Sunday, September 22, 2013

Small Stuff

Twice this week I went into places of business where sales personnel gave me generous and unexpected discounts.  In both instances they virtually put their fingers to their lips motioning to me not to disclose what they were doing.  In both instances, the employees had nothing to gain by being particularly kind to me. 
Reynard the Fox, Archetypal Trickster

And what is my reaction?  Why, I am indebted to them of course.  So far as I know, both are honorable employees, not rapscallions out to cheat their bosses.  And yet I have to wonder whether they were simply being generous to me or if on some level they expected something in return.  It is not my nature to be suspicious of people, so I would not even be asking this question were it not for the parable in today’s gospel kicking it up for me. But I am not the least in doubt as to my reaction when someone does something nice to me, especially if doing so involves a little risk, however slight.  If one of these guys should come to me and ask me a favor, there is no certainty that I would do what they asked.  But I would at the very least hear the request sympathetically, simply because they have been kind to me. 

That is sort of the way the world normally works, isn’t it?  Schmooze people and they will respond in kind.  Do a favor, receive a favor.  You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.  It is what we might call the “law” of reciprocity.  What goes around comes around.  And don’t forget:  what goes around might be harsh, cruel, snide, nasty.  Dish some of that out and you are likely to get some back yourself.

Jacob tricks Isaac and outfoxes Esau
As always, it is difficult to know exactly what Jesus actually said to his disciples, or what he meant by—or indeed how he told—the parable of the dishonest steward or manager (Luke 16:1-13).  It seems hardly the kind of thing that somebody would make up for the fun of it, even though there is a strain of Jewish folklore that honors the trickster as a kind of hero.  Not surprising, since the granddaddy of Judaism, namely Jacob, Israel himself, was the arch-trickster.  He was a cheat and a deceiver.  He bribed his twin brother to get the birthright, cheated the same brother out of their father’s blessing by deceiving the old, blind father, and figured a slick way to make off with most of his father-in-law’s flock.  There were rabbinical stories that lauded the figure of the trickster, who is invariably a shrewd, savvy character with a penchant for getting out of scrapes.  Why would Jesus, though, have told a story about a trickster?  For what purpose would he have used this to instruct his disciples?

Luke is fairly plain, though not so plain as to leave us without questions.  Jesus used the figure of the dishonest manager to illustrate how it is that disciples need to be shrewd.  That’s the first thing.  He comments that the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the “children of light.”  Boy, is that ever true!  Don’t press me for too many examples (I could give you a list that would run on for hours), but generally I can tell you that those who are out to make a buck in this world, whose primary motivation is to amass power, to extend control, to protect their own interests, or even simply to survive, are much better at their game than the so-called “children of light” who want to play by the rules, to be fair, to be generous, to exercise compassion.  There is an incredible naïveté about much that the “children of light” try to do.  I would like to believe that we could make lasting social change by appealing to the higher instincts of human nature.  Ha!  Live as long as I have and you will experience yourself being slowly sucked into a Calvinist view of the total depravity of human nature.  (I exaggerate, of course, but there is some truth to that.)  In the centers of power, profiteers are always plotting, with notable success, as to how they could benefit from the next war.  The “children of light”?  They are out marching in front of the White House or gathering on the steps of the capitol.  Is anybody really noticing?   The “children of this age,” as Jesus called them, are busy rigging elections, gerrymandering congressional districts to their advantage, suppressing the vote, developing and using scare tactics that work, spinning narratives with buzz words calculated to hook emotions, lobbying for laws that make legal whatever they find advantageous.  Don’t get me wrong.  The children of this age are not just the rich and powerful.  They include quite a number of the poor and dispossessed, who are not all paragons of virtue themselves.  Manipulating the system, tricking the boss, circumventing the rules—or remaking them:  talents for doing these things don’t crop up in only one class of people.  They are fairly universal.

"Take your bill and reduce it..."

So a point that Jesus is making here is that the children of light could stand to wise up.  But if we look more broadly at Luke’s message, Jesus is saying something that goes beyond that.  He consistently calls his disciples to recognize that they are approaching a moment of crisis.  Things are going to go bad for them, much as they went south for the dishonest manager.  And then what will they do?  Figure out who and what is most important to you.  Are you able to ride out the crisis, or indeed make the most of it?  We can see in retrospect that the disciples were indeed going to be faced with serious problems once the weight of the system had come down on Jesus and put him to death.  The shepherd was going to be struck and the sheep were going to be scattered.  It is not so easy to see, perhaps, what our own crisis is. But we assuredly have one, or are in one.

And what is that crisis?  One way of stating it is that it consists of, and hinges on, the question of for whom or for what are we going to live.  We can either be “children of this age” who do our best to manipulate systems to our own personal advantage, or we can throw in our lot with the kingdom, the βασιλεια,  of God, and live for the Truth as it is shines in Jesus.  And what is that Truth?  It is being authentic, not choosing for yourself the script written by family or society or peers.  It is boldly speaking the Truth—telling it “like it is,”—when all about you are claiming that what you stand for makes no sense.  It is submitting yourself to ongoing dialogue with the God who is your deepest Self, as opposed to running off in directions dictated by your own ego.  Being a “child of light” in that sense means recognizing that you are connected to, and taking your place, within a community that will help to keep you honest and rely on you to help others do the same.  To serve God as your one Master and serve God only is the challenge to own that there is no part of your life—not your money, not your job, not your family, not your relationships, not your most private sex life—is some place or time where God is not, for there is no such place and no such time.  To commit all your energies, your body, your soul, your mind to the cause of freedom, to the quest for true peace, to the ideal of wholeness, to the centrality of community:  this is the challenge.  And if you are hearing the call to do so, you are, my friend, in crisis.  It is a crisis that requires you to be as deft and as nimble as our dishonest steward.  In fact, it is a crisis precisely in that you are being called to be a steward.   You are the one now who is about to be, if you are not already, entrusted with the treasures of the kingdom, the moments pregnant with meaning, the possibilities to make a dent in the way the world operates, the promise to care as much about the life and wellness of others as you care about your own, maybe even more so.

We sometimes believe that this life of God that Jesus calls us to share as stewards of the Master is an either/or proposition.  Would that it were!  It would be nice, to say the least, to be able to be baptized into union with Christ and never again have to worry about the object of one’s loyalties.  It would be wonderful to sign on with the βασιλεια, the kingdom, of God and never look back.  Don’t even imagine that you can do it, not even in your dreams.  You are a mixture, as am I, of trickster and truth, of scoundrel and saint, of ashes and glory, of serpent and dove.  Only the alchemy of Christ can take the base nature that we are bonded with and with the elixir of grace transform us bit by stubborn bit into creatures that share his own unalloyed love. 

But you can start, or continue what you have already started.  Today or this week, it is unlikely that you will, as theologian Fred Craddock has vividly put it, “christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake.  More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat. ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.’[1]
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville:  Westminster/John Know, 1990), p. 192. 

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