Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 17 Sunday 18 September 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie, Trinity 17
We’ve just heard the parable of the ‘dishonest steward’ – or have we? A man who is in crisis – or is he?
I first knew the phrase ‘Crisis, what crisis’ as the album title of a record, by the British band Supertramp, which was released when I was in year 10. The album cover juxtaposed the phrase ‘crisis, what crisis’ with a picture of a man sunbathing under a beach umbrella, the man and his holiday accoutrements in colour, set against a black and white industrial wasteland surrounded by factories & power stations belching smoke over terrace roofs. It’s a good combination of text and visual. Even, maybe, a parable.
Not living in England when Supertramp issued that album, I only later learned that ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ was also a Sun headline. I immediately imagined a patrician politician’s sound-bite – maybe Harold Macmillan? But in fact it was not said by anyone: it was a headline in response to Jim Callaghan ill-advisedly glossing over the winter of discontent as he arrived back, tanned and relaxed, from a meeting in the Caribbean. These three words, it is said, helped to bring down his government.
So the Supertramp album title and cover must be a clever use of this Sun headline. Wrong again. The ‘Winter of Discontent’ was 1978/9. Supertramp’s fourth album, ‘Crisis, what crisis’ and my year 10 at school, coincided in 1975. The phrase was actually a line from the 1973 film of Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal, about a plot to assassinate General De Gaulle. In the interests of research I watched the film again this week; the line occurs in the 53rd minute. I can’t vouch for its presence in the original book, which I’ve never read.
As with Sun headlines and album covers, even more so with the gospels: it is good to understand how they came to be written as well as why.
The word ‘crisis’ in the gospels is a case in point: the sort of crisis we hear about here isn’t one like a run on the pound (Callaghan’s problem) or an essay crisis at university. Krisis in Greek means, primarily, ‘judgement’: the activity of God or the Messiah as judge; it conveys God’s righteous judgment (as in ‘judgement day’); it often means a judgement that goes against a person, a sentence of condemnation. It may also be used of the court which gives a judgment or more generally the administration of justice. The ‘crisis’ of the believer, a major theme in post-WWII theology, is therefore the crucial choice or judgment we make, the urgent choice of commitment to God. Jesus, it was argued, seeks to precipitate our choice, to make us choose more urgently, by his talk of judgment and the end-times.
Today’s parable has been read by many as an illustration of this type of ‘crisis’, but the modern English usage has muddied the sense. I’ve heard a whole sermon by a fine preacher using it as an example of modern crisis-management. Here’s a little of that:
There are four stages of crisis-management… The crisis must be identified, a response to it must be planned, the crisis must be confronted and then, and only then, can it be resolved. Our steward takes all these four steps. The man may have cheated and lied. That is not the point. What matters is that he is not unnerved by the dread of what threatens to befall him. He responds to the crisis speedily and effectively and for that – not for cooking the books – he is congratulated.
Crisis-management may be going on here, but too cursory a reading of this story has misled this preacher about the nature of the crisis.
First, the manager is not in fact cooking the books. Usury, lending money or anything else on interest was illegal for Jews, but there was a way round it so that the agent or middleman could make a living. If you borrowed £80 the bill would read £100 and £20 would go to the agent. That was legitimate business practice. So, in response to his crisis, the manager is merely removing his legitimate profit in order to win friends. He is not being commended for sharp practice, but for altering his priorities to save himself. Jesus is saying, ‘be a wise manager of what God gives you, and be generous in passing it on in order to share the good news; don’t add on your own cut.’ ‘Freely you have received: freely give’.
But there’s another twist here. We too easily read this story through the prism of a headline: ‘the parable of the dishonest manager’ is the heading in my NRSV Bible. It is also there in the text
The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness. 16.8
This has been added by Luke, the editor who has put this text together with other teachings about dishonesty. Though not as catchy as ‘Gotcha’ or even ‘Crisis, what Crisis’, this is his ‘take’ on the story; which may be just as much a piece of lazy media spin. Recall what we heard at the beginning:
There was a rich man who had a manager and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. (Luke 16.1)
‘Charges were brought to him’: the manager is only ‘accused’ of dishonesty, which does not make him guilty of it.
‘Charges were brought to him’ translates the verb diaballo, meaning ‘inform against’, ‘accuse’ (possibly falsely). It’s the same root as the word ‘devil’ (diabolos in Greek), who is so called because he is ‘the accuser’ or, as Jesus calls him, the ‘father of lies’, the false accuser. So the crisis faced by the manager may well result from a false accusation – easily made, and with terrible consequences in certain circumstances.
Think of those false allegations of satanic abuse in the 90’s, when social workers took children away from their parents on the basis of fundamentalist fantasies. Think of the now-discredited ‘recovered memory’ syndrome. Or current and similar instances of people falsely accused of paedophilia: in my parish in Sheffield a scoutmaster committed suicide after such a false accusation, which turned out to be the result of a family feud which got out of hand because the children didn’t understand the consequences. Think of the recent trashing of Bishop George Bell’s reputation. We should be very careful how we read, and how we interpret what we hear.
The moral is don’t trust the headlines; especially when someone’s reputation is at stake. Read and interrogate the story, not the digested version; listen carefully and ask thoughtful questions, giving the benefit of the doubt: in all of life, in all our dealings with others, as witnesses to the kingdom of God, we are to read or listen with care, caution and a presumption of innocence, with that generosity which is in the nature of God.