Righteous but Shrewd; Poor but Extravagant
by Ben D.
Sept 22, 2013
As Catherine reminded us last week, Luke’s gospel has much to say about loss—about the experience of losing things. Jesus says: Those who want to save their life will lose it; those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world,” he asks, “but lose themselves?” 
And Jesus helps us understand this dynamic of losing and finding by telling stories about people who lose things. Remember the rich man—one of many in these parables—who built new barns to hoard his wealth. He told himself: “Now you have enough goods to keep you rich for many years. So, relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
But as it turns out, God took his life that night. And the rich man lost everything he’d worked for, everything he’d truly loved, everything he’d hoarded. “Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.” His heart was in his barns, where he’d hoarded those goods. And when he died, he had nothing to take with him. He lost it all, because he’d invested so badly. But it’s not his death that made him a loser. We’ll all die, after all. No, the tragedy is that by hoarding his riches, he managed to lose his soul. Of course he had to leave all his goods behind, there in those barns; there was never a chance he could’ve taken them with him. But he also left his soul in those barns. And his soul was another matter entirely. It was his to keep, but also his to lose.
What matters in this life is not whether you lose things, because you will lose plenty. What matters is what you lose, but even more importantly, how you go about losing it. How that loss changes the way you see the world.
Tonight, we encounter two more characters who’ve lost something. There was another rich man, Jesus tells us; he had a manager. And someone—we don’t know who— tells the rich man that this manager has squandered his property. Now this word “squander” is the very same word that described—in the previous parable—what the prodigal did when he traveled to the distant country. It means to spend lavishly, recklessly, wastefully. To be extravagant. So if hoarding is one attitude toward material possessions, that of the rich men in these parables, then squandering is another option.
Squandering is what the woman did who spent hours looking for her lost coin, then threw a lavish party for friends and neighbors, to celebrate her finding it.
Squandering is the charge another rich man, later in Luke’s gospel, levels at his slave for burying the rich man’s money in the ground, instead of investing it.
Squandering is what that outrageous woman in Bethany did, when she poured a costly jar of ointment on Jesus’ head and feet, instead of saving the money, or giving it to the poor, as her critics thought she should have done.
In this story, the rich man fires his manager for squandering. Rich men tend to be wise with regard to their possessions, after all. That’s probably why they’re rich—they know how to get money, and once they have it, how to keep it, and even to make it grow. They know how to hoard. And they don’t take kindly to squandering.
So, having lost his job, and turned in his accounts, this manager must now make an account of his own situation. In a moment of profound honesty, he looks at his scrawny arms, and says to himself: I’m too weak to do physical labor. Next he considers his own sense of social propriety, his class sensibilities, and says: I’m too proud to beg. But how shall I eat? Where shall I sleep?
Despite his physical weakness and class pride, the manager has one crucial skill by which he can feed, clothe, and shelter himself: He is shrewd, crafty. And that means he’s able to look clearly and carefully at the situation: he’s lost his means of support; he isn’t fit for other, conventional means of support (manual labor and begging); yet he must get his bread and his bed somehow. So, he devises a way of indebting others to him, of getting others to provide his needs. A way of shrewdly negotiating the economy of hospitality so as to find a place to lay his head.
And in order to insinuate himself into this other economy, the economy of hospitality, where debt isn’t monetary, or even calculable, he must first do something within the old economy, the system of monetary debt and interest calculation—the economy in which his master, the rich man, has the ultimate word. Indeed, so long as he remains within that economy, he can use his master’s wealth only to make his master richer, to make others further indebted to his master. And now, he can’t even do this.
But remember: this manager is nothing if not shrewd. And to be shrewd means not only to think critically within the bounds of the prevailing logic, but also to be willing to think outside those bounds, to cut corners, to bend the rules.
So he shrewdly devises a way to have the penultimate word. He uses his limited, and quickly vanishing power within the master’s game to indebt others to him in another sort of game altogether. Summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he gives each a substantial discount, a refund on their loan interest. And why? Because he knows that people tend to be grateful for unexpected, unmerited kindnesses, that one good deed begets another.
The kindness he shows these debtors costs him nothing—he’s already lost everything, after all—yet it helps the debtors immensely, thereby placing them in a debt of honor. He’s helped them out financially, and according to the economy of gift giving, they’re obliged to show him hospitality in the future.
You see, the debt with which he indebts these debtors, and the credit he earns for himself, is altogether different. What he offers these debtors is debt without contract, without terms of interest, without recourse to judges or cops who bear legal papers, badges, guns, and clubs to enforce those terms. Instead of compounding interest, the manager takes it away. Thus, in the smallest—indeed, morally ambiguous way—he has forgiven debtors their debts.
