Four-year-old Lily had a problem: she really wanted to take her stuffed animal friends on a picnic lunch, but she was short one plate. She had four plates in her kitchen playset, but when she had rushed out the door with her mom that morning on the way to Grandma’s house, one of the plates had been left behind. Everything else was set. She had laid out the afghan from the back of the couch on Grandma’s living room floor. Her teddy bear, Mr. Snuffles (the purple elephant), and Kitty (the calico cat) were all sitting in their places. She even had the food ready – fruit, taken from the bowl on grandma’s kitchen table, and yogurt – the empty cups which she had found drying next to the sink, waiting to be thrown into the recycling bucket. But she only had three plates – one for each of her furry friends, but none for Lily. Then, Lily had a flash of inspiration: she could use that plate that Grandma had sitting on the bookshelf. It was a very pretty plate, with letters and numbers around the edge that Lily couldn’t yet read, and a picture of a church in the middle. She knew it must be a very special plate because it sat on its own wooden stand, and Grandma carefully dusted it each week. Lily ran over to the bookshelf . . . and found that the plate was just out of her reach. So she stood up on her tiptoes and stretched – and bumped the book next to the plate, which wobbled, and then fell over, knocking Grandma’s plate to the ground, breaking into more pieces than Lily could count. She was in a panic. What could she do?
Maybe she could hide the pieces of the plate. Or
Maybe she could run and hide. Or
Maybe she could tell her grandmother that she found it that way. Or
Maybe she could say that the wind blew it down.
You can picture it, can’t you? A child, confronted with her own guilt can be incredibly creative in trying to wiggle her way out of trouble. Creative and quick in coming up with solutions. And persistent in sticking to the story. Because our natural impulse is to save ourselves.
This desire to save oneself was also the impulse of the manager in Jesus’ parable. He was accused of being dishonest and was about to lose his job. So, confronted with his own guilt, he got creative in trying to wiggle his way out of trouble: he slashed the bills of his master’s debtors so that they would remember him kindly when he was out of work. He did it quickly, before he actually lost his job. And he was persistent, seeking out each of the debtors one by one, and marking their accounts paid in full for a fraction of what they actually owed. In the end, the master commended him for acting so shrewdly.
And so the lesson to be learned from this parable?
I’ve read a ton of different possible interpretations of this parable – and I have to tell you that none of them sits well with me. For example, I could point out to you that all managers at that time were probably expected to charge more than was owed to their masters as a way of making a living. Call it interest, if you will, or a commission. And so this manager, cutting the debts owed to his master, might not have cheated his master at all! He might have just sacrificed his own cut. I could point out to you that we don’t know why he was accused of dishonesty in the first place – or even whether or not the accusation was true. I could also point out that it was the master who commended the manager for how he handled the situation, not Jesus. Nevertheless, we can’t deny that Jesus is the one telling the story. He’s the one who made up the characters and the plot. He’s the one who makes the master pat the manager on the back for his shrewdness. How do we handle that?
One key to interpretation is important to note: Jesus did not commend the manager’s dishonesty; he commended his shrewdness – his creative way of finding a solution to his problem, his quick wit, and his persistent efforts to reach his goals. Jesus observes, “ . . the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” The dishonest manager is a child of this age, a person whose primary focus is on the matters of this world – taking care of himself. And the manager is shrewd – we can’t deny it. On the other hand, we are children of light, children of God, followers of Jesus, and our primary focus ought not to be taking care of ourselves but bringing about God’s kingdom. But how shrewd are we?
How clever are we about working for the kingdom? I think about little Lily, and how creative she was in coming up with solutions to her problem. I’m sure her grandmother would have seen right through her fabrications, but you’ve got to give her credit for thinking out of the box, at least for a 4-year-old. Are we as good at thinking outside of the box as Lily? As the manager? Or are we more comfortable preserving the status quo in our families? In our neighborhoods? In our church?
Shrewdness also entails moving quickly. How quick are we to respond to the needs of the world? How urgently do we heed Jesus’ call to kingdom work?
And to be shrewd is also to be persistent. How much stick-to-it-iveness do we bring to our efforts to make this world a better place, not just for ourselves, but for all of God’s children? I’ve just begun some anti-racism training, and one thing that is already apparent to me is that there is no one book that I can read, no one course that I can take, no one relationship that I can enter that will fix the problem – in me or in society. It’s a life-long journey, and it takes persistent effort to travel that road. As do all of our efforts to make the world more just – through our care for creation, through our advocacy for the oppressed, through our help to the poor. Are we as persistent as the manager in the parable in sticking to the plan that God has given to us?
I’m still not comfortable with this parable. I don’t understand why Jesus used a dishonest person as an example. But I do get that Jesus wants us to be shrewd, not in trying to save ourselves, but in the way we go about our ministry. I hope we never tire of looking for creative ways to serve God and neighbor. I pray that God will stir in us an urgent desire to live for the world around us, rather than for ourselves alone. And I ask God to make us persistent in our discipleship. Because as we are shrewd in our ministry, we will discover that God is always looking for creative ways to reach us. We will find Jesus urgently seeking us out. And we will experience Jesus’ persistent love for us. How shrewd is Jesus! And how blessed are we!