When you go to seminary you quickly learn that, even when kicking back and having a good, easy time, certain topics are discussed that would very rarely be discussed in any other setting. Biblical inerrancy is one of those topics. It may not be popular in academic circles to claim that the Bible is totally without error, but I happen to believe that it is inerrant, that it is, in fact, without error. So even in the midst of light seminary banter, a few of us decided to defend this view. At some point one of us said “I believe that every word of the Bible is true; I’m just not smart enough to understand all of it.”
Today’s Gospel lesson from St. Luke is one of those times we get to fall back on that kind of understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture. This parable Jesus told in which the dishonest manager is actually praised, in which Jesus says “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” what are we to make of such a saying? It just doesn’t seem to fit with, well, everything else Jesus said, so it leaves us wanting for explanation if not completely baffled.
Perhaps this parable, which is call the Parable of the Unjust Steward, by the way, is about money, about the stewardship of resources. All resources and especially tradable resources can be used justly or unjustly. Food can be horded instead of distributed; oil is always horded rather than distributed. Peoples, nations, individuals can make friends or enemies quickly depending on how they trade the stuff they have. Like Toby Ziegler said on the West Wing, “free trade stops wars.” To say it in the negative, bad trade starts wars.
Or perhaps this Gospel lesson is not about money, per se, but about shrewdness, a word that comes up several times in the passage. “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly,” said Jesus, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” The word shrewd means to deal with a “clever discerning awareness,” or a person “given to wily and artful ways of dealing.”1 Taming a shrew can be an arduous if not futile task, as the shrewd operator will always find a way of coming out on top. The shrewd operator will weasel his way into deal after deal, maybe avoiding scandal along the way but maybe not, as the shrewd operator, like the C.I.A., knows that sometimes he has to deal with unsavory people to win the day.
Yes, I think that’s what Jesus was talking about. Jesus sent out His apostles saying that they should be wise, be as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. We like the innocent part, right, because our children can color pictures of doves and other nice things in Church School, but we don’t want them asking what color the snake is supposed to be. Be wise, be shrewd, be as cunning as snakes, be as shrewd as this unjust steward. So many of us are like the snake with our money, with our trade; “would that God was served so carefully, so wisely.”2
“Perhaps Jesus Himself is the scandalous servant, playing fast and loose with the Masters,” with His Father’s, “account book. The Pharisees balked at His open display of mercy. He welcomed the most unsavory of followers, and raced ahead of the customary process for repentance and forgiveness. In short…this parable is a tale of the ‘roguery of grace.’ Jesus absolved debts that could never be paid,”3 He took His Father’s ledger and made a total mess of it, Jesus made it so that when all our debts are added up, they can, if we only ask Him, come out to zero. This rogue Savior “never met a friend He didn’t like,”4 He told His stewards to go out and hook everybody in for the party in His Kingdom. That’s good news for us, from the doves all the way to the serpents.