Shrewd Grace – by Rob Touchstone
In his book, Shrewd, author Rick Lawrence makes an astute observation about the film, The Young Victoria, in which viewers get a glimpse of the early years of Queen Victoria and her future husband, Prince Albert. The couple will eventually lead the 19th century British Empire through some of its transformational years of revolution in serving the poor, fighting slavery, offering education, and rebirthing the arts and sciences.
During a corrupt period of time before they will rule and even before they are married, Victoria and Albert are playing a game of chess. Victoria expresses to Albert that she feels like nothing more than a pawn herself. She laments, “I’m sure half the politicians are ready to seize hold of my skirts and drag me from square to square,” to which Albert replies, “ Then you had better master the rules of the game until you play it better than they can.” Those words could just as well have come from the mouth of Jesus who said, “Be shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16)
Over the last couple of years I’ve learned a few things about shrewdness through coffee and business. Believe me, I am a guy who had no business starting a business but 18 months ago I formed a team and opened a coffeehouse on little more than a handful of money and a theology degree.
Most of the time I play the role of the jester interrupting conventional wisdom in the business world without even knowing how or why. Our successful little coffeehouse drives capitalists insane because we measure our success not by how much we make but by how much we give away. Through the folly of it all, I’ve learned to “play the fool” in a business world where I’m largely ignorant by using the narrative of Scripture rather than the Wall Street journal. After all, the story of God delivers a subversive kingdom ethic in regards to money, possessions, wealth, and poverty that reads like an antithesis to Business Week. And no one has more to say about it than Jesus.
Most of the time, we get pretty uncomfortable when Jesus talks about our money. And typically it’s because he’s so often challenging our version of the American dream, and capitalism, and all we are told about “stocking up.” We squirm in our seats when he tells a rich young man to give it ALL away, somehow telling ourselves that we would have never walked away from Jesus like that young man.
For most of us, Jesus is simply the “nice” or “generous” guy who challenges conventional wisdom and stands up for the poor and oppressed. And even though we may have a hard time living up to the level of sacrifice for which Jesus asks, we can buy in to the idea that it’s the right thing to do. We may not be as sacrificial as we need to be, but most of us can smile and reach into our pockets and be our brother’s and sister’s keeper.
But then we come to a parable that no one wants to talk about because it forces us to deal with a Jesus who is more than just a generous nice guy. This Jesus makes us a little more uncomfortable as he overturns the tables of our expectations of what He and we should and should not do.
It is a parable of shrewdness. Just when we are set up to predict that Jesus will rebuke a clearly dishonest man who acts shrewdly with money, we instead hear him turn the story on its head and declare that the “sons and daughters of light” could learn a thing or two from the shrewdness of this unethical scoundrel of THIS world. How’s that for folly?
So from the lips of Jesus we meet a man in Luke 16 who is in big trouble. He is a financial accountant for a wealthy man. Needless to say, he has a good job. But he has done it poorly; so poorly that he has been accused (by someone) of wasting the very possessions he has been entrusted to manage. He is about to be relieved of his duties by his master who has heard about his poor management and demands for the book of accounts to be turned in immediately. In essence, he is fired on the spot. As scholar Kenneth Bailey points out, rabbinic law granted the master the right to fire one who managed his money with or without good cause and upon doing so, nothing the manager does from that point forward is binding.
It is here that we would expect Jesus to end the parable and offer a commentary on the folly of the accountant’s irresponsible handling of his master’s money. But this parable is just beginning and may perhaps be as shocking as any ever told.
It should be noted that the accountant does not defend himself. He knows he is guilty. He has only one task and that is to go home and get the book of accounts. The dreadful book of accounts. Documents that reflect nothing but the folly of the sin of this unethical accountant.
In this moment of damnation however a shrewd plan is hatched. Though short on time, the accountant has one chance and it’s going to take shrewdness. And it is that shrewdness that will position him to be at the mercy of his master as he turns in the very book will that indict him.
