Monday, September 19, 2022

A Trickster Turns His Ways


Luke 16:1-13

Proper 20 / Year C

Let me tell you a story from ancient Hebrew folklore:

A poor beggar is caught stealing food and the king orders him to be hanged.  On the way to the gallows the thief tells the executioner he knows how to plant a pomegranate seed in the ground and have it produce fruit the very next day.  “My father taught me this secret,” he says, “and it would be a shame to allow it to die with me.”  This gets back to the king and he orders the prisoner to be brought to him. 

A gathering of the highest officers of state assembles for the demonstration.  The beggar digs a hole in their presence and produces a single seed.  Then he states, “The only way for this secret to work is for a person who has never stolen or taken anything which did not belong to him to place the seed into the ground.”  “Being a convicted thief,” he says, “I can no longer do it.  One of you will have to place the seed in the hole.”  Well, one by one, each high-ranking official, realizing his past misdeeds will be exposed when the seed does not produce fruit the next day, bows out. 

When no one steps forward, the beggar says, “All of you are mighty and powerful and want for nothing and yet you cannot plant the seed, while I, who have stolen a little because I was starving, am going to be hanged.”  The king, pleased with the ruse, pardons the beggar.

This is one of many Hebrew stories demonstrating an affinity for what commentators describe as the “clever trickster.”  The biblical figure Jacob is a trickster patriarch who deceives his father, cheats his brother, and then makes off with the family’s livestock.  Gideon fools a powerful army by making 300 men appear to be 300,000.  And in the parable we just heard, Jesus tells the tale of a person known as the “dishonest steward;” a trickster, if you will, whose shrewd response to his impending dismissal is commended by the master he has failed to serve with fidelity.

To our modern ears the parable sounds like a barbershop quartet off pitch.  It is one thing for Tom Sawyer to con his friends into painting a fence (our version of a clever trickster); it is another to sell out your master’s possessions at a discount.  But if we can separate out the various notes within the chaotic chord of the story, we will find there is something important here for us to hear.  We might learn why Jesus has the master praise the servant.

The parable begins, as several do, with the phrase “There was a rich man…”  But the rich man will not be the central figure in the drama and the story is not a condemnation of his wealth.  No remark will be made about the rich man’s possessions, how he comes to acquire them, or how he uses them to promote the welfare and wellbeing of others.  The wealthy man himself appears to live a life of leisure, not working at all.  We know just two things about him.  He rents out his land to others and he hires a manager to oversee the collection of the rent.

This is a story about the crafty trickster who is hired to oversee the rent collecting.  Although his lifestyle is not described, it does not take much imagining to deduce he is a devil-may-care, live for the moment, loaf.  He has no aspirations for the future.  He does not save for a rainy day.  He is unwilling to do physical labor in order to improve his lot.  He does nothing to further himself intellectually, socially, or spiritually.  He cannot keep current even on his one simple task – collecting the rent.  We get the idea he sits around the master’s house all day with his feet up on the furniture, drinking the best liquor from the master’s cabinet, eating all his gourmet food, and smoking his finest cigars.

The New International Version of the bible puts it best” the steward “was accused of wasting [the rich man’s] possessions.”  He is lost in a frivolous haze of material acquisition and consumption.  His life is wrapped up in the feverish pursuit of more than he really needs, in getting his hands on what no one really needs at all, and not valuing what he has, once he has it.  What he most desires and craves is not what is really important at all, and thus he wastes the precious resources at his disposal.  Everything changes in one dramatic, unexpected moment.  The rich man comes to him with a devastating demand: “Give me an account of your management.” 

Every month I are blessed or cursed with an account of my financial management.  Banks and credit card companies send me statements to tell us what I bought, when I bought it, and how much I paid for it.  More than once I have looked at my statement and wondered for a moment what some of your month-old purchases were for; then it comes to me and I have “buyer’s regret”.  Taken as a whole, these financial documents may just be a record of my squandered wealth.

The demand for an accounting sobers up the dishonest steward.  He comes to see two things very clearly.  First, he recognizes he has not made prudent provision for the future.  Second, he comes to realize he has put possessions before people.

Given these, here are some things for us to ponder.    There is a power for living in the present possible only when you are laying a foundation for the future.  There is fullness to life when the excesses of wealth are directed toward hospitality, compassion, thoughtfulness, and charity.  Don’t be thrifty in your generosity toward others.  Don’t skimp when it comes to saving for tomorrow.  The dishonest steward with an overly lavish, succulent lifestyle comes to these truths late in life, but not too late, and for his insight and change the rich man who dismissed him commends him.

This email was circulated some time ago, but it still makes a relevant point:

Take this quiz:

1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world.

2. Name the last five people who won the Nobel Peace Prize.

3. Name the last five Academy Award winners for best actor or best actress.

4. Name the last five winners of the Super Bowl.

How did you do?   The point is, none of us remember the headliners of yesterday.  These are no second-rate achievers.  They are the best in their fields.  But the applause dies.  Awards tarnish.  Achievements are forgotten.  Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.

Here’s another quiz.  See how you do.

1. List five teachers who aided your journey through school.

2. Name five friends who have helped you through a difficult time.

3. Think of five people who have made you feel appreciated and special.

4. Think of five people you enjoy spending time with.

Easier?  The Lesson: The people who make a difference in your life are not the ones with the most credentials, the most money, or the most awards.  They are the ones that care.

The great thing about this difficult parable is that if a dishonest trickster could come to his senses and get it right, how much easier should it be for folks like you and me!