THE SMART COOKIE
A sermon preached at St..LUKE'S QUEEN'S PARK BRIGHTON on 22nd September 2019. Text Luke 16. 1-13
I can confidently say that this morning's gospel passage - the story of the unjust or dishonest steward - is an even more dreaded sermon text among the clergy than explaining how the Trinity works on Trinity Sunday.
In fact, when the Book of Common Prayer was going to be revised in 1928, the committee proposed that that well-loved golden oldie the prodigal son would be allowed as an alternative gospel reading on whichever Sunday this one came up.
So there we are. I've drawn the short straw. The most odd and baffling lesson taught by Jesus of the lot. I mean, I ask you. What do you make of what you have just heard?
This company financial controller gets wind that he’s about to be “let go” because he’s useless so what does he do? He falsifies the books so that the company’s customers appear to owe less than they do, in the hope that they’ll feel they owe him a favour when he’s out in the cold looking for another job.
And when the managing director realises what’s going on, he says “Well I’m blowed! I never thought you had it in you. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, my lad - I’m going to keep you on after all and give you an upgrade and a pay rise thrown in!"
I reckon that’s a fair modern paraphase of Jesus’s words. No wonder many people have asked what on earth these verses are doing in the gospel. But the fact is they are. And the tougher they are to make head or tail of, the more certain we can be that they are a genuine saying of Jesus - otherwise they would have got left out.
You can see that the evangelist Luke himself is puzzled by them, because, having retailed the bare bones of the story, he offers a mish-mash of contradictory explanations:
· the children of this world are more astute than the children of the light
· use tainted money to win friends
· the man who can be trusted/dishonest in little things can be trusted/dishonest in great
· you cannot be the slave both of God and of money
Take your pick. None of this statements sheds much light on the story. So where do we start when we hit a brick wall like this in the bible?
Well, fundamentalists just keep repeating to themselves:“every word in the bible is true”. But that gets us nowhere. What’s the point of asking “Is it true that this rich man and this dishonest steward really existed and these things really happened?” What difference does it make if it’s only a story that Jesus made up?
It certainly sounds more like a fictional story -“Jesus said to His disciples: Once upon a time, there was this rich man in the land of Oz who had a steward......”
So let’s assume it’s fantasy. The question remains: why is Jesus telling the story? What is He trying to teach us?
Two possible answers.
The first is that it is the “example” kind of story. Jesus wants us to imitate the behaviour of the steward.
But hang on - surely He can’t be saying that cheating on your employer, embezzlement, pilfering are no longer sins but something to be congratulated on? Immoral. Goes against the main message of the gospel. Completely out of character for Jesus, isn't it?
So most people have gone for an interpretation that says “Ah but Jesus is not teaching us to follow the example of the steward in being dishonest, but simply follow his example in being clever in the prompt action he took to provide for his future.
The Greek word used to describe the steward is phronimos which means “a smart cookie”. So then the sense becomes ‘why can’t honest Christians be smart cookies as well in providing themselves spiritually for their futures?’
There’s an echo here of Matthew 10 v.16 “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, so be as smart (phronimoi - same word) as serpents and as innocent as doves.
But I’m not sure that’s the whole thing. I said there were two possible answers to what Jesus was up to here.
The other answer could be that this dishonest steward business is not a straightforward “example” story at all but something much more dangerous and exciting - a PARABLE about the nature of the kingdom of heaven.
Now of course the thing about parables is that they were Our Lord’s penultimate secret weapon, time bombs set to go off in your heart after a delay while you have teased out what the parable is really saying to you. That is why He used to say “I talk in parables because they look without seeing and listen without hearing.” He even once said “Everything comes in parables so that they may not understand.”
Designed to shock and provoke - to shock out of religious complacency; and to provoke a crisis of faith and conscience; to shake up the mind set of each individual hearer.
So let’s start again. Let’s treat our impossible gospel this morning as a parable about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. That means eveything’s up for grabs. We need a brainstorming session, some “blue sky” thinking, the freedom to try any interpretation on for size, even if necessary to “think the unthinkable”.
Suppose the message is: in the Father’s kingdom, if there were such a thing as money, you would sit very lightly to it - easy come, easy go. You’d never love it, never ever hoard it, rather spend it freely, even if it didn’t belong to you. After all in the kingdom of heaven no-one will have private possessions, no-one will keep books, no-one will have debtors or creditors.
And suppose we then think for a change about the other character in the story - the boss who’s been ripped off but who grins, shrugs it off and says “never mind, full marks for your cheek.”
You know, he reminds me of the other boss in that other parable about the unjust debtor - the boss who was owed a fortune and simply wiped the slate clean out of compassion and generosity only to find that the debtor was too mean and greedy to follow his example.
That boss sounded very much like God to me and I wonder if this morning’s boss is also God in disguise. If so, it’s quite a revolutionary image of a God who laughs it off and pats us on the back when we cheat Him and hurt Him in order to further our own ends as we see them.
Hang on. What are we saying? Are normal standards of justice being denied in the kingdom Jesus preaches?
YES!! In Jesus’s kingdom masters do not get even with their servants. Fathers do not get even with their children. Bosses do not have to pay you less than those who worked longer hours.
Hard to get our heads round? Of course - but then unfortunately so is most of Jesus’s teaching.
The world has never come to terms with “love your enemies”, “turn the other cheek” and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount and none of us Christians has ever come within a mile of keeping to those blunt and uncompromising commands. Even the timebomb parables have mostly failed to detonate in our hearts.
But did you notice I said a moment ago that the parables used as a device in Our Lord’s teaching were His penultimate secret weapon?
When His teaching fell on deaf ears and His missionary purpose was misunderstood, He had one final - and not very secret - weapon left: His gift of Himself nailed to the cross out of sheer love for the redemption and salvation of the world.
They say actions speak louder than words. If you ever get tangled up, like we have this morning, trying to unravel the meaning of a passage of scripture, put the bible aside and just gaze at a crucifix for as long as it takes to get the message.