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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Creativity and Shrewdness: A Sermon

Creativity and Shrewdness
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
February 20th, 2011

Gospel of Jesus 12:14-26

Jesus used to tell this story to his disciples:

There was this rich man whose manager had been accused of squandering his master’s property. He called him in and said, “What’s this I hear about you? Let’s have an audit of your management, because your job is being terminated.”

Then the manager said to himself, “What am I going to do? My master is firing me. I’m not able to dig ditches and I’m ashamed to beg. I’ve got it! I know what I’ll do so doors will open for me when I’m removed from management.”

So he called in each of his master’s debtors. He said to the first, “How much do you owe my master?

He said, “Five hundred gallons of olive oil.

And he said to him, “Here is your invoice; sit down right now and make it two hundred and fifty.”

Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?”

He said, “A thousand bushels of wheat.”

He says to him, “Here is your invoice; make it eight hundred.”

The master praised the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus
(Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 59. Luke 16:1-8

This parable has stumped folks for many centuries. It stumped even the author of the Gospel of Luke. There are nearly as many words that were added in an attempt to explain the parable than the parable itself contains.

The parable probably ends after the master’s praise. The first explanation is the following:
“…for the children of this world exhibit better sense in dealing with their own kind than do the children of light.”
Then another explanation was added:
“I tell you, make use of your ill-gotten gain to make friends for yourselves, so that when the bottom falls out they are there to welcome you into the eternal dwelling places.”
Then still another. Notice how the explanations get more far-fetched as they go:
“The one who can be trusted in trivial matters can also be trusted with large amounts; and the one who cheats in trivial matters will also cheat where large amounts are concerned. So if you couldn’t be trusted with ill-gotten gain, who will trust you with real wealth? And if you can’t be trusted with something that belongs to another, who will let you have property of your own?”
Then a well-attested saying of Jesus is attached at random:
“No servant can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account.”
Finally, Luke attaches this narrative setting:
“The Pharisees, who were money grubbers, heard all this and sneered at him. But he said to them, “You’re the type who justify yourselves to others, but God reads your hearts: what people rank highest is detestable in God’s estimation.”
So at least five morals were added to this parable either by Luke or by a tradition that Luke inherited.

This shows that the parable did not have a moral to begin with or at least not an easily discernible one. These explanations are attempts to soften or to explain away this parable.

Part of the problem in hearing the parables of Jesus is that
  1. we want to put a moral on them and
  2. we tend to think that characters in authority such as kings, judges, and masters are stand-ins for God. That God-figure must then be right and good.
If you remove those two assumptions, you have a parable. You have a story that can be used to start a conversation rather than provide an answer. You have characters that are not necessarily good or bad, but are participants in a story that invites reflection upon life.

I am going to offer a way to hear this parable that is indebted to William Herzog and his book Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.

Herzog looks at nine of the most challenging parables of Jesus. These include the Unjust Judge, the Talents, the Unmerciful Servant, the Wicked Tenants, and this one. He invites us to look at them through the social situation of the characters in 1st century Palestine.

In this society
  • 1-2 % would make up the ruling class (the master in this parable)
  • Retainers (the steward) would make up 5-7%.
  • Merchants (the ones with whom the steward is dealing) another 5%.
  • Artisans (not in this parable) 3-7%
  • Peasants, the unclean and degraded, and the expendables (who are all the hearers of Jesus’ parables) 80 to 85%.
There is constant conflict within and between these groups. The ruling classes need to keep that balance. They need to keep the peasants at a subsistence level, but not so low that they starve as they are needed to produce the wealth.

Meanwhile, the peasants and expendables have internalized the values of the ruling class. The order is set up by divine right or so it is believed.

The parables of Jesus, according to Herzog, offer a slice of life, a reflection and a critique upon this economic system and the theology that undergirds it. It is for Jesus, “the kingdom of this world.”

Jesus preached the kingdom of God.

This for Jesus appears to be a kingdom of justice and compassion.
It is a kingdom where the poor are blessed.
The outsiders are in.
Peace comes not through victory but through justice.

Throughout the centuries the church “theologized” and “moralized” Jesus’ teachings and parables and turned them into otherworldly tales. The kingdom of God became “heaven” up above and beyond.

Herzog and other commentators who have looked at the social and economic situation of this period and place are showing us that Jesus was speaking about real economic situations—real kingdoms—especially the kingdom of Caesar.

Jesus offered a critique of the kingdom of oppression and dominance as well as encouragement and wisdom for those suffering under its weight. The kingdom of God was an alternative way of imagining life together. He invited his hearers to contemplate a life without oppressive debt, starvation, and brutality.

He did it by telling stories.

He told creative little parables that illuminated, poked fun, inspired, delighted, and empowered.

It is possible that the characters in Jesus’ parables might be a bit roguish. They would use as Herzog calls them, the "weapons of the weak".


In an oppressive situation, those without power resist not in direct ways such as protest and revolt but in everyday forms of resistance. These forms of resistance include pilfering, foot dragging, passive non compliance, or shucking and jiving.

You know where the phrase “shuck and jive” comes from? The best explanation I have heard is this:
"To shuck and jive" originally referred to the intentionally misleading words and actions that African-Americans would employ in order to deceive racist Euro-Americans in power, both during the period of slavery and afterwards. The expression was documented as being in wide usage in the 1920s, but may have originated much earlier.

"Shucking and jiving" was a tactic of both survival and resistance. A slave, for instance, could say eagerly, "Oh, yes, Master," and have no real intention to obey. Or an African-American man could pretend to be working hard at a task he was ordered to do, but might put up this pretense only when under observation. Both would be instances of "doin' the old shuck 'n jive."
The Uncle Remus stories about Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit fall under the category of trickster tales.

