Standing on the Ledge
Well, there’s a first time for everything and today is one of those days.I need to confess to you and I have no idea what Jesus is getting at this morning. I know, I know, I’m supposed to be the expert around here on this sort of thing., but when Jesus commends the dishonest manager and says that people like him are wiser than the people of the light, I say, “Close the front door. What are you talking about?”
I thought I had become pretty used to a God who comes in with a crowbar and takes down our nicely printed posters that describe God in doctrine and deed, and then tacks them back up, upside down; who takes our sense of morality and rewrites our understanding; who tells us the last shall be first, and the least shall sit on the throne of honour. But when Jesus commends the dishonest actions of a manager and tells us that the people of this world are wiser than we are, I just don’t have a place to put this. Yet, I did recognized last week that what this scripture was doing was keeping me humble. Thinking that we can always discern the mysteries of God through the interpretation of scripture, could breed in us a sense that we are on the same playing field with God, that God and I understand each other so I’m just as wise as God. It’s the sin of arrogance tempting us. God holds us in the palm of God’s hand. We don’t hold God. So it may be okay that I don’t get this story. Part of the result is to keep us humble.
Yet, that doesn’t give us permission to just throw the story away. We should at least try and unravel some of it. I recognized that part of the problem I have with the story is that, although I disagree with his ethics, I really like this dishonest manager. You’ve got to give this fellow his dues. He’s got street smarts. So, hear what was happening.
People were coming to his master to borrow things, which the master would lend them with interest. One such person comes along and needs 40 measures of oil. (I can’t give you an exact interpretation of how much that would be in today standards because it was not a scientific accurate measurement, but one that changed over time and culture. We’ll have to content ourselves with a measure being a unit volume of oil.) Okay. So, the master lends him the 40 measures of oil but he wants 50 measures of oil returned to him (an interest rate of 10 measures of oil). Now, the master hasn’t the time to deal with all this, so he hires a manager who fully expects to get paid by adding a little more interest to the bill. The trouble was, this manager is gouging peo-ple. He asks the client to repay his debt by producing 100 measures of oil (so the manager is profiting 50 measure of oil off of something he didn’t even have to make!) Well, rightly so, people started complaining.
The manager gets handed his pink slip and now finds himself with empty pockets and an open social schedule. His pencil-pushing hands would never survive the digging of ditches and he has burnt all his bridges with the people of the village. So, the manager reassesses the situation, understands why people are angry and works to fix it. He calls in the first debtor and tells him to pay the master the 50 measures of oil he is owed and forget about the other 50 for him. He does the same for the man who owed the master wheat. “Pay the master the 80 measures of wheat he is owed and then forget the other 20 for me.”
Now -the master is getting paid and is happy and the manager’s neighbours are beginning to open up to him as well. You have to hand it to the manager, he’s got his wits about him. Yet, he has still been dis-honest, is still a scoundrel and a wheeler dealer. Can we support a morality like that? Is Jesus supporting the proposition that we can inherit heaven through dishonesty?
The only thing that makes any sense to me is that the manager came to a point in his life when he realized that he could be very rich yet that his riches would not buy him the admiration of friends, nor any real security in his life. St. Augustine, an early Roman African Bishop of Hippo and whose theology influenced the development of Christian thought more than 1,500 years ago, once said this,
“The Lord taught us to love one another
and to use our resources.
We tend to use one another
and love our resources.”
Maybe the manager was finding this out.
I’ve not quite finished my journey with C.S Lewis for the summer but I promise this is the last time I will quote him. When Lewis became a Christian after his journey through paganism, humanism, idealism etc., he wrote a book about his spiritual journey and placed it in the land of mythology and story telling as only Lewis can. He called the book Pilgrim’s Regress which told the story of a man named John who, in his youth, had caught a glimpse of a heavenly island (i.e. heaven) and spent his life trying to get to it. On the final step of the journey, John finds himself standing on the edge of a canyon. His spiritual guide who, interestingly enough, comes to him not as an angel but as an old hag, tells him he must cross the canyon, for the land he is looking for lies on the other side. Fearfully, he descends into the canyon only to find himself about halfway down standing on a ledge. There the path ends. Below him, flowing through the canyon floor, runs a river. The spirit guide tells him that the only way to get to the other side is to dive into the river. But she tells him that he has to go in naked. He can carry nothing of this world with him.
So, the old hag and John spend some time scrapping John’s old rags off his body for he had travelled many miles, endured many adventures and inherited the mud and dirt of many cities and not a few bloody wounds. Finally, he is standing there, naked on the ledge grasping on to the canyon walls, knuckles white with fear. “Go ahead, dive!” yells the old hag. “But, I am not used to swimming,” says John. “Can I not jump?” “No!” scream the hag. “You will never go deep enough. You must go deep into the water to find the tunnel that leads to the other shore.”
That image of John, standing naked on that ledge, conflicted, hanging on to this world for dear life, yet desiring the Kingdom of God, has etched itself into my mind. And Jesus said, “A person cannot have two masters for they will either hate the one and love the other, or they will be loyal to one and despise the other.” In his later works, Lewis shares with us this wisdom.
“The greatest barrier to our entering God’s kingdom is our need for our own security.” Our desire for security inhibits our ability to develop faith.
The dishonest manager thought he was securing peace in his life by accumulating goods and filling his barns. He was going to be alright.
But he wasn’t. His greed for security ended up getting him fired and ostracized from his community. We try to secure our lives with making sure we have enough to retire on, that the cold cellar is filled with our canning, making regular doctor and dentist appointments, making sure the house is kept up.
But then life’s pink slips arrive. You find out you have cancer. You find out your company is closing and, along with it, your pension fund.
You discover you can’t recall things the way you used to and your kids think you need to be cared for in a home. At some point in this life, we are all going to find ourselves standing naked on that ledge. Despite the rich Texan who was buried in his Cadillac, you really can’t take it with you. Are you going to die on that ledge slumped down, still holding on to the canyon wall or are you going to take a leap of faith and dive into the flowing baptism waters of God?
I’m not trying to get you into heaven by scaring the hell out of you. It’s a simply the truth. There are only two options when death comes. Even the dishonest manager found out that measures of oil and wheat mean nothing when you are left standing outside the master’s gate. We cannot serve two masters. It is a simple fact. If you hold on to the security this world offers, you will come to hate the master who tells you that to love means loving the other as yourself and are willing to share your resources with others. If you love the master you can not use people and love your own resources. We don’t get it both ways.
You have to ask yourself this morning, which master are you holding on to?