Proper 20(C): Utilizing God’s Gifts
By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff
When caught breaking his employer’s trust a manager realizes he’ll soon be out of a job. To set himself up for the future he ingratiates himself to his clients by getting them to forge new contracts. It’s a risky business and something that can leave them facing jail or worse, but by reducing their debts and passing counterfeits as the original contracts he enters their good graces and hopes to be paid back in turn. The conspiracy is revealed, but in an ironic twist, the owner is so impressed by the manager’s embezzlement he praises the manager for his cleverness.
The parable of the shrewd manager is a deeply problematic Scriptural passage. What are we to make of this story that apparently contradicts everything else we find in the New Testament? In this passage, we find no praise for honesty or doing good in secret. There is no admiration for dealing fairly. Instead we find manipulation; praise for theft and involving others in deceit. Here kindness is seen as something to be paid back. How do we reconcile this with other teachings of Christ? With not letting your right hand know what your left is doing? With our charge to be good and faithful servants? Although conflicting and esoteric at the first reading, spending time with this parable can open up and reveal important truths about our Christian faith. As we unpack it we start to see why the manager is praised and not condemned.
The most obvious part of the parable is that God is the owner, the creator who delegates responsibility to his creation. Just as Adam and Eve were charged to tend and care for the garden, throughout Scripture there is a theme of humanity as managers and stewards of creation. We see this also in Mark 12:1-12 with the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. Like the shrewd manager these tenants have also been employed to care for something that does not belong to them, however when they are called to account they attempt a small coup d’détat and try to take over the vineyard. Like the tower of Babel these tenants trust in their own power and believe they can overthrow God. This is a powerful contrast to the shrewd manager; he is commended, in part, because he understands his role and his relationship to the owner. He accepts that what he has been entrusted with does not belong to him. He does not try to take over the business or deny he had done something wrong. He changes his behavior and uses his position to benefit those around him by dispensing the owner’s goods, thereby hoping to gain security.
However, this remains problematic. After all, when charity is given out of self-interest it’s no longer charity. It becomes an investment because there is an expectation involved: “I’ve done this for you now you owe me.” We must be careful about this kind of mentality. If, like the manager, we are kind to others because we expect a reward in the future then we have missed the point of our faith. If we engage in prayer and acts of charity only so we can be repaid later then we’ve forgone the transformation which comes from faith in Christ. This is true even if our kindness is meant to be seen by God alone. If we practice faith for our own benefit and to make sure we have a nice cloud in heaven, then we’ve become those whom Isaiah warns about who are “ever hearing but not understanding, seeing but not perceiving” (Isaiah 6:9). So what is it about the manager that lets him escape this fate? Here the parable breaks down and Jesus comes through the narrative wall, explaining that what matters is how we use the wealth entrusted to us; whether it was spent on our own comfort or to the benefit of those around us.
The dishonesty is in claiming ownership over something that is not ours. In this world and the one to come nothing truly belongs to us. Everything is a gift from God. It doesn’t matter if something is ours by right or given into our care, what matters is how, and what we do with it. The parable of the Shrewd Manager is not just about money, it’s about everything God puts into our care; our time, our work, our hearts, and so on. The shrewd manager presents us with a challenge to look at how we manage the responsibilities God puts in front of us. How do parents care for their children? How do we care for this earth loaned and borrowed from other generations? How do we care for our souls so that we may then care for others?
It is not a matter of how important we are or how big an impact we have, it is about how well we use what God gives us. This is where we find the connection to us, the universal teaching that Scripture offers for all generations: like the manager, we too will be called to account one day. There will come a time when we, like the manager, will have to stand before God and account for what was entrusted to us. There will be a time when our words and deeds will be scrutinized by the Holy One who knows the innermost depths of our souls in ways we can’t understand. There will come a point when we will have to account for how we have used God’s gifts. That is the heart of this story. The manager isn’t praised for trying to mislead the owner-the owner knows perfectly well what is going on. He is also not praised for the embezzlement—the owner is God who has no need or lack. The manager is praised because he is generous to others, even though it’s done for his own gain.
Certainly our intentions matter: it matters to the growth of our souls and development of our spirits. When we are kind out of self interest we’ve missed the opportunity to grow closer to God and the transformation offered through a life in Christ. But is the reason behind the deed really important to those who receive? Is it better to benefit out of someone’s self-interest than not at all? Does a starving person care if a meal comes from one charity or another so long as their dignity is upheld? The answer may depend on where your theology stands but in this parable, as in so many others, God directs us to care for those in debt. We are each other’s keeper and we are made to tend to the needs of others if we are in a position to do so. This is a message which frequently gets lost in a society of self-advancement. It matters what we do with the gifts God has put into our trust.
We cannot serve both God and money but we can make money serve God.
The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff is a transitional Deacon serving at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Madison County, Kentucky. He received his M.Div. from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and completed Clinical Pastoral Education at Massachusetts General Hospital. He lives in Winchester, Kentucky with his wife, The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff, and their three pets: Molly, Momo, and Jacob.