Sunday, September 18, 2016

Dishonest? Shrewd?

Today’s text is a difficult one. It is one that would be easier to skip over. On first reading it seems to be affirming dishonesty. So long as the end result is good it doesn’t matter what means are used to get there.

The story is usually entitled “The Shrewd Manager” or “The Dishonest Manager” (Luke 6:1-13)

The tale tells of a rich man whose manager was accused by a third party of squandering his resources. The manager was being sacked. He was worried. He knew he did not have the ability to compete in the market place for a job doing manual labour nor did he want to have to beg for sustenance. So he schemed! He went to all the people who owed the rich man money and reduced their bills. His rational being that when he was destitute they would remember his kindness and welcome him into their homes.

Here the story twists, instead of the rich man being angry he commends the manager for being shrewd and praises him for ensuring his future. The story ends with a discourse about faithfulness in serving.

Very complex!

Firstly, I want to make the point I have made many previous times about understanding parables. Don’t assign roles. Don’t assume that the central character is representing God. If one does that it often ends up with a significant problem in seeing undesirable characteristics for God. Read parables simply as stories to illustrate a point.

Next I want to glance at the context. This story is the fourth in a series of parables told by the author of the Gospel of Luke to a mixed audience of “tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and scribes”. The prior ones are the story of the sheep who was found, the coin which was found, and the son who squandered his inheritance but was lovingly received back into his family. This seems to continue the theme of riches with comments on a just way to use them and administer them. Time doesn’t allow but a parallel study of the manager who squandered his employer’s wealth and the son who squandered his father’s wealth could prove very fruitful.

It is hard to read this story and understand it. (I’m sure there will be as many interpretations as readers) One of the reasons it is hard is because we live in a capitalist economic system where what the manager did would be criminal if it happened today. So our minds don't get beyond the thought that what he did was wrong.

The story starts with no detail of what the manager actually did to get dismissed. All it says is that he “squandered” the rich man’s property. Then after hearing he would be fired, he reduced the bills of those owing the rich man. Note that he reduced the amounts he did not cancel the debt.

So questions must be asked (and I have no answers only, I hope, some thought-provoking ideas).

Who was really the dishonest one?

Often people described as “rich” in the parables are seen as those who are unjust. Their riches are gained at the expense of others. Certainly, worth remembering that the first group of people named as the audience for this story were the tax collectors. Those who were renowned for getting rich at the expense of others. The latter verses of this story certainly hint at the money being dishonestly gained.  That later reference can’t refer to the manager because he gained nothing monetary from adjusting the bills. His effort was all a hope for a future home.

How was the rich man’s wealth/property/oil squandered by the manager?

Was it to help the poor? Was it to ease the suffering of the sick? Was it his own way of bringing a more equitable economic system? Or was he simply greedy?

Why did the rich man commend him?

Did the manager provide a challenge to the rich man about his own overpricing system? Was the rich man’s conscience bothering him?

Was it acceptable for the manager to try to find a way to assure a future for himself without resorting to begging?

The text certainly indicates that looking for economic stability in the future is a good thing. It is certainly something that contemporary society does both collectively and individually.

Was the reference to being “faithful with dishonest wealth” a commendation of the manager?

The underlying message of riches, service to the poor, redistribution of wealth was obviously in the mind of those who compiled the lectionary. This week there were two alternative texts for the Old Testament reading, both offered concern for poor and advocated sharing wealth (Amos 8, Jeremiah 8). Although I don’t want to jump ahead next week’s story continues the theme as it moves to another tale which talks about the rich and the poor (Luke 6:19-31). It is an important story in helping us to understand this one in context.

So ultimately, what do we do with a text like this one? Often it seems contradictory. At the very least it is confusing and hard to understand. We can’t really comprehend the impact on the first century readers as we can’t fully know how the relationship between owners and managers worked.

I think we can only try to let it challenge us. . .
about our handling of riches,
about our relationship with those we work for and with
about our response it we feel others are being harmed by those we work for
about our relationship and care for those who work for us
about our own planning for the future

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Which Bits of the Bible do we Follow!

Today the lectionary gospel passage (Luke 14:25-33) is a hard one for us to understand in contemporary times. None of us follow it. None of us do what it says.

There are three main instructions for discipleship contained within the passage:

          1. Hate mother, father, brothers, sisters, spouse, children, self.
      2. Give up all your possessions.
      3. Check you are willing to do all that before you try to be a follower.