And, in the end, even his master commends him. Now, the story doesn’t say the master restored the manager’s position, only that he commended him. Perhaps he said something like: “You got me. You’ve put me in a position where I can’t do anything but play along with this debt-reduction game you’ve started, because I can’t afford to look like a fool in front of my debtors. Well played…but you’re still fired.”
So that’s our story. But what does it mean?
Of course this is not simply a story; it’s a parable. That is, a certain kind of story that shows us problems with the way we’re used to seeing the world. A parable is a stumbling block that, once it’s caused us to stumble, makes us see the world differently. It helps us see the kingdom here among us, not just in the world to come, but here in this world: one of debt and credit, of loan statements, pink slips, the anxiety of accruing debt, of paying debt, the anxiety of losing work, of looking for work.
How then is this parable about the kingdom? This is where things get tricky, because though Jesus offers his listeners a few interpretive hints, the solution is not obvious.
The first hint: The children of this age are shrewder in dealing with the things of this age than the children of light are. Okay, so we should somehow learn from the manager’s shrewdness about how to deal with the structures and systems of this age. That seems clear enough.
The next hint: Use unrighteous mammon to make friends, so when the mammon disappears, you’ll have friends to welcome you into eternal homes. Okay, so there is a faithful way to use mammon. And faithfulness here means to make friends who will welcome us into the kingdom. This is a bit stranger. After all, isn’t it Jesus who goes to prepare a place for us, a place with many mansions? But this shouldn’t be entirely surprising, for Luke’s gospel has already pointed us in this direction. After all, if the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor, then using mammon to make friends with the poor is our way into the kingdom.
Finally, he makes three remarks about faithfulness: 1) Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 2) If you’re not faithful with unrighteous mammon, you can’t be trusted with true things. And 3) if you’re not faithful with another person’s things, you can’t be trusted with your own.
But these sound like conventional, common sense sayings. They seem to take the bite out of the story, to domesticate kingdom shrewdness. This sounds like advice you’d find in Ben Franklin’s almanac, or a New York Times best-selling self-help book. Should we take these remarks to suggest that the shepherd who left 99 sheep in the wilderness to look for the lost one, or the woman who extravagantly spends all day looking for the coin—then throws a lavish party for neighbors and friends—provide examples of irresponsible, unfaithful kingdom living? But then what happened to the kingdom where the first are last and the last first, the kingdom that turns the world upside down?
Indeed, some Christians have read this parable to suggest that a life of discipleship fits more comfortably with conventional ways of earning, investing, lending and borrowing, than the more radical parables might suggest. They emphasize that the manager used mammon shrewdly to secure his own interests. And Jesus’ point is that we do the same, just not for the sole aim of acquiring material goods. The economy of debt and lending, they say, has its own logic, its own way of doing things. The rules and logic of debt are simply what we must negotiate shrewdly, what must learn to control, in order to “do well” economically.
Of course there will be no debt in heaven, they say, but in the meantime, we must be responsible—that is to say shrewd—about debt and credit. For Christians to use mammon well means to engage in that economy, on its own terms, to the best of our abilities. Our aim is not to become wealthy—though that may be a tangential result of our shrewdness—but in order to serve God, to be responsible. One well-known preacher rephrases Jesus as asking his disciples: “Do you know how to make money? Do you know how to save money? Do you know how to spend money? Do you know how to invest money? Do you have a plan…to leave an inheritance for your children’s children?” If not, then you’re not being shrewd! This is one approach to the parable.
Another common interpretation takes the manager’s shrewdness in general, and not his approach to money in particular, as what we’re to imitate. On this view, the parable is essentially an analogy. Just as the steward, within the debt economy, is shrewd in these ways, so are we to be shrewd about the kingdom; to learn its ins and outs; to figure out how to improvise, in order to live faithfully. Jesus certainly says things elsewhere about debt, but how we deal with debt is not addressed here in this parable.
Now, I’m more sympathetic to this second way of reading the parable. But I think the dishonest manager shows us something important about how to receive the kingdom, not only by his shrewdness, but also by his attitude toward debt. It would be a mistake, I think, to see this parable’s reference to debt as simply the occasion for an object lesson—like the parables of the mustard tree, or the dragnet—which I’m content to admit aren’t about horticulture or commercial fishing.
After all, Jesus’ program has been about debt since his very first sermon, where he proclaims the year of jubilee, announcing that old debts are forgiven. He then announces the advent of a kingdom in which new debts aren’t recorded. For in the kingdom, you give to those who ask, without demand of repayment. Lenders don’t keep track of what they lend, for they know they’ve been forgiven far more than they could ever lend another person. There are no debts in the kingdom of God, then, except perhaps what the apostle Paul calls the debt of love.
