Year C, Proper 20
1 Timothy 2:1-7
The Sufi tradition of storytelling invites questions. Each of the stories is meant to be discussed, wondered over, maybe even debated. Our story from Luke this week reminds me of a Sufi story. There is much to wonder about, to debate and to discuss in Jesus’ parable of the “dishonest” or inept manager and his ensuing commentary on the story. What is Jesus getting at? Do we start from his clearest statement, “You cannot serve God and wealth” and work backwards into understanding? It is a story worth the wrestle.
I found helpful exegesis and comments on the story written by Lois Malcolm, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1783). Dr. Malcolm bases her exegesis on the assumption that the inept manager who is being fired for mismanagement of his master’s accounts uses his rightful commission on the accounts to leverage his relationship with the master’s clients. He does not steal money from his master by giving the clients discounts. Instead he subtracts his own commission to lower the debts so that the clients will remember his kindness when he is in need of a new job. Dr. Malcolm then challenges us to use this somewhat subversive action to understand Jesus’ instructions to “the children of light.” One of her readers comments:
“Perhaps the point is, for “children of light”, that we’re supposed to be giving away recklessly what was never ours to begin with. Perhaps we’re supposed to be giving away what the “owner” has entrusted us with – the grace and love of Jesus Christ. It was never ours to begin with….and perhaps if we were giving it away in scandalous ways, the “owner” would commend us as well.
I guess what I’m proposing is looking at this text missionally versus ethically. What would it mean if our mission as God’s people and the church was to act like the dishonest manager when it comes to what God has entrusted us with? Would we be so commended if we did?”[i]
How does Dr. Malcolm’s exegesis along with her reader’s comment help you consider a re-telling of the tale? We forget that Jesus’ stories were meant to entertain as well as to instruct. They were meant to catch the crowd’s attention with their audaciousness and hyperbole. They were not rational fables of good and moral living as we tend to read them. Jesus’ parables were told to turn the social order upside down! Particularly those told in Luke where Jesus’ mother sings of God’s reversal of fortunes for the poor and oppressed at his conception. “[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51b-53).
In this light, does the “dishonest” or inept manager suddenly becomes less inept and dishonest? What does he know, despite poor judgment in business affairs, that the owner does not know? Was his mismanagement truly dishonest as in stealing from the owner or was he overly generous and lax about debt payment deadlines? Did he keep bad records? Is this how he squandered the accounts? Certainly these are not good business practices and he has not been true to the owner. Still does the owner have anything to learn from him? Dr. Malcolm tells us that the Greek word, dieskorpisen, translated here as squandered, is used in Mary’s song when she sings that “the proud are scattered”. What can we ask ourselves about this word in re-telling the parable?
With these questions in mind we head back to the Hebrew scriptures, psalms and epistle. Jeremiah speaking as God’s prophet, God’s mouthpiece, is in complete despair over the dishonest management of God’s gifts by God’s people. Psalm 79 echoes this despair and pleads with God for mercy. The prophet Amos is more than direct in condemnation of those who “trample on the needy and bring ruin on the poor of the land.” Psalm 113 answers Amos’ condemnation with a song of hope in God who “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” The writer of 1 Timothy urges the community of believers to stay steady in prayer for all people, even those in power. This is a counter-intuitive action for those oppressed, to pray for the ones in power, an action that can only be centered in love and power of God demonstrated by Jesus Christ.
How will the stories we tell this week turn the tables upside down on the oppression of the powers that be? How will they challenge us to radical reversal of the status quo that still tramples the needy and ruins the poor? How will we follow Jesus as he leads us in turning the status quo upside down to build the Kingdom of God?
I have two Sufi stories to offer you that turn “ways of the world” upside down as Jesus’ parable does and as the prophets proclaim. The first is called “The Oath.” I first found it in the classic collection of Sufi stories by Idris Shah, Tales of the Dervishes; Teaching Stories of the Sufi Masters over the Past Thousand Years. You can also find it several places on-line as listed below.
It seems a man was very troubled with many problems. He took an oath promising to sell his house and all its furnishings and give them to the poor if his problems were ever solved.
And there did come a time when his problems were solved. Life became peaceful again. But by this time the man was not sure that he wanted to sell his house and all its furnishings to give the money to the poor. He considered what to do.
Finally he decided. He put his house up for sale for one piece of silver. But in order to buy the house one also had to buy the cat that lived in the house. The cat sold for 10,000 pieces of silver. Soon the man had a buyer of the house and all its furnishings AND the cat.
When the deal was done the man gave the one piece of silver to the poor and pocketed the 10,000.
At the end of the story the storyteller adds:
“Many people’s minds work like this. They resolve to follow a teaching; but they interpret their relationship with it to their own advantage. Until they overcome this tendency by special training, they cannot learn at all.”[ii]
The second story is also from Tales of the Dervishes. It is titled “The Bequest.”
It seems a man died far from home. In the bequest written into his will were these words: “Let the community where the land is situated take what they wish for themselves, and let them give that wich they wish to Arif the Humble.”
The elders of the community were puzzled at first. Arif was a young man, practically a beggar, an insignificant member of the community. Why leave anything to him? So they allocated a few insignificant items from the man’s estate to Arif and divide the rest among themselves.
Several years later Arif, having grown into a man of stature and integrity, came to the elders to claim his portion of the bequest. As the elders of the community were in the midst of giving Arif the few things they had chosen for him, an unknown man appeared among them in their meeting. He inquired about the exact wording of the bequest and he was told. “Let the community where the land is situated take what they wish for themselves, and let them give that wich they wish to Arif the Humble.”
The unknown man said to the elders, “I believe you have misinterpreted the meaning of this man’s last wishes. The meaning of the will is that you should give to Arif that which you wished for yourselves, for he can make the best use of it.” There was a great silence among the elders. And then a moment of great illumination. They saw the error of their interpretation and the true meaning of the bequest.
The unknown man – was he an apparition of sorts? – continued, “The man died unable to protect his property. If he had made Arif the sole legatee when he was too young to take on the responsibility, the community would have had great dissension among it. So he entrusted you, the elders, with the care of the land for a time, knowing that if you thought you were caring for your own possession it would be well cared for. He made a wise provision for the preservation and transmission of his treasure. Now it is time for it t go to its rightful owner, Arif the Humble.”
And so it did. And everyone learned a valuable lesson that day.[iii]
Both “The Oath” and “The Bequest” can be found online at https://www.ratical.org/ratville/JFK/TalesOfTheDervishes.pdfaks where there is a copy of Idries Shah’s book.
“The Oath can also be found at
- and under the name “The Promise” at http://theunboundedspirit.com/10-sufi-stories/
“The Bequest” can be found at
Blessings on your story journey this week,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2016 and beyond. Commentary and photos may be reprinted with permission only. Please tell the stories!
[i] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1783 See the first comment under the article made by afuller001.
[ii] Idries Shah, Tales of the Dervishes; Teaching Stories of the Sufi Masters over the Past Thousand Years. (London, UK; Arkana Penguin Books: 1967, 68).
[iii] Ibid, 66-67.