Facing Tomorrow with Confidence
Of all the parables Jesus told, today's certainly is one of the most difficult to understand. What can we make of an irresponsible employee shafting his boss and getting praised for it? Perhaps the parable is largely a hyperbole, that is, a very exaggerated tale used by Jesus to teach a lesson. Perhaps it was told as a humorous story of the little guy putting one over on the big guy. There seems to be some satisfaction in ripping off the big guy, particularly when that person is perceived to have procured his wealth at the expense of people such as ourselves.
But the problem of this parable of the dishonest manager is precisely that he was dishonest and was commended for his wheeling and dealing. Our reading from Luke this morning included thirteen verses not all of which are part of the parable. Most commentators agree that the parable ends in the middle of verse 8: and the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. The remaining verses are held to be either Jesus' direct comments on the story or Luke's addition of four of Jesus sayings in effort to shed some light on this most difficult story.
So let me briefly recount the parable. Someone informed the rich businessman that he had a problematic manager. The charge was mismanagement with many foolish expenditures and significant waste of funds. The owner was incensed, summoned the manager and demanded explanations before firing him. It is at this point that the manager earned the reputation of being dishonest. He had little time as thoughts raced through his head: what will I do now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes. Let's face it, as a manager he was making a comfortable living without getting his hands dirty. He wasn't about to become a common laborer and would not consider going on welfare or becoming a beggar. Somehow he had to make provisions for his future.
His clever plan was to individually summons several of his boss's major clients and say “I have a deal for you!” It probably was the case that the debtors did not know the manager was about to be fired. He perhaps had a line that went something like this: The company needs an infusion of capital for upgrading and expansion. You are a good customer so what we are prepared to do is reduce your outstanding debt in return for the immediate payment of the balance. This will raise the needed capital and benefit you. The deal was indeed sweet: 20 to 50 percent write-off. But it was also designed as a sweetheart deal for the manager. He would soon be out of work and would need some good contacts. He planned to be able to call in some favors to provide for his own future.
What he did was dishonest and self-serving. But the kicker was that, when the owner found out what the manager had done, he commended him for his shrewdness, his practical wisdom! One would have thought the owner would have taken legal action to recoup his losses but on the contrary he praised the rascal. He had the ingenuity to turn a bad situation to his advantage. We then hear Christ's comment on the parable: the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. The focal point of the parable is not that the manager was unethical but that he had the practical wisdom to assess a bad situation and turn it to his advantage. He was a smart cookie. Jesus says that we Christians should have the same albeit honest shrewdness in dealing with personal and spiritual matters but he implies we often lack that ability.
So I ask: how do you face a catastrophe? Sometimes when severe adversity comes our way we tend to freeze up, withdraw and adopt a woe is me attitude. We allow ourselves to be controlled by Murphy's Law that if something can go wrong, it probably will and at the worst possible time. And when it does, we capitulate and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed. For example, you are told by your doctor that you have a serious medical condition. This news results in a tailspin and the conviction that there is nothing left of value but that you can only wait out your remaining time and endure the disease. Another example would be that your employer comes in and informs you that you are the latest victim of company restructuring and therefore you no longer have a job. This news is devastating. You face several months of employment insurance and then nothing. You accordingly hunker down unwilling or unable to face an apparent hopeless situation.
It seems to me that this is a poor way to live our lives. The lesson of the parable was that the manager took the offensive not defensive position. In face of adversity he mustered his thoughts and acted with shrewd worldly wisdom. Often life is not fair. Tremendous problems can suddenly overwhelm us because of a phone call, a letter or an interview which devastate us. I believe that when confronted with some serious situation we can deal with it in one of two ways. First, we can view the situation as a problem. The more we contemplate our lot, the worse the problem becomes. We have no idea what to do or how to cope. We have tunnel vision that sees only the down side, and, like some tunnels, everything is black.
The other way of dealing with a situation is to view it as an opportunity. Every new situation should stimulate us to ask what changes we can make and what opportunities do we have to do things differently? How can we turn this to our advantage? That is precisely the approach of the manager: he viewed his pending firing as an opportunity to secure his future in the light of his new situation.
As Christians we believe that the future belongs to God and that he has plans for our lives. Christ is calling us into our future. We need to be open to the leading of his Spirit. We need to view situations with a watchful eye for the guiding hand of God. Jesus told us not to fret over tomorrow. He said do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? He then gave the examples of God's care for the birds and the lilies. He said our prime concern should not be worry about our material needs for tomorrow but to seek first God's will for us.
But somehow we fall into the trap of thinking our future should be totally positive. So when adversity hits and, for example, we lose our job, we hang our heads in increasing depression. I share with you a very important aphorism: “we do not know what the future holds but we know who holds the future”. We must learn to trust God to leads us into our tomorrow therefore viewing today's unsettling situation as an opportunity for God to do new things with, for and in us.
When faced with personal adversity, we need to come quietly before our God seeking his light, strength and guidance. Things might be very different for us tomorrow but they will not separate us from the God of our tomorrow. The parable of the dishonest manager has some very good advice for us challenging us to dig deeply into our faith when faced with adversity. Many seek to dig down into the pool of their inner resources and, mustering latent talents and abilities, pull themselves up again. Often self-help proves to be inadequate. As Christians we have always available to us the resources of God that are more than adequate to enable us to face, deal with and triumph over any adversity. Jesus said: Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. God's resources are there for the asking. Remember Christ's words of comment on the parable of the dishonest manager: the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. This says to us that we must be spiritually shrewd and stride into the future with confidence which is not based in our own abilities but in the power and grace of God.
Remember that Jesus faced the blackest hole imaginable: the horror of death by crucifixion. Wm. Willimon stated: “The one who told that story of the dishonest manager is Jesus, the one who not only told good stories, but also moved boldly in to seize the future for God. Even when he moved toward the cross, he did not do so as one resigned to a bleak fate, but as one who confidently obeyed the will of God, confidant that the future belongs to God.”
The choice is yours: you can face difficult situations as insurmountable problems or as great opportunities. The parable of the dishonest manager challenges us to look for the opportunities ahead of us. We are urged to possess a spiritual shrewdness in which we strongly believe that God is ahead of us calling us into our tomorrows and that he will provide us with the needed resources so that, come what may, every situation provides opportunities for deepening faith, growing trust, new adventures and exciting opportunities. This is good news for we can face tomorrow with confidence.
The Rev. R.C. (Bob) Garvin