Thought for the week - 18 September
"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?"
Not very long ago my niece was shopping at Sainsburys. When she got her trolley she discovered that someone had left a hand bag in it which contained a considerable amount of money in it. Obviously the previous shopper had gone off leaving the bag. My niece handed the bag in and the woman, realizing she had left it, was able to get it back from the store. My niece was understandably a little upset that the woman did not even bother to thank her. You can imagine a less honest and less scrupulous person would have pocketed the money.
A few years ago a retired Church of England clergyman was jailed for diverting church funds and overcharging of fees to a tune of over £50,000 pounds over a period of ten years When someone holds a position of responsibility and trust much is expected of them. "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. "
When I was a boy at school I was daily confronted with a motto printed over the classroom blackboard. It read "Honesty is the best policy." Honesty is the best policy. We expect people to be honest and we are honest ourselves. We are naturally upset when people are dishonest. Indeed any form of dishonesty actually attacks the foundations of society and civil life. What gives people the right to take other people's property?
Trustworthiness is a quality that we value. To say of someone " I don't trust you any more." is a terrible indictment. We all value the reputation of being trusted. Without trust the world could not function. And, thank God that for the most part we can trust other people. It would be a terrible world if we could never trust anyone. If we could not trust the doctor; if we could not trust the solicitor; if we could not trust the builder; if we could not trust the priest; if we could not trust anyone at all. Life would be a waking nightmare. "I don't trust you any more," are not words that we would want to hear.
"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much." Trust is not a matter of degree. It is a moral quality. The truly trustworthy person can be trusted with anything. The dishonest person can never really be trusted with anything. And once someone has betrayed their trust it is very difficult ever to trust them again. Our good name depends on being trusted. Trusted to be honest, trusted to tell the truth, and so on.
Having said all this and having quoted those words of Jesus: "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?"
it comes as something of a shock to hear the words of the parable that Jesus told - the parable of the dishonest steward. He, it seems, is acting dishonestly and yet Jesus is commending his behaviour. "The Master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly."
The steward had been mis-managing his master's affairs and was about to be found out. What could he do? He didn't want manual labour and he was too proud to beg. He would use his wits. He would put his master's clients in his debt by writing off their debts to his master. Dishonesty compounded by dishonest would save his skin. And that is just what he does. He falsifies the accounts to the advantage of his master's creditors. "How much do you owe my master?" "Eight hundred gallons of oil." "Take your bill and make it four hundred."
The dishonest steward is still found out, but is commended by his master for his cunning. "The Master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly." What a shocking tale. Apparently honesty is not the best policy after all. What does Jesus mean by telling such a shocking tale?
What we need to realize is that parable are not morality tales as such. They are comparisons or similes. The kingdom of heaven is like.... The commentators come up with many differing interpretations of the meaning of this most difficult of parables. I give you two and leave you to make up your mind.
It has been suggested that the parable is actually directed against the Pharisees and religious leaders of Israel as stewards of God's property. They should be making friends with those they have oppressed and exploited so as to find security when their present position of worldly privilege collapsed, as Jesus believed it would soon do. I'm not sure about this interpretation.
It seems to me, although I find the parable very puzzling indeed, that, given the words that follow, it is not the steward's dishonesty that Jesus is commending. It is his shrewdness that is commended. He acted quickly to save his skin. This seems to me to chime in with other words of Jesus about the need to act quickly and decisively. Perhaps a parallel to this story might be the one about the foolish bridesmaids. They were not ready for the arrival of the bridegroom. Or what about the thief in the night. We never know when he is to come. Or what about the parable of the talents. Or what about the builder who began to build, but could not finish because he had miscalculated the cost. All these parables seem to me to be about readiness and preparedness. We need to be ready we need to act quickly. We need to be serious about our Christian life, for we never know when our master is going to call us to account for our stewardship and management. The question is are we trustworthy and reliable enough to be given the true riches, which are not material goods and money but that devotion to God and his kingdom which lead to eternal life, for
"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."