Get Ready to Cheer for the Bad Guy

 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Luke 16:1-13

Watch tv, go see a movie, read a book and you will discover the characters we are drawn to are often those that are less than perfect. They are antiheros who are deeply flawed. Often the characters acting in their own self-interest are those who save the day for everyone else: Gunfighters, crooked cops, mobsters, or a conman with a heart of gold. We love stories where a character with feet of clay do something good.

There is an old Mel Gibson movie, which I don’t think I ever saw, and if I did, I forgot everything about it except the preview. The movie was called Payback and preview began with a voiceover, “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”

Payback (1999)

When we turn to the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-13) it is as though Jesus does the same voice over: “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”

This was a servant in charge of a master’s estate. He is was charged by someone with being wasteful and squandering his boss’s riches. Evidently the charges were serious enough or easy enough to establish that his master fires him without investigation. But they weren’t so serious that he had security accompany him to immediately clear out his desk and escort him from the building. He is given time to put a report in order.

The manager knows that he doesn’t have the strength to dig ditches, back breaking labor usually reserved for foreign slaves captured in war (the way America used to use slaves for such work, and now use prison work crews). He is too proud to sit by the side of the highway with a carboard sign which reads:

MIDDLE MANAGER OUT OF WORK.

ANYTHING HELPS

So, he devises a plan. He calls in all the people he knows who are in debt to his master. One man owes 100 jugs of olive oil to him, likely about 850 gallons of olive oil. No small sum. “Quick take your bill and make it 50.” Another debtor owed his master 100 containers of wheat. This was the amount yield you would get from 100 acres. “Take your bill and make it 80. The percentages that the manager reduced their bills, 50% and 20% were different, but in both cases, it came to about 500 denarii, roughly about 2 years’ pay for a day laborer.

When the master gets word about what his wasteful manager did, you would think he would be upset. The manager was aleady in trouble for squandering the master’s estate and  here he just cut him out of an additional 1000 denarii. But we are told the master praises “the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly. “

If this strikes us a strange reaction from the master, Jesus seems to add his own condemnation, “for the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

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This is called the most difficult of Jesus’ parables. While some critical Bible scholars argue about which of Jesus’ words in the gospel he really said, almost no one can imagine anyone else saying this. No moralizing bishop from the second century would praise such an unsavory character.

As I have studied the parable. I have discovered there is wide disagreement  from one commentator to the next on how we should interpret it. There are no fewer than 16 different interpretations of the parable.[1] Some scholars absolve the shrewd manager of any wrongdoing. They say, the master of the house was the one who was in the wrong and the debts that the manager forgave were really the interest rates that Deuteronomy 23:20 stated shouldn’t be charged a fellow Israelite. Others argue that the manager forgave the portion of the debt that was his own share. There is a paucity of details in Jesus’ parable and there is no internal evidence that the master was bad. The manager on the other hand is described first as wasteful, and then as dishonest.

One creative take, is that the shrewd manager is really Jesus, accused of being wasteful by the religious elites, he then acts to forgive our debt to the Master. I don’t think so, Tim. There is too much moral ambiguity about the manager’s actions for me to think that this is a really Christological parable. Though the forgiving of debts does connect to the larger theme of Jubilee in Luke’s gospel.[2]

Most of this wrangling is unnecessary. In the passage Jesus never praises the manager for his alleged wastefulness or his dishonesty. He praises him for being shrewd.  And in verses 10-13 he praises faithfulness over dishonesty:

If you are faithful in little, you will be faithful with much, and if you are dishonest with little you will be dishonest with much,”

and commends faithfulness with ‘dishonest wealth’ as requisite for being entrusted true riches:

If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with true riches?” And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own.”

And then Jesus says that you can’t serve both God and mammon (vs 13). None of this seems like a glowing endorsement of the manager’s wastefulness and dishonest dealings[3] The manager was a bad guy. Nevertheless, Jesus cheers on the bad guy, because this bad guy was so shrewd.

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Christine Pohl says:

Jesus does not commend the manager’s practices, but rather his insight into the connection between resources and relationships. When we consider our wealth and economic practices—even the means we employ to accomplish good ends—as peripheral to the kingdom, we are ignoring Jesus’ warning that it is impossible to serve God and mammon.[4]

So, the question for us is this: Each of us has money and resources at our disposal, how can we use the things we have to serve God? In what ways can we, like the shrewd manager, make friends who will care for us long after our money is gone? How can we use our resources to build relationships?

And if we are bold enough to ask: Are there ways I serve wealth more than God?

