St Michael’s Church, Workington, 22 September 2019

OK. So imagine you’re at work. You’re a shop assistant in a newsagent. The shop owner doesn’t come in much – every couple of weeks or so. She leaves the day to day running of the place to the shop manager. 

You’ve noticed, for a few months or so now, that the shop manager isn’t really doing a good job. Things aren’t ordered when they should be, and then the wrong things are delivered. You’ve seen him borrowing money from the till, and you’re not sure he’s returned it. He lets people buy on tick, building up credit, and it’s getting out of hand. You know a number of folk – regular customers – who can’t afford to repay. The shop could be run much more efficiently. 

You’re not sure what to do. 

Should you say anything? Or keep quiet? Well?

I’d speak up. Whistleblowing, it’s called. 

So now the shop owner has called in, and has summoned the manager into the back room. You’re left looking after things. You’re not trying to listen, but you can hear what’s going on. The manager is sacked.

Over the next week or so, various customers come in and express their delight that the debts they owed have been halved, or reduced in some way. It emerges that the shop manager has, without the owner’s permission, reduced those debts that have built up. He’s basically defrauded him. Why? Well, it sounds like he wants to buy their good will, so he can turn to them in the future. Who knows what back handers have passed back and forth?

Then – here’s the crazy thing – the shop owner then comes in, and commends the manager. It sounds like he might even give him his job back. What’s going on?

So that’s the parable that Jesus taught his disciples. 

It doesn’t make sense. At least, not to me. 

It’s called the parable of the dishonest steward. And I’m not the only one to find it a serious puzzle. Various commentaries explain the parable in different ways. The most favourable is that the dishonest manager is commended for being shrewd – but I’m still not convinced. Others say that the parable is really about how unimportant money is, so it doesn’t really matter. But dishonesty and untrustworthiness do matter. So that doesn’t stack up either.  Perhaps the shop manager is praised because he’s recouped some of the debts owed, depending on what the debtors could pay – and from the shop owner’s point of view, some return is better than none at all. In acting like that the shop manager has acted compassionately, and everyone comes out all right. But that still ignores the fact that he’s given away what isn’t his. 

The teaching of Jesus continues: Those who are faithful in a little, are faithful in much; those who are dishonest in a little, are dishonest in much. Yes – that makes sense. But I can’t see how it follows on from the story of the dishonest manager, can you?

And then Jesus teaches his disciples to be faithful with what doesn’t belong to us, so we may reap the benefits of trustworthiness. No one is going to trust us with anything if we don’t take care of the property of others. Then the final comment that Jesus makes: No slave can serve two masters – you cannot serve God and wealth. Yes – that’s understandable. We all know people who value money and material possessions above everything else. In today’s world, consumerism is so much a part of life that it’s very easy to lose sight of the God of love, goodness and truth. Those final aspects of Jesus’ teaching are unproblematic, compared to the parable itself. Perhaps Jesus was simply being sarcastic, and that’s been lost in translation and time!

Now listen to this story. 

There was once a young girl who didn’t have many friends, because they were all into make up, and dolls, spending their pocket money on trivial things and watching rubbish on their iPhones. She wasn’t interested in SnapChat, or being part of a WhatsApp group, or the latest gossip on Facebook. She preferred to be by herself, and the more time she spent by herself, the more anxious she became. Because it seemed to her that the planet she lived on was heading towards catastrophe. She did some research about carbon emissions, and about biodiversity, and about the oceans, and plastics that clogged up waterways. She learned about pollution in the air and seas, and her heart sank when she saw the rain forests in the Amazon basin blazing away at the rate of thousands of square miles a day. 

She wondered who was to blame for the terrible abuse of the natural world around her – to the extent that she didn’t think there would be a future left for her own children – if she ever had any. 

Just last August, 2018, she decided to stand up one day, outside the parliament of her own country of Sweden, and go on strike from school. Her challenge: ‘If you adults don’t care about my future, then how do you expect me to? I’m not going to school until this country reaches the UN targets of the Paris Agreement.’ In the last year many millions have joined her movement of Fridays for the future – and on Friday across the world children and adults went on strike. Their charge that the adults of the world, the politicians of every country, need to wake up and give an account of the way the natural environment is being destroyed through human exploitation and greed.

Today, if Jesus were teaching his parables, he might tell our gospel parable like this. 

There was a generous and loving God who created the most beautiful world, where there were many thousands of millions of creatures living together in diverse and fertile environments. God created human beings to be his stewards – to look after and manage the earth with all its rich resources and bounty – enough for everyone. One day, a fifteen year old girl stood up and said ‘If we go on like this, I and my generation will not have a future. I call on everyone who cares and who doesn’t want to see the world burn up to come and be counted – to strike with me on Fridays.’ She said to the politicians of the world: ‘You are not doing enough. You must do much more to meet the targets that the scientists have set. You must act. Now.’ The politicians who managed the world tried to ignore her, but it became more and more difficult. Eventually, they decided that they had to change the ways of the world, the economic system so it now costed in pollution, the destruction of the environment, the catastrophic loss of species of bird and creatures of land and sea. They decided that it was better to cut their losses by halving the production of plastic over night. They looked at the carbon emissions from fossil fuels and decided to cut oil production by eighty percent. They decided to listen to the young people of the world and implement the UN targets to keep global warming below 2 percent. These were not empty promises. This really happened. Not only that, it was the first step towards a sustainable future. The girl went back to school. 

The God who had created the world commended the politicians who responded to the charges that were brought against them. Even though it wasn’t perfect, it was the right thing to do. The God who had seen the beautiful creation that he had given being destroyed, now commended the human race for its wisdom and shrewdness in waking up to the charges that the young girl had brought against them. 

A parable for today. We can’t serve God and wealth. We must start to listen to Greta Thunberg and wake up to change our lifestyles, personally and politically. Before it’s too late. Find something you can do this next week that will help the environment. The future of all of us – and particularly our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren – will depend on it.