“Clear your desk!”
Those are words to knot your stomach. We all want to feel irreplaceable, but in business it can’t be so. Do you think the manager in Jesus’ story saw it coming? Was he lazy or greedy, dishonest or incompetent? The boss isn’t happy and this time it’s the chop – he just has time for a handover of the paperwork.
And there, that time for a handover, there’s just that little bit of wriggle room. “I’m losing my job, my income, my home. There’s no chance of a reference; there’s no safety net. I don’t have the muscles to be a builder, I don’t have the talent to be a busker and I don’t have the humility to be a beggar. But I need a pension plan, like, now.”
He thinks fast, he plans fast and he moves fast. Grabbing the file of invoices, he calls in all the debtors – everyone who owes something to the boss. In they come, one by one. Here’s the man who works the olive grove. He owes a share of the output – thousands of litres of extra virgin olive oil. At £4.99 a litre in Tesco’s that’s a tidy sum. “Tell you what,” says the manager (because he still is the manager, even if not for much longer), “Tell you what: I like you; you like me; we understand each other. You work hard, and maybe we’re asking too much. So here’s the deal: you can pay half, how does that sound? OK, we’re agreed. Yes, I’d love to come round some time for a meal. You can thank me later, I have a really busy morning.”
And so on through the queue: worried faces coming in, happy ones going out. He’s spent these last few hours when he’s meant to be putting the books in order buying favours by spending his boss’s capital. It’s not exactly stealing: he can’t be accused of having his hand in the till. He’ll be out on his ear, but he won’t be out in the cold, not with all those smiling friends who’ll be glad to see him, all those people who now owe him a big favour.
The boss gets wind of what he’s been up to and hauls him in. He’s been taken for a ride, but for whatever reason he decides to grin and bear it. “Well done,” he says to Mr Dishonest. “If only you’d been half as sharp on the job…”
And do you know? – because here’s the Sunday School teacher in me kicking in – God’s a bit like that.
Thank you, Maggi, for inviting me here tonight. You asked me to speak as the ‘ordained entrepreneur’ I call myself, and gave me the chance to look at what you and I agree is an outrageous story. It’s definitely one I need to make sense of, because I really want to know if I’m going God’s way.
If you’ll forgive me, I’d like to start by telling you some of my own story.
I’m a reluctant Christian. I was a happy atheist before I ran out of reasons to disbelieve that Jesus Christ is God’s Son. That was in my first year at Oxford, and it took me to nearly the end of my third to actually do something about it, to add a consenting heart to an assenting head.
I’m a reluctant vicar. I spent very nearly 20 years running away from a clear sense of calling to ordained Christian ministry before I became raw material for one of the vicar factories in Cambridge. And even then, I jumped off the production line leading to house and income and went ‘self-supporting,’ becoming unpaid curate of St Martin’s and keeping my family fed and housed by throwing myself into the business startup scene here at a time when our finances were rock bottom and the economy was subterranean.
But I am a happy entrepreneur. I love knocking down doors and opening up opportunities; spotting gaps and jumping into them; putting people together and seeing what happens; taking risks I think I can manage better than other people; celebrating the successes and bouncing back from the flops. And I fit my own definition of entrepreneur which is: someone who finds what they need to do what they want.
So if I am an ordained entrepreneur, most of my ministry is well off the beaten track of churches and the churchy. I’ve chosen to live with everything – faith included – at risk. And, getting back to the story, I’m bound to identify at least a bit with the opportunistic manager, if not in his ethics, certainly in his weighing up of a situation leading to rapid action to seize the main chance.
If that dishonest manager gets a thumbs-up from the boss, maybe I do too. Although I need to remember he got the sack, so I have to be a bit careful of getting smug.
Is God a bit like this boss? Well, there is something of grace about him – cheated by his outgoing staff member, he chooses to appreciate rather than incarcerate. When Jesus explains the story – OK, that’s an exaggeration, he leaves enough of a puzzle for generations of scholars and wearers of odd collars to sweat over – he says that “the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
So this is a story for a mixed economy. There are “children of this age” who are thoroughly worldly and at home in the here and now, and there are “children of light” who are in a way visitors to or voyagers in the world as it is, who look to the world as it could be, to the world as God willing it will be. Thinking back to the Christmas season, we recall how in the birth of Jesus Matthew tells us that “the people living in darkness have seen a great light.” Those who respond to this light become children of light. They now shine in that same darkness with the reflected glory of the one true light – that’s not their job, it’s a kind of spiritual physics.
So is Jesus really telling us that shrewdness is a no-no for his people? Here comes the great reckoning, how’s your eternal balance sheet? Shrewds to the left – no credit, all crunch; prudes to the right and amply justified bonuses all round? No, I don’t think so. This parable comes in a block of teaching that begins a chapter before: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
Jesus is offering a new perspective on living, and it’s the pious who don’t like it one bit. Those who take their religion so very seriously think Jesus is like the cross-eyed teacher who has no control over his pupils. He has absolutely no respect for them, and no apparent scruples. There he sits, surrounded by the faithless rich and the faceless poor. If a person is known by the company they keep, this Jesus is just another crowd-pleaser, careless of the rules. At best he’s misguided, wasting his time, talents and teaching.
And so Jesus tells this story. And it is meant to provoke that response of, “What??????” It’s a challenge as direct as you could want to the complacency which so easily sets in to all of us who start to think that when we become Christians we hand over responsibility to God and cover ourselves in an insulating layer of respectability. It’s not that we don’t want to see others find what we’ve found, of course. I’m sure they’ll see us, pillars of respectability, and some will be inspired by our radiance to become just like us.
Just think what’s been put into our trust: the riches of heaven, to know and be known as friends of God, and perhaps material prosperity as well. And what have we done, what are we doing with all this that has been entrusted to us? How are we using all we’ve been given? Secretly, as a private hoard, stockpiled until we need it? Perhaps we’re pooling our resources, sharing with others who are like us. Perhaps we even take the risk of putting this wealth on display.
But the call to follow Jesus is different. It’s a call to risk being misunderstood – especially by Christians. It’s a call to meet people as they live in the misery of the world’s broken promises, and to greet them not with words of condemnation but with words of hope and friendship. It’s a call to trust God that if he should be calling us to give up all we have, whether riches or reputation, then we will be welcomed into eternal dwellings – welcomed into a new life that is not merely endless but boundless.
This story is outrageous because the Gospel is outrageous. It’s a reminder that faith is a risk. Gospel lives aren’t safe, but they are secure. They aren’t stable, but they are anchored. And Gospel goods aren’t for keeping – we need to act to share what’s been lavished on us or else either it or we will be spoiled. Gospel clothes are worn with humility: they are always worn at the knees. Gospel people are always ready to move – and always ready to be moved.
This Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels, is a chancer, seizing the moment. He’s a risk-taker, putting everything at stake when that’s what it takes.
I wonder if one day you may hear his call as I have? It’s a call that thrills my soul just as it knots my stomach.
“Clear your desk!”
Given at Robinson College, Cambridge, Sunday evening 21 February, 2010
Given at Robinson College, Cambridge, Sunday evening 21 February, 2010