  Had the owner taken leave of his senses?  If a company were faced with the bankruptcy of one of its main suppliers today it would try as hard as it could to recover as much of the debts as possible.  Can you imagine the tone of the discussion around the boardroom table if its financial advisers decided unilaterally to write off half the receivables?  This is pretty much what happens in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US, and to a lesser degree in Germany, but it’s the courts that scale back the creditors, who naturally enough don't like it at all. 


So the question is, can Jesus really be likening God to a businessman who congratulates his employee for defrauding him?  How can God tolerate, let alone condone, such behaviour?  So why is this parable called the parable of the shrewd manager? 


I said at the beginning that the Old Testament reading often highlights something shocking about the gospel, and the shocking thing here is that God isn't concerned about money; he’s concerned about the manager.  The manager is dishonest, we know that and his boss knows that.  But he chooses to commend him for his shrewdness.  The manager responded shrewdly to the imminent loss of his job and his livelihood.  He keeps his head in a moment of crisis and acts with boldness and decisiveness to secure his future.  He had let the debts of his bosses’ trading partners pile up to such an extent that they were now either unable or unwilling to repay him, and the manager had no way of making good such a shortfall himself, so he fell back on another kind of capital he could bank on: grace and forgiveness. 


When I think about the creditors in the parable, their debts are so enormous that Jesus must want us to realise that they have no chance of ever paying them back, and this is how it is between us and God.  And we know from periodic financial crises that when debts get that big, it’s the lenders, not the borrowers who end up at greatest risk.  Even though he was perfectly within his rights to demand the repayment of every last penny the businessman in the parable knew in his heart that it just wasn’t going to happen.  Something had to give.  And what the manager did, and what I think Jesus is commanding the Church to do, is to be shrewd with God’s grace.  The manager redeemed a potentially fatal situation in the nick of time and in the process created surprised and delighted customers who would now be willing to carry on doing business.  Although his boss had taken a serious hit in the short term, in the longer term his wealth had been preserved and his cash flow would actually increase.  And that, I would say, is what Jesus did for us on the Cross.


The shrewd manager, for all his faults, turned out to be an excellent steward.  That is the Good News of this parable.  God is a god of grace and we can be agents of his grace in spite of the shortcomings of our church and our own faults and weaknesses.  This promise is full of hope and encouragement.  We have permission to do whatever it takes to bring grace to others.  Amos with his burning desire for justice would have been infuriated by the very suggestion, but the task we have been entrusted with, of making known God’s never-failing love to others, demands that we take whatever steps may be necessary.


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