Typically we think of shrewdness in negative terms. It can certainly imply a level of dishonesty, just as is seen directly in the parable, that we are convinced Jesus would rebuke under any circumstance. But this is not a parable focused on dishonest vs. honest behavior, it is a parable about leverage. It is not a parable about how much possessions are owned but about how those possessions are used. It is a parable about cleverness. It is one of those tension filled scenes where we want to question the ethics of stealing but the narrator insists the thief has noble intentions. It is that Robin Hood moment where want to cheer the stealing from the rich and giving to the poor but then are reminded that stealing is wrong. Jesus has a way of inviting us into that tension. And this is a parable in which we beg for resolution only to be left with unnerving, unresolved tension about what Jesus means by shrewdness.
The manager begins with an honest appraisal of his own assets and finds himself sorely lacking. He cannot beg because he is too proud, meaning, he does not have the qualifications such as a disability to stand on a street corner and ask for money. He also assesses his lack of experience in other areas of work which leave him unable to even handle a shovel well. The commodity he does have (the accounting book) will have to be enough but will have to be used cleverly. And here we see what Jesus means by shrewdness. Rick Lawrence suggests that shrewdness is: knowing how things work.
And this clever accountant knows exactly how things work. You win friends by doing favors. So he meets with those who owe his master money. One owes 900 gallons of oil. That’s three years of wages. We’re talking about a lot of money here. Over $100,000 by today’s standards. The next household owes something similar. The manager knows what it will take to win them over and he hatches a shrewd plan. It is a plan that will win the favor of the debtor and leverage the reputation of the master.
How will he do it? The accountant reduces the bill by half for the first and does something similar with the second household. His goal? To win these household over as friends in order to secure a place that will receive him. He plays the fool. And it works. Upon returning the deceitfully-altered accounting book the master does exactly the opposite of what we’d expect: he commends the accountant. How could he? And how could Jesus invent such a story? In the accountant’s self-preserving deceitfulness he has placed the master in quite an interesting predicament. He has made his master look like the most graceful person person in the town. Though he has every right to negate the accountant’s bill reductions, does the master dare ruin the favor he would now experience from those who must be celebrating over his grace? And though he has every right to have his accountant jailed for fraud, the master exercises foolish grace. It is a portrait of the triumph of the cross that comes through what looks like defeat.
It should be noted that dishonesty is not commended in this story. But shrewdness is. Jesus interprets his own parable by holding this tension. He is employing a rabbinic technique called kal ve’homer which is a method of showing something bigger out of a smaller thing. It is used to show that “if this thing is true, how much more would it be true if this were to happen.” So Jesus says that the dishonest accountant knew how to leverage his possession (the book of accounts) to manipulate a good outcome for all involved – himself, the master, and those who had their bills reduced. It was a shrewd move. But he’s still a man of THIS world. This is a small story compared to the grand narrative of Almighty God. If people of this worldy narrative can pull this off, what would happen if “sons and daughters of the narrative of light” could learn to think so cleverly? After all, “son and daughters of the light” know better than anyone “how things work” in the kingdom of God because they have already experienced for themselves the undeserved grace from a grace-filled Master.
And finally the punchline from Jesus: “Use worldly wealthy to gain friends for yourselves so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” To paraphrase, use worldly wealthy for good by leveraging it to usher in the in-breaking kingdom that is at hand. “Master the rules of the game. And play it better than they can.” And in doing so, we let the irresistible folly of grace that comes from a crucified king be poured out on those who don’t deserve it but are placed in its path. Because though we can never fully understand the mystery of grace, we know how it works – through Jesus.
So what did my understanding about Jesus and shrewdness teach me about business? Not just to give money away. But to shrewdly make money for the sake of others. And so at a small 18 month old coffeehouse run by a few jesters, we leverage the caffeine addictions and buying power of those who can afford $4 for a latte as a means of “taking” money from the wealthy and giving it to the poor.
We are all called to participate in our own shrewd ways in the kingdom of God. This doesn’t come through 5 steps or a business plan that I can lay out for you today but through your own unique experience of how foolish grace works in your life and how you can leverage the gifts you’ve been given to help others to live into the presence of a self-giving Master whose grace and provision continuously interrupt and defy all boundaries and expectations.