“… the people of this world are much more shrewd in handling their affairs than the people who belong to the light.”
Some time ago, so that people’s questions could inform sermons, a question box was put at the back of the nave. A current question from the box is: “If God loved the world, why is he letting it get in such a mess?”. It’s a perennial question, because ‘mess’ is a perennial problem. Old Testament readings date from several hundred years before Jesus and frequently God’s reputation is at stake because of the destruction and humiliation of what was supposed to be God’s special community.
The news currently emphasises the horrific circumstances of individuals in today’s biblical lands. As an example of a country not in the news, Zimbabwe, an estimated 2.2 million people – one in four of the rural population – are expected to need food assistance before next harvest. I recently saw a Zimbabwean email: “Am still in great mourning over a stolen election. … When a country is ruled by leaders who highly crave money and don't care about people's welfare, … [w]hat more can people do when those in corridors of power are thieves.”
What about our future? The Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, is pessimistic about the ability of politicians to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions to safe levels, and legal experts are warning of the dangers of outer space being militarised [Guardian, 12 Sept]. Our questioner is right. The world is in ‘a mess’.
At the time of Jesus five empires had successively overcome the Jews, followed by the Romans –a small number of very wealthy people were becoming wealthier, and many ordinary people struggled to survive. What was the Jewish God doing about it, as opposed to the apparently triumphant Roman gods? People around Jesus wanted to know why, as our questioner puts it, God was letting the ‘mess’ happen. Today’s epistle [1 Timothy 2: 5-6], written a few decades after Jesus, makes a great claim – that “the man, Christ Jesus” brings God and the whole of humankind together, because “God wants everyone to be saved.” That doesn’t offer exemption from ‘mess’, but a way of living which triumphs over ‘mess’.
Our Coalition government uses a ‘behavioural insight team’ to ‘nudge’ people into seeing things differently, rather than relying on behavioural regulation. This was very much the way Jesus focussed his teaching, following examples in the OT which subtly challenged literal-minded religious exclusiveness based on other OT texts.
For example, the ‘Mills and Boon’ style novel of ‘Ruth’ persuasively emphasises that King David was partly descended from a Moabite woman, though Deuteronomy specifically excluded Moabites from God’s people [23:3]. The ‘Private Eye’ style of ‘Jonah’ ridicules an imagined narrow-minded prophet who refuses to help hated foreigners reform their lives. The ‘Radio 3 drama’ style of ‘Job’ is about an imagined foreigner whom God describes as the most faithful and good person on earth [ch1:v8]. The drama rejects Israel’s exclusive monopoly on God, and biblical claims [eg Deuteronomy  that individual prosperity or suffering are divine rewards or punishments. These stories are persuasive nudges to get beyond the superficiality of rules.
Jesus’ parables are like these written stories. However, it is inconceivable that the people who flocked around him would have been satisfied with a story taking only the four minutes needed to read today’s parable [Luke 16: 1 – 13]. As an oral teacher Jesus wanted to make people think, and would have elaborated the story to provoke, and respond to, probing questions and discussion about social, religious and economic traditions.
Towards what insights is Jesus nudging us in today’s pantomime of a parable? The original audience would have been only too well aware of a widely practised circumvention of the OT ban on usury [Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 15 and elsewhere]. Just like current circumventions of tax laws, widely-attested commercial practice used legal fiction. The manager had authority to sell goods on credit. The written contract falsely increased the stated quantity of goods purchased, so the artificially increased contract price included interest without saying so. The manager cancels these fictitious additions to encourage support for himself when he became unemployed. Perhaps Jesus exaggerated the interest rates for effect, but remember those of Wonga! The master and the manager are equally unscrupulous. So what is Jesus nudging us to understand?
Was the steward justified in altering the false contracts, the debtors ending up much as they should have done if the Law forbidding usury had been observed? Was the authorities’ toleration of such a system acceptable? Was the Law, which was expressly designed to prevent advantage being taken of the poor, workable in practice? All these worldly-wise subjects are likely to have been discussed. But Jesus’ focus was the shrewdness of master and manager in achieving monetary advantages. Why didn’t his followers exercise shrewdness, using their assets to deal with the ‘mess’ around them?
Jesus was nudging his hearers towards a change of individual mind-set which took seriously that everyone has a role in making real what Jesus called ‘God’s Kingdom’, where every human being is treated supportively. God’s style of ‘government’, as both Old and New Testaments show, is not monarchic, but a collaborative covenant with faithful people. With sufficient determination even the biggest ‘messes’ of human need can be cleaned up.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian. Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for his part in the bomb plot against Hitler. Although the plotters failed, their example energised many who had lost hope of overcoming the terrible power of the Nazi state. Bonhoeffer wrote from prison: “… in Christ we are invited to participate in the reality of God and the world – not the one without the other.” [Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture, [ed. Johnson and Larsen, Apollos, 2013].
A recent book sponsored by The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity and the Institute of Chartered Accountants, and written by a leading City solicitor who is Chair of the Church of England Ethical Investment Advisory Group, is about re-shaping our financial system, an example of a big ‘mess’ in the news again this week. He writes: “Many are calling for a rediscovery of the fact that moral principles, linked to a clear sense of public duty, is the friend not the enemy of business in the long-term. Without morality there is no trust, and without trust there is no business.” [Featherby, Of Markets and Men, Tomorrow’s Company, 2013].
Malala Yousafzai was an obscure Pakistani 16 year-old girl, until she was shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ education, another ‘mess’ needing challenge in many countries. An artist who recently painted her portrait said “Given how much she has already been through and all that she represents to the world, it took a while to adjust to the fact that she is still a very fragile teenager.” [Guardian 11 Sept 2013 p 4].
Individual resistance to vicious dictatorship, facing up to the power of global finance, asserting women’s dignity against trigger-happy traditionalists – these are examples to follow.
As individuals, what ‘messes’ of human need are our hearts open to? Are we using our assets – our skills, personalities, possessions – to clean them up as shrewdly as those with self-centred vision whom Jesus called “the children of this world”? If ’mess’ is always present, what can be more properly human than sorting it out? Jesus’ life and teaching show that in doing so we find real significance for our own lives.
As a church, can we make more use of our communal assets? Our assets are not just the buildings and funds, but also the weekly Gospel readings in which Jesus’ life and teaching challenge us, and the communion which we celebrate together because the Cross represents sacrificial victory over ‘mess’. Can we develop our capacity for prayer, so that we focus on real priorities? Pope John Paul II explained: “Prayer calls us to examine our consciences on all the issues that affect humanity. It calls us to ponder our personal and collective responsibility before the judgement of God and in the light of human solidarity. Hence prayer is able to transform the world. … New goals and new ideas emerge.”
God’s answer to the world’s ‘mess’ is ordinary individuals like us nudged into new mindsets, finding their own worries dealt with in God’s kingdom which they enter as they shrewdly clean up.
Must it be that “… the people of this world are much more shrewd in handling their affairs than the people who belong to the light”?