Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Being Shrewd about People & Things

A well-dressed man walks into a New York City bank and asks to speak with a loan officer.  He says he is travelling to Europe on business for two weeks and needs to borrow $5,000.  The officer tells him that the bank will need some kind of security for the loan.  “No problem,” the man says as he hands over the keys to a Bentley parked in front of the bank.  Everything checks out and the bank agrees to the loan.  An employee drives the car into the bank’s underground garage and parks it there for safekeeping.  Two weeks later, the man returns to repay the loan along with interest, which comes to $15.41.  The banker says, “We appreciate your business, but I am a little puzzled: why would someone of your obvious means want to borrow such a small amount of money for such a short period of time?”   The man looks the banker in the eyes and says, “Where else in Manhattan can I park my car for two weeks for just fifteen dollars and change?”
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines ‘shrewd’ as “having or showing an ability to understand things and to make good judgments: mentally sharp or clever” and adds, “marked by clever discerning awareness and hardheaded acumen.”  Closely related to the word ‘shrew’, being ‘shrewd’ carries with it something of a negative connotation.  It hints that someone got over on another person or group in a way that, while legal, may not exactly be ethical, moral, or kind. 
Many bibles title the gospel reading we just heard “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager.”  Commentaries explore in great length why this servant’s questionable behavior is praised first by the rich man in the story, but ultimately by Jesus himself.  I admit some parables are more easily understood than others, but each parable is meant to convey a singular truth, often in a startling way.  All the other extemporaneous details, if focused on too closely, detract and distract us from the simple point.
Reflecting on this parable back in the 13th century, the great theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that the heart of sin is to love things and use people, when we ought to love people and use things.  The shrewd manager caught pilfering his master’s property figures this out and does whatever he can with whatever he has to build better relationships with the people in his life.  The parable – convoluted though it may be – teaches a fundamental truth: God created people to be loved and things we have we have to help us do it.  Sin comes about when we get it turned around.  And, apparently, it is human nature to do just that.
I came across the following testimonial earlier in the week:
My friend bought a much larger house than he should have.  His cars were always the latest model.  The restaurants he ate at were high end.  The lucrative sounding investments he made were entrusted to people who loved money more than honesty and eventually it all came crashing down.
My friend’s life of creature comforts and successful appearances crumbled.  He went broke and depression led him to take his life, leaving teenagers without their dad.
It’s easy to get fooled into thinking that money and things bring happiness, but they don’t.
I think Jesus is so down on possessions because he figures the less you have the less likely it is you will love those things more than the people in your life.  But this does not seem like a practical approach to life in 21st century America.  Ours is a world of conveniences and comforts.  We are not likely to divest ourselves of all but the bare necessities, especially if we are doing so in a desperate attempt to get our priorities in order.  In this life we are going to have things – lots of things, in fact.  The challenge is to love others more than we love our things. 
One person who got it right was Randy Pausch, a computer science professor and author of The Last Lecture, which is an account of a college course he taught after he had been diagnosed with untreatable pancreatic cancer.   Pausch tells a story about a time he bought a brand new car, drove it off the lot, and went straight to pick up his sister and her two children.  When he got to their house, his sitter – the children’s mother – sternly lectured them to be careful in ‘Uncle Randy’s’ spotless new car.  She didn’t want them to damage or dirty it in any way.  The kids were on pins and needles, clearly uncomfortable.  So Pausch took out a soft drink can, opened it up, and poured the contents on the driver’s seat.   “There,” he said, “Now my car isn’t new anymore.”  What motivated him to do such a crazy thing?  He wanted to demonstrate to his sister that he valued her kids, not his car.  He loved them.  The car was just something he used to drive them from point A to point B.
Here are two practical things you might do to help you use things in order to love the people that matter in your life.  The first is this: value things that remind you of the people you love.  Whatever things you value in life, let them tie you to the people with whom you associate it. 
Those of you who have been in my house know that I made the curious decision to decorate my entire home using the colors in my parents’ wedding china.  The china graces my dining room and I bring it out for dinner on special events like Christmas and Thanksgiving.  I value the china because I love my mother and father.  It connects me to them and to my sisters through memories of meals we shared.  The china has monetary value, to be sure, but its real worth to me cannot be measured in dollars.  Its real worth comes through its association with those I love.  Without that association the china would be just more stuff I carry around.  I am sure you have possessions that convey the presence of those who have touched your lives.  Use those things to stay connected to those you love. 
Last Sunday we heard Jesus tell a parable about a woman who, upon losing a coin, cleans the entire house until she finds it.  And when she finds it she calls together her friends to rejoice.  That coin would have been one of a set of perhaps ten given to her on her wedding day.  Its value laid not in its worth, but in its connections.  Jesus understood this kind of attachment and told a story to celebrate it.  So let the things you have remind you of the people you love.
And here is the second thing you can do: use the things you have to serve the people you love.  You can use your car to give a ride to a friend who can’t drive.  You can use your kitchen and cookware to make a meal for someone who is recovering from illness or surgery.  You can invest some money in a micro-loan project like Kiva, which allows you to choose people from all over the world who are looking to borrow a little bit of money in order to make their dream of a better life come true.  Prayerfully consider how you might shift from hoarding what you have to helping others through what you have.  It is not a one-time step you take and have down, but rather a disposition of the heart and soul lived out as a life-long journey.
Shrewd: “having or showing an ability to understand things and to make good judgments: mentally sharp or clever.”  Be shrewd with what you have using it in ways to build love and relationships with others.  Nothing you have in life matters more than the people in your life.  It is a shrewd person who figures this out.