"There is nothing edifying in it" - that's what Rudolf Bultmann had to say about Luke's parable about the dishonest manager, (Luke 16: 1-13) due up this Sunday.
He was right; we are not edified, we are dumbstruck. But the gospel stories were rarely told for edification or respectability. They say if Jesus had paid more attention to being respectable he would have lived to a ripe old age.
The manager's world has just crumbled. He knows the jig is up: his boss is on to his scheming ways. He is called to an accounting, shocked into attention. He is about to lose his job, so he makes sure he has some friends. He goes to those who owe a debt to his master, and he slashes their debts in half. He fixes the books, so that 100 jugs of oil are counted as 50; 100 containers of wheat are written off as 80. He is squandering the master's goods again, to win the friends and the influence the people he is going to need. He is no fool, this manager, but he is hardly a hero. So why does the master commend him? What is Jesus' point with this parable?
Remember: Jesus' parables were a means of confrontation. These clever tales were not told to bring comfort or joy. They were told to challenge the conventional wisdom of the day, they were told sometimes even to shock. And this one about crafty manager is one of the most shocking. Not only is the protagonist a scoundrel, but in the end he gets praised for it.
Jesus' parables and teaching, in fact, his very presence announced a reversal of the status quo. He told the people that God was not far off, but available to them: the "kingdom is at hand" he said, right in our midst, not hidden away behind a veil in the temple. Jesus worked on the Sabbath; he sat down at table with the prostitutes and tax collectors, all the wrong people. He said that compassion mattered more than keeping the rules. He broke all the rules. Jesus himself was an affront to morality, to respectability; that's why they had him killed.
With this odd story of the crafty manager, we are shocked into attention, so that we might hear a parable of reversal. "You have been seeing the world one way," Jesus said, "let me turn your world upside down. The moral of my story is not what you think. My ways are not the world's ways." Maybe this is just the parable for this moment on our fragile, weapons-riddled planet.
In his book The Parables of Grace, Robert Capon wrote "The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing-which is the only kind of grace there is." (p.150)
An odd notion: grace works by losing, by death and losing. That sounds like a reversal. We think of grace not as losing, but as glory, don't we? We use grace to describe the richness of God's goodness, the balm of God's blessing, the calm after the storm. How can grace come through our losses?
This is where the story of the crafty manager touches into our own stories-our times of losing. If grace is God's interaction with us, it comes almost always as surprise, when we least expect it, when we are caught off guard. That's what the crafty manager shows us. Maybe then we make room for the surprise of God's grace, maybe then we get stopped long enough in our tracks to take notice of the possibility of God's presence in the middle of our mess. Maybe only then can we know that there is no more "business as usual," and we need new eyes to see it all, new wits to comprehend what has happened.
That is where we have found ourselves so many times in this last decade-caught by surprise when our twin towers collapsed, when Katrina and Sandy swept away our illusions, when economic security washed away in the Great Recession, when wildfires told the tale of the rising temperature of our planet. And we find ourselves here again, with the rise and fall of the Arab Spring, with the images of murdered Syrian babies and 11th-hour negotiations. In this moment, how do we measure losing, and winning, and respond to grace?
Echoes from the Edge
By Anna Woofenden - September 16th, 2013
My mom tells the story that when I was a child I would often come into a room, bouncing up and down, and tell her, "Mom, Mom, I have the best new idea!" I would then proceed to describe my business plan for selling fresh-brewed mint tea at the end of the driveway, or sketch out how to set up a full-fledged post-office in the living room for all the family communication needs.
As an adult, when I come into a meeting room, or into a conversation with a new colleague, I have learned to control myself from bouncing up and down. But I am still filled with that entrepreneurial spirit, and drawn to others for whom creativity and innovation bring excitement as well.
When I look at our current cultural landscape, it is clear to me that the world is changing and that the church is changing. Change can be unsettling or unknown, and we can become paralyzed by it. Or change can call us to our creative and courageous selves. Change can lead us to reimaging church, to inventing new ways of encountering faith community, and to being prophetic in the work of seeing all people as precious children of God.
It is that courage and passion-joined with entrepreneurial spirit and deep faith-that I see in the faces of the Beatitudes fellows and in the staff and supporters of The Beatitudes Society. I see people who are actively wrestling with the realities of the culture we are living in and being present in the church in transition, while holding an acute awareness of the culture of the communities and world around us. And I see a community that is leveraging opportunities to weave these conversations together, combining the church and the public square-the life of faith being a life active in the world.
It is my honor to be joining this team and the network of people who share a passion for this vision, and I look forward to engaging in this work together. And sometimes I may just have to bounce.
Finally, the Poet
By Naomi Shihab Nye - September 16th, 2013
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the
Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone who journeyed through the night
with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.