Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: “Less reverently esteemed”

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
9 August 2020
10.30 Morning Service

Revd Nicholas Mercer

This is my twentieth sermon since we went into lockdown and my last sermon before I go on leave

I sometimes measure out my life in sermons and have now preached, unbroken, for five months

It is certainly time for a break

When it comes to stamina, I remind myself that Alastair Cook wrote his “Letter from America” for no less than 58 years

He tackled a vast array of subjects

However, I suggest that the reading for today would challenge the best of preachers and broadcasters

The parable of the Shrewd Manager which we heard this morning has been described as

“one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament”

The Canadian New Testament Scholar, John Kloppenborg said that “there is hardly any consensus on any aspect of this parable”

This is a challenge for any preacher and in these circumstances lockdown could lead to lockjaw?

It is not difficult to see why this is such a difficult parable on which to preach

As we heard this morning, a manager has been rumbled by his Master

There have obviously been reports of shady dealings and the Master, quite understandably, demands to see the books

Realising that he might be sacked for mismanagement, the Manager looks beyond his current employment and comes up with a plan

Instead of demanding the full amount from each debtor, he decides to discount each bill instead

He slashes the amount that he is owed in a sort of closing down sale

Not surprisingly, the debtors settle quickly and the accounts are all closed

If this had happened in most companies the manager would have been sacked

However, in this case the manager is praised instead for “acting shrewdly” and advised that making friends is a good idea when your luck runs out

It seems to suggest that it is morally acceptable to cheat your boss out of his money

“Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth” is the message

No wonder this parable has been described as “notoriously difficult”

The former Bishop of Durham, Bishop Tom Wright has written a commentary on the entire New Testament and is the man to consult on such occasions

He has suggested a possible explanation for the parable

Pointing out that it was unlawful under Jewish law to lend money with interest, this was often circumvented by lending, in kind, instead

Instead of paying interest, the debtor would repay more than the original sum by furnishing the creditor with oil and wheat at the same time

Realising what his Master had been up to, Tom Wright suggests that the shrewd manager simply put his books in order by charging the debtor what he actually owed

Knowing full well that his Master could not criticise him – lest he himself be found out for charging interest on his loans

This would certainly merit the manager being described as “shrewd”, not least because he solved the problem whilst remaining on good terms with the debtors who might later give him a job

Nevertheless, it still leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth

In essence, he has got his Master over a barrel  

The “Shrewd” manager not only cooks the books but does so knowing that he can blackmail his Master at the same time

What are we meant to take away from that?

To be honest, I am left without a plausible explanation in any Biblical commentary but I have a couple of my own

The first is about mistakes:

I once heard a story about a lawyer who took a trip on Virgin Atlantic

The trip was, by all accounts, an unmitigated disaster and the lawyer wrote and complained

He vowed never to use the same airline again

You might have expected a weasely worded letter from the airline or an impenetrable complaints procedure designed to deter even the most resolute advocate

However, and taking him completely by surprise, the lawyer received a phone call from Sir Richard Branson himself

Branson apologised unreservedly for the mistakes and offered him complimentary tickets to New York the next time he travelled

The lawyer was so taken aback by the refreshing apology that he has used Virgin Atlantic ever since

We all make mistakes and we can all fall short

How much better to own up to those mistakes and make amends we can even though we suffer loss at the same time

The second proposed reading of the parable this morning is that it is, unexpectedly and unintentionally, a parable for our times

We are living through one of the most difficult chapters of our nation’s history, economically

The Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz has warned of the impending global debt crisis

And we are due to experience the most significant downturn since the Great Depression

Possibly the worst recession for a hundred years

We have already seen some significant damage on the high street and there is likely to be much more to come in the weeks and months ahead

Unemployment will rise further

Tenants will be unable to pay their Landlords and

Debtors unable to satisfy their creditors

Perhaps this is the time to consider acting like the shrewd manger?

If we are able to discount our bills to others, forgoing the interest due, then similarly, we would be acting shrewdly and making friends at the same time

It may not be the correct explanation for the parable but it potentially salvages something from the story.

It is sometimes so difficult to reach back in time and discern what our forebears meant

And the reading this morning is no exception

It is just very difficult

There are matters in the Bible which scarcely resemble the Christian faith at all

And there are matters of the Christian faith that are only very vaguely represented in the Bible

We must take them as we find them

But perhaps the wisest words come from the esteemed Doctor of the Anglican Church, Richard Hooker

Writing in the sixteenth century he stated of such passages in the Bible

“We must take great heed, lest, in attributing more to Scripture more than it can have…do cause those things which it hath most abundantly, to be less reverently esteemed”