The Shrewd Manager - September 18, 2016 - 17th Sunday after Pentecost - Dr. Pam Birrell

Reading:  Luke 16:1-13

I don’t know if you are as confused by this story as I am, but I was certainly confused, and especially when it happened to me!

Oh, I’ll admit that I wasn’t the best manager in the world. I was supposed to watch over my master’s wealth, keeping track of what was owed to him and collecting on those debts; you know, overseeing all those small details we all have to deal with.  He was very rich, beyond imagining.  He had much more than he needed.  So I took a little here and a tad there for myself and my family, changing the books just a bit.  I guess I’ll have to admit to taking just a few things from the office from time to time and coming in late and leaving early.  But I did no worse than that.

 So “squandering”?  I don’t think that’s exactly the right word. Careless maybe, a bit wasteful, maybe not working 100 percent… It was just a job after all! We’re all can be like that, can’t we? It was never really big stuff.  After all, the world is an unforgiving place and we’ve got to look out for ourselves because no one else will. 

But then there were the debtors!  Oh my God!  What a set of losers!  There was old Eli—everyone knew that he was a drunk.  Drank up all his profits and lived off others…. And Judah!  I heard that things went on behind closed doors at his house that we decent people don’t even want to know about!  And they were all like that.  They didn’t even notice when I asked them to overpay a bit when I thought I’d gone a little too far doctoring the Master’s accounts.  And then there was Julia!!   I know we’re supposed to take care of widows and orphans, but really?  Even when they are absolute shrews??  It was harder to cheat Julia—she kept track of every penny and really went off on me when I tried to cheat her!

But that day the Master called me to him and threatened to fire me… that day put fear into the heart of me for sure!!  What could I do??  I’m kind of small and getting older.  I don’t have any training for anything other than this job and who’s going to hire me now? It took all I had just to walk out of that room.  I hope you can imagine the despair and hopelessness I felt at the time.

But I was also puzzled.  The Master let me keep the job for a while?  What was that about?  He could have just fired me right then!  He sure had reason to, I’ll have to admit. Was he waiting to see if I straightened things out?  What if it wasn’t?  Could I take that chance?

And then I had an amazing thought!   What if I cozied up to people and made them like me??? Then when I lost my job for sure they’d help me out! We live in a world where you only get help if you’ve earned it somehow. So that’s what I did and it nearly killed me—cozying up to the likes of Eli and Judah and Julia (even though I knew she couldn’t help me—maybe she knew someone) and all the other losers.  I did what I had to. I was desperate after all! I actually undercharged them, letting them pay less than they owed!  It was hard and weird but soon it seemed to be working!  People were grateful for what appeared to be my generosity and I began to be hopeful that I wouldn’t be destitute when I did lose my job.

So you might imagine my surprise at what the Master did next.  “Surprise” isn’t really the right word either.  It was more like astonishment, amazement or shock when he applauded what I was doing.  What???  Was he so gullible and stupid that he didn’t see what I was doing?  Even I will admit that there wasn’t anything to celebrate in my behavior. And I was certainly “squandering” much more money than I had before.

I was deceitful and conniving to say the least. Had I gotten away with all my trickery?

You could have knocked me over with a feather for sure. I just didn’t know what to make of it all. But as time went on I began to realize something.  The master wasn’t at all gullible or stupid. I really knew that from the outset, although I didn’t want to admit it. I didn’t feel like I had gotten away with anything. Instead I felt, in a sense, forgiven.  But that’s not really the right word either.  It was more like being seen right through to the very core of me—like he was seeing all my faults and selfishness and petty crime—and loving me so much that he not only gave me another chance, but I could begin to love all those parts of me too.

And then other surprising things began to happen. Eli and Judah and Julia and all the rest of those losers? Something changed in them too.  Or perhaps something changed in me that changed them? I don’t know. It was as though a spell had been broken—the spell of selfishness or ego or separation, or something like that.  I began to see Eli in all his despair and hopelessness and how he drank because life was so overwhelming and devastating for him that he didn’t know how to cope.  And Judah? I began to believe that regardless of whether or not those rumors were true, who was I to judge his life choices? I was no better than he—trying to get by in a world that all too often seemed hostile and heartless.  And Julia’s gratefulness in the light of my supposed generosity? She melted and softened so much that I could see that what I judged as a shrew was really a frantic cry for survival in a world that threatened to swallow her up.

I had reached out to help others (for perhaps the wrongest reasons ever) but realized that in reaching out I not only helped them, but also helped myself. It’s as though in forgiving their debts, my own were forgiven too.  And when I showed them mercy, I was shown mercy too. In opening to others I began to find my own deeper self.

It was a puzzling and confusing time.  I realized that I had fundamentally misunderstood my master and my job, and even my life. Because “manager” isn’t quite the right word either.  I assumed that my job and my life were about handling things—following rules, comparing, knowing who owes who what to whom, being in charge, being important.  But I was beginning to realize that wasn’t my job or my life at all!  As time went on I began to recognize that my master didn’t operate by the rules of the world that I knew—judgment and separation and comparison and scarcity.  His rules seemed to be abundance and love and giving and opening and deep acceptance of self and others!  When I treated the master’s money as if it were mine and used it for myself I thought I was cheating him, but I was only cheating myself.  In reality, his money was my money and always had been, but I knew that only in giving it away.

What a different world than what I had been taught to take for granted.

My best guess is that this story has happened to you too—because this story is not one that happened one time to one person. It is a story that happens over and over again and is happening still.  Because some truths can only be told in story, image, art or song.  But truth isn’t really the right word either.  It’s more like deep resonance or even deep mystic knowing. Some things are too deep and too true to be demeaned or described by fact, law or even words themselves. They come from doing rather than thinking; from opening to deep relationships and moving beyond what you think you know. You can recognize one of these deep knowings only when your mind is blown and your heart opened and the tears flow.

I hope your Master is like mine.  I hope that when you open to others or to yourself or to those deep knowings that you feel loved so much , even your foibles and shames, that you begin to love them yourself.  And then find the way to love them in others until you truly see that the master is right—the world is not merely buy and sell and scarcity—but it is a realm of love and unity and deep harmony. And that is the right word: love!