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Wednesday, 3 August 2016

the inconvenient socialist Christ?



Jeremiah 8:18 - 9.1
Psalm 79: 1-9
1 Timothy 3:14 - 4.6
Luke 16:1-13

It was a young friend of mine many years ago, the son of an evangelical theologian and biblical scholar, but the son rapidly eschewing evangelical interpretation, who first drummed home to me the insight that Luke’s was a gospel of socialism. Scholars have I think played with the idea before and since (I don’t currently have access to my scholarship resources to check), but his was the aha moment in my journey of interpretation of Luke’s writings. Luke was, shock horror, a socialist.

Perhaps because he was living in what he thought was the shadow of the End Time, the final consummation that was the second coming of Christ, he saw property as a gospel encumbrance. Wealth should be disposed in the service of proclaiming God’s Reign, and the very act of disposal itself demonstrated believers’ commitment to the highest ideals of faith. Wealth was to be used only in the service of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As Jesus journeyed towards Jerusalem and death, this was an inevitable strand of his teaching, probably not only merely as Luke portrayed matters but in what we might (struggling with the English language) call “historical reality,” too. Luke 16:1-13 ought to be, must be read in conjunction with Luke 16:14-31; separation of the two passages does the gospel (and the Gospel) an injustice, a disservice.

The Parable of the Shrewd manager is addressed to the disciples of Jesus, who have been given custody of great treasure. We are called to place ourselves in their shoes, as indeed they place themselves in the shoes of the shrewd manager. Are we urgent and shrewd in our management of the gospel treasure entrusted to us? Luke is probably adding commentary to the original words of Jesus – all the New Testament writers did – but the urgency of the scene is the urgency of Jesus’ original proclamation.

Jesus we can assume does not commend the dishonesty of the shrewd manager, but applauds his energy. The manager engages in urgent reprioritizing of his task, precisely because (as Boswell put it), “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” This perhaps is not a hanging that he faces, but it may as well be: his end as a manager is scarily near. (It is incidentally, a frequent ploy of Jesus to illustrate his teachings of and about God by means of a villain!)

The shrewd nature of the manager can have ramifications for countless aspects of our lives, not least for our intellect. Shrewd scheming is, after all, an intellectual, cerebral activity, reminding us that we are to love God with our hearts and minds, as well as bodies and souls, all our being. My young friend was doing that, applying intellect to faith. Sadly though the later journey he took away from Christianity may indicate that he saw too little inauthenticity and integrity in the lives of those who stayed in the fold, too little to attract his continued belief in the God of Christianity.

We are called by Jesus to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. It is not a bad juxtaposition, not a bad calling! It is possible to manage our possessions in service of gospel-urgency, even though we might avoid the cultlike surrender of all demanded by some cult-leaders (I suspect this preacher would receive short shrift if he attempted that approach to possessions here!).

In our passage verses 10-13 are stand-alone sayings not dependent on the parable. They too remind us, as Luke intended, that we are called to be faithful in the minutiae of life – in this … in this … in this … Luke has Jesus say, in every nook and cranny of our being. I know only too well how much I fail in that regard, yet the journey is a constant one of fall and redemption, and we are challenged simply to create the habit of fidelity to Christ over all else as we stumble along God’s way.


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