Shuck and jive.

They are parables that would have inspired these forms of resistance.

For example, here is a poem by James Weldon Johnson, Brer Rabbit, You’se de Cutes’ of ‘Em All

Once der was a meetin' in de wilderness,

All de critters of creation dey was dar;
Brer Rabbit, Brer 'Possum, Brer Wolf, Brer Fox,
King Lion, Mister Terrapin, Mister B'ar.
De question fu' discussion was, 'Who is de bigges' man?'
Dey 'pinted ole Jedge Owl to decide;
He polished up his spectacles an' put 'em on his nose,
An' to the question slowly he replied:

'Brer Wolf am mighty cunnin',
Brer Fox am mighty sly,
Brer Terrapin an' 'Possum — kinder small;
Brer Lion's mighty vicious,
Brer B'ar he's sorter 'spicious,
Brer Rabbit, you's de cutes' of 'em all.'

Dis caused a great confusion 'mongst de animals,
Ev'y critter claimed dat he had won de prize;
Dey 'sputed an' dey arg'ed, dey growled an' dey roared,
Den putty soon de dus' begin to rise.
Brer Rabbit he jes' stood aside an' urged 'em on to fight.
Brer Lion he mos' tore Brer B'ar in two;
W'en dey was all so tiahd dat dey couldn't catch der bref
Brer Rabbit he jes' grabbed de prize an' flew.

Brer Wolf am mighty cunnin',
Brer Fox am mighty sly,
Brer Terrapin an' Possum — kinder small;
Brer Lion's mighty vicious,
Brer B'ar he's sorter 'spicious,
Brer Rabbit, you's de cutes' of 'em all.

What’s the moral of that story?

Well, there might not be a moral but those with two good ears ought to listen. The Uncle Remus stories and the poetry they inspired were tales of delight and of resistance.

This world is not easy and it is not set up for you to win.
Consider, therefore, Brer Rabbit.
The one who survives in this world is not necessarily the strongest,
...but the cutest.

So what then of our so-called “dishonest” manager?


He might not be dishonest, just cute.

The world of this parable is the world of high finance. It is not the 80% of the world made up of the peasants and expendables. The characters of this story, the ruler, the steward or the retainer, and the merchants are the elite. They can all read and write.

We can imagine Jesus telling a parable about the lives of the rich and famous and how funny they are.

They are all in competition.
None trusts the other.
It is a constant game of balance.
You need to be greedy enough to make a profit but you can’t be too greedy or you will arouse suspicion and get knocked off your pedestal.

The rulers, masters, or landowners extract from the producers (the peasants) the produce. The peasants give up so much to the landowner for rent and keep a small amount for themselves. This is negotiated through the steward. The merchants are another level of bureaucracy. They get the produce to the cities and the markets.

The steward needs to negotiate with them and write contracts on behalf of the owner. These contracts include interest (although you have to be careful with that as in a Jewish setting there are rules about interest—so it has to be hidden). The steward needs to make his own profit off the books.

In this parable, there are no peasants; just the stewards, merchants, and the ruler. There is always gossip, rumors, and one-upmanship going on. It appears that the merchants have been trash talking the steward. Word gets to the ruler that the steward is ripping him off. Who knows if it is true or not?

It doesn’t really matter as none of this is what we would call honest. The reality is that they are all crooks. The merchants are playing power games in attempt to get better negotiating prices. If they can threaten the steward, they might negotiate a better price.

So the steward sees the game.

He needs to keep his job or set himself up to be a retainer for another owner. He isn’t going to become a peasant or expendable. Digging ditches and begging are euphemisms for a death sentence. He needs to find a way to be cute.

So he does.

He goes to the merchants one by one and makes with each a behind the scenes deal. He knocks off the interest, that is, the profit, for the owner. The amounts the steward has them knock off are not just random amounts, but the interest, the profit for the owner.

The merchants sign these new contracts with the owner through the steward. The merchants are happy. They realize they are indebted to the steward. They praise the ruler for the good price.

When the steward shows the owner the books that he has demanded, the owner sees what has happened. The ruler can either accept the praise of the merchants and retain the steward or fire the steward and make him a martyr. That would blacken his reputation.

The owner sees that the steward had been including the interest in the contracts and that he had been making good deals for him and he sees that the steward had been working in the ruler’s interest all along. The ruler praises the steward for his shrewdness because good shrewd stewards are hard to find.

Is there a moral to any of this?

We tend to think there must be.
Jesus told the story so there must be a moral to it.
It must be about "God" somehow.
There must be some huge theological explanation or insight.

Maybe not.

Perhaps it is a slice of life.
It is a story of turning the tables.
As Herzog writes:

“The master who held all the cards lost the hand.” P. 258


The steward who was headed for misery ends up being praised by both the merchants and the ruler.


It is a story of survival.
It is a story of how to keep your cool and how to be creative.

I think Jesus had a practical orientation about him. He didn’t just talk about “spiritual” things. He talked about very practical, earthly things as well. His primary audience consisted of people who did not benefit by the economic system in which they labored.

Jesus’ advice seems to be:
  • The kingdom of this world is not set up for you to win.
  • Don’t take it head on.
  • Discover your creativity.
  • Learn from this rogue.
  • Because at the end of the day...
...he ends up being the cutes’ of them all.

2 comments:

David R. said...

I liked this sermon. I've never been able to make any sense of that parable.

Sea Raven, D.Min. said...

Man, you jus' keep shuckin' and jive'n an' gettin' cuter all de time!

Yeeesss Lawd!