Monday, 23 September 2013

The Parable of the Dishonest Businessman (A story for our times)

This is based on the sermon I preached on Luke 16:1-13, the parable of the dishonest steward, which can be read here. Before I launched into my sermon, I got the congregation to read the passage again silently, having just heard it read aloud. At this point one person said 'I really don't get verse 9', and another made a comment about loving God and wealth. 

As you know, this year we've been reading our way through Luke's Gospel, and one of the things I've noticed as we've read it through is that some parts of Luke's Gospel are so familiar to us, like the parables we heard last week, the parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep, the woman turning her house upside down to find her coin and the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep on the field to search out the one who is lost - these are stories that often, children in churches and church schools hear as preschoolers - and now we come this week's reading, which is much less familiar. I don't know if you've noticed, but we've skipped a bit in between the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and the parable we've just heard today - does anyone know what we've skipped? (One person knew that it was the parable of the lost son.) And preachers up and down the county have been bewailing all week, why couldn't the lectionary just give us the prodigal son? 

Because, as I've said, some bits of Luke's Gospel are easier and more familiar than others. With the parables we heard last week, it's easy to see ourselves in those parables; it's easy, if we've been Christians for any length of time, to recognise that we get lost, we are lost without God, and God is that good shepherd who comes to look for us when we are lost in the temptations of the world and the despair of our own sin. 

And it's easy to suppose that all Jesus' parables are to be read like that, to suppose that all parables are allegories about God and the Christian. But I'm not so sure that is the case. Some parables might be instructive or illustrative stories to help us understand particular types of behaviour, without necessarily condoning the behaviour. Think of the prophet Nathan's parable when he confronts the adulterous, murderous King David. You might have been brought up on Aesop's fables; some of those fables are illustrative little stories that help us to understand different experiences. In the Bible, some parables use a particular type of logic that goes like this: it says, 'if this little thing is true, then follow the lines of logic and you'll see that this other, much bigger and more important thing, is even truer.'         

And so to this parable, the parable of the crooked businessman. Now, I wonder if anyone here has watched the BBC series Hustle? It's a fun, clever programme, about a group of savvy chancers pulling off ingenious heists in glamorous locations, usually with something of a Robin Hood twist - they seem only ever to fleece wealthy people whose morals are just as questionable as their own. The basic idea of the show is that we're left wondering through much of the programme how on earth they are going to pull this one off, and applauding their chutzpah and sheer genius at the end. These chancers know how the big financial players think, and they play them so brilliantly that it's only too late that they realise they've been had. 

So in this parable: there's a crooked businessman, and he's messed up, big time. He's about to get the sack, and in that moment, panic seizes him. What's he going to do? How's he going to survive? When I read this, I can't help but think of the financial crash of 2008 and wonder how many financiers might have felt that same bolt of sheer panic through their entire bodies when they realised that the ship was sinking fast. Here though, it's only one person who has messed up, and he knows it. 

And in that moment of sheer panic, a brilliant idea comes to him. I know, he thinks, and before anyone can stop him, he's ringing around, using his final days as an employee to slash prices here and there, and with each re-configured debt, another name gets added to his contacts list. Genius! He knows the game he's in, and he plays a blinder. He's going to be sacked anyway - what's he got to lose? 

Now, we'd expect that when the boss catches up with his employee's dubious business activities, he'd be livid. 'You've done what? You've squandered even more of my money?' 

But the twist in the tale is that his boss is just as crooked as he is - in fact, it turns out that the whole industry he's in is corrupt from top to bottom.  So where we might have expected him to get told off, he gets praised. He doesn't get his job back, but he does win the admiration of a fellow-crook who recognises a genius move when he sees one, just like the gang in Hustle. Within this businessman's little world, his actions make perfect sense; in fact he shows himself to be a pastmaster at the game he's in. 

Then comes the real twist in the tale – if that business manager knows how to play the game, which is sordid and worldly and corrupt, what about us, who play for much bigger stakes – the kingdom of God? If we recognise that God's kingdom of justice, love and peace is so much bigger and so much more important than the grubby business dealings in this parable, how can we 'play' everything we are, everything we have, for the sake of that kingdom? 

Jesus says something about that at the end of this parable. He says that if we're going to play everything for the kingdom, that means knowing that we can’t be mastered by materialism, by the capitalism that surrounds us all the time, on our TV and computer screens, when we leave our homes to go shopping, when we notice a new thing our friend has and want ourselves. We can't allow ourselves to be sucked into this materialism, because it will tear us away from following Jesus. Luke's Gospel has often been called a 'Gospel for the poor', and at the start of Acts, the second volume of Luke's story, Luke describes how the first followers of Jesus shared their possessions, and lived in simplicity for the sake of the kingdom. This is not frugality for the sake of it, it's simplicity so that we can focus our time, our energy, on what really matters, and that's working for the coming of God's kingdom of justice, love and peace. 

So the challenge hidden in this parable is this:  how can we play brilliantly for God in our generation? That will mean lots of different things to different people. One missionary said this: he's no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose. 

I'd like to encourage you, also, to wrestle with these less familiar bits of the Bible. There are treasures within. Amen.  

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