It was a passage I read and almost wanted to skip but decided to pursue it. I will follow Phyllis Trible’s advice and shake the passage in the hope it will yield a blessing.

Firstly, as one with an interest in feminist theology. I want to comment on the verse about hating your family. In my list of the requirements for discipleship I use the word spouse, that is how we understand it in contemporary times. However, the actual word is “gunaika” which means woman and wife. Therefore, when the author of Luke penned these verses they were being spoken to males. The females were, as is often the case in the scriptures, invisible. They were not thought of or included. The people who were being called to discipleship were told to hate their wives. If the verses are taken literally they are not for women! I think that is worth taking very seriously and pondering.

Secondly I want to comment on the requirement to give up all one’s possessions. It would be easy to conclude that in this passage the possessions are wife, children and family. The wife and children belong to the male. Once again confirming the patriarchal nature of the passage. It may, of course, also refer to material possessions yet in the Lucan passage there is no thought of selling to give to the poor. This is not a passage about sharing means with those less fortunate. The poor are never mentioned. It is merely a leaving behind and renouncing of all one owns.

In our culture both family and possessions are understood very differently. Society functions in a completely different way. If everyone gave up their homes, their means of income, and disowned family members then society would collapse. The few people who try to do this become reliant on others to support them.

Many years ago I had a colleague who chose not to have a car. It was not for religious reasons but to try and live more simply and care for the environment. A laudable aim. This colleague happily used public transport to work but then wanted to go on vacation. She asked me to take her to the airport about 50 miles away. I agreed. Then I realized not only would I have to take her but also pick her up ten days later. This colleague’s living simply actually meant I did two one-hundred-mile round trips!

I’m not using the story to say that the colleague should not have followed her conscience, trying to reduce car emissions is a good thing. Nor am I saying that I resented taking her to the airport, I did so gladly. What I want to do is use the story to say that if everyone followed the recommendations in this Lukan passage our whole society would change. It would be inevitable. At the barest level everyone who took the scripture seriously would be homeless with no supportive relationships.

So can the passage be interpreted in a way that is relevant for  us today?
Or should the passage simply be disregarded as irrelevant?

When interpreting scripture I often use a redemptive-movement hermeneutic. I used it extensively in my work looking at corporal punishment which I quickly realized was, in large part, a religious argument.

The term redemptive-movement hermeneutic was first suggested by William Webb. It bears much resemblance to other forms of interpretation, in particular the historical-critical method. What is suggested is that when looking at practices in the scripture one has to take into account the practices of surrounding culture. Then note the way the practices advocated are modified so they are somewhat redeemed. This process happens continually as humanity develops and progresses.

A classic example is slavery. To our mindset slavery is abhorrent. Yet it was accepted as the norm in the scriptures. In the Old Testament there are many regulations for the treatment of slaves (Deuteronomy). When the redemptive-movement hermeneutic is applied the contrast between the practices of the surrounding tribes and the treatment prescribed in the text is noted. This shows that improved conditions were insisted upon for slaves. In another of the lectionary readings for today Paul advocated for a slave who had served him in prison. Paul did not advocate that the slave was freed but that he was to be treated as a brother (Philemon 1:16). Time and space don’t allow for fully tracing the history of slavery in the scriptures but even these two citations show a movement in the way slaves were viewed. Of course, neither reflects a contemporary view on slavery. The redemptive-movement hermeneutic allows things to continue moving towards a better position beyond the time frame of the scriptures.

If the redemptive-movement is applied to the passage it allows the freedom to not take it literally. The text can be understood within its own culture. It was said at a time when women and children were possessions, not partners in a relationship. It was said to a comparatively small group of people in a localized setting. Today, everyone would fall far short.

Recognizing that this passage, if taken literally, has little relevance today gives a freedom to explore what seeking after spirituality and discipleship means. So often when a text such as this is read it produces guilt. Often expressed as, “I’m too fond of my family” or “I haven’t given away all my possessions” or “I’m not being true to the scriptures.”

Seeing that there is movement within and beyond scripture allows common sense to be applied.
It doesn’t deter people from seeking spirituality. It is not rejecting family and leaving possessions that are the face of true spirituality for contemporary society. It is helping those who are marginalized or being a voice for those who have no voice or serving society or simply being as Christ to those we meet.