That means material, calculable debt is a fiction of this age. In the kingdom of God, we are all debtors, but of an incalculable kind. This is not a fact to bemoan, nor a fate to avoid, as though debt were a problem. On the contrary! Debt is a feature of being human. The problem comes when we seek not to be debtors, but creditors.
So, if there are no debts in the kingdom, but still quite obvious debts in this age (After all, I get letters every month from my lenders), then how are we—as those called to live in the kingdom—to see debt?
This is where the manager’s example might help. The manager’s desperation has placed him in the margins of the debt economy; his new position renders him powerless within the old economy. He’s lost his job, and with it, his ability to work his way up the ladder, to protect his position. This desperation, and this newly acquired outsider status, give the manager a certain freedom with regard to the old economy. For him, loss has somehow become freedom.
For Christians, the practice of discipleship, the losing of everything to follow Jesus, is another way that loss can become freedom. We claim that in baptism, our old identity, our old loyalties, are washed away. We say that we’ve died and are buried with Christ, and are likewise raised with him to a new life of freedom. The followers of Jesus, we say, are those who begin to see a new world, the kingdom that has already arrived, but isn’t yet fully established. For the old system has failed and is on its way out. And a new system is on its way in. To be a disciple means to give up your place in the old system—like the manager—and look for a place in the new one.
Thus, just as the manager realistically assesses the situation, then shrewdly devises a strategy for forgiving debt, in order to be welcomed into the community of debtors, so are we to see our relationship to debt in light of the coming kingdom. So are we to use what remaining traction we might have within the old economy, to throw ourselves at the mercy of the indebted and the poor, to become poor and indebted ourselves, for—Jesus has told us—the kingdom belongs to these.
In the end, Jesus still describes the manager as unrighteous. Perhaps this because his concern is still with possessions. But he also calls him shrewd because of his with regard to the legitimate, legal order. So if the manager was unrighteous and shrewd, we are to be righteous but shrewd.
To be righteous means not to serve mammon, or to be enchanted by its rhetoric of responsibility, common sense, and realism. It means instead to embrace the debt of love we owe each other, the debt we can never repay.
But to be shrewd means not simply to ignore the contours of the debt economy, to refuse to attend to its logic, to pretend that the debts aren’t there. To be shrewd means acknowledging these forces, learning how they work, whom they benefit, whom they harm, whom they enrich, and whom they defraud, then shrewdly using this knowledge to earn eternal friends. We don’t ignore the workings of power just because we know that system is on its way out; to do so would not be shrewd. Yet we do ignore the sovereignty to which its rules lay claim. We shrewdly look for ways to flout those rules.
The really hard question this parable poses to us today is this: What does this non-monetary debt economy that Jesus inaugurates have to do with the “real world” of loans, debt, and interest? After all, debt can cripple us, and does cripple us. What does Jesus’ “good news” mean in our society, where the average household owes $16,000 in credit card debt alone, not to mention mortgages, car loans, or student loans. In a world where, at the same time that the wise voices of our age tell young people that they must go to college to have a chance in this society, the average college graduate leaves with $27,000 of debt to accompany her diploma. And this is not even to mention the problem of seminary debt, of which many in our congregation are acutely aware.
I don’t have answers. But let me suggest that for those of us who are debtors in the old economy, those of us who do get mail month after month detailing just how much interest has compounded, how much more we owe than last time, that we not allow this economy to define how we act in the world, not even how we use our material possessions. For the gospel shows us a more determinative world of “unpayable debt and untold wealth,” a world where Jesus has called us to be “poor but extravagant rather than frugal.”
No, this is not an easy question. But Jesus never said that the kingdom would come easily. Especially not to those who are comfortable in the old economy.
But may God open our eyes to the new economy.
Though we be righteous, may we be shrewd.
And though poor, may we be extravagant,
That we may be welcomed into eternal homes.
 Luke 9:24.
 Luke 12:13-21.
 Luke 12:34.
 Luke 15:13.
 See the OED’s account of “squander” for a fascinating history.
 Luke 15:8-10.
 Luke 19:12-27.
 Luke 7:36-50.
 See Luke 6:20; Luke 18:24.
 Luke 13:30; Acts 17:6.
 Luke 13:19; Matthew 13:47-50.
 Luke 4:16-21. Though the text Jesus reads from doesn’t explicitly employ the word “debt,” the forgiveness of debt is the hallmark of the jubilee he announces there. See Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, p. 12; John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, pp. 28-33, 60-71.
 Romans 13:8.
 These phrases are borrowed from Fred Moten & Stefano Harney’s book, Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, p. 47. Their chapters entitled “Debt and Study” and “The General Antagonism” are most instructive here.