See the source image

I am not a big fan of giving to charities, unless I know something about their work. We know we ought to be generous and we give to issues we think matter. But sometimes, giving to charity is an inoculation against really caring for people. It is easy to be kind to those we don’t know a lot harder to be a friend to someone who is struggling.

I came across a quote this week from the Peruvian, Liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, ““You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?”[5]

The lesson Jesus gleans from the shrewd manager is “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.”

What of instead of giving money to a homeless mission we befriended that homeless person in our neighborhood? Instead of serving a meal at a shelter to someone we’ve never met, we bought dinner for the person with the cardboard sign and we sat down and ate with them and listened to their story? What if we stop using our money to keep those people away but instead used our money and resources to care for them in tangible ways? And yes, we should direct some of our resources to organizations doing good work in the world, but our giving should never be an inoculation for caring for the poor, the widowed and the vulnerable that God places in our midst.

Jesus teaches us that what we do with the money and resources we are entrusted with today, is related to our experience of the riches God has in store for us. Therefore, use money to make friends!   The one who is faithful with little will be faithful with much. We can’t serve both God and mammon.

We live in a consumer culture and everything tells us to invest in our own enjoyment and security. Drive a nice car, have a comfortable home, buy more toys, have a nice nest egg for your future. And to some extent, we buy in.  But when even a bad guy uses his resources for the good of others and to make friends, we cheer him on. We cheer for the bad guy. Sometimes the bad guy who does good, is us.


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[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 406-409.

[2] See Luke 4:16-22.

[3] I am aware that many scholars see verse 10-13 as only tangentially related to the parable (i.e. Jesus sayings that were placed by Luke here, but not necessarily commenting on the story).

[4] Christine Pohl, “Profit and Loss,” Christian Century, August 29–September 5, 2001, 13.[4]

[5] Cagle, Ryan. Twitter Post. Sept 19, 10:18 PM. https://twitter.com/_ryancagle/status/1174915706527174657

see also Greenfield , Craig, “You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?” CraigGreenfield.com, January 8, 2016, www.craiggreenfield.com/blog/2016/philanthropy

I Love to Tell the Old. . .Old, Old Story: a book review

Preaching from a narrative text is different from preaching Paul’s epistles. In Preaching Old Testament Narratives, Benjamin Walton (professor, former pastor and president of Preaching Works) focuses on the skills and hermeneutical approach needed to preach from Old Testament narratives well.  Sensitive to story, Walton shows preachers how to craft a message which takes into account the genre and connec9780825442582ts with the congregation.

Walton likes three letter abbreviations and his methodological approach involves a series of them. First, he advises preaching from a CUT (complete unit of thought). This is roughly equivalent to what exegesis books and homiletics professors mean when they say, “determine the pericope,” but Walton observes that CUTs are larger  for narrative texts (perhaps a chapter or two) than say your typical epistle pericope (34).  Once you determine your CUT, you interpret it with an eye for its OTM (original theological message)—what the passage was communicating about God to its original hearers. Once you figure that out, you explore how it speaks to people today. This is your THT (take home truth). Finally, you depict the THTs with PPAs (picture painting applications) which make the truth of God’s word vivid for congregants context (165).  Along the way Walton offers great tips on how to craft and deliver a compelling message (i.e. writing the sermon and delivering it), and connecting Old Testament narrative to Christ’s redemptive work.

There is a lot that is commendable about this book. Walton’s approach is similar to Haddon Robinson’s Big Idea preaching but he is more sensitive to narrative than Robinson. Narrative texts make their points implicitly and indirectly and sometimes take a couple of chapters to do it.  If you are going to preach story well, it is helpful to have a sense of how story works. Walton is aware of this, helping preachers attend to the story in their exegesis and their delivery.

This doesn’t mean that this a hermeneutically heavy handed book. There are footnotes to Shimeon Bar-Efrat and Tremper Longman discussing some distinctives of the genre, but Walton never delves too deep into the characteristics of Hebrew narrative (i.e. doublets, type scenes, reiteration of events, etc). His approach is accessible to non-scholars, though is respectful of the interpretive gifts of literary approaches to the Bible. There is more to be said about narrative interpretations, but Walton gives enough of the goods to get young preachers on their way.

He also has tons of practical advice of how to craft and deliver sermons. A lot of what he commicates can be gleaned from other preaching books, but Walton focuses on how to do this with a narrative text. He doesn’t advise three-point sermons, alliteration or bullet points. Instead he helps preachers pay attention to the shape of story, and the way it communicates its theological message and take home truths (without devolving into moralism).

I give this book four stars and recommend it for young preachers and any preacher who wants to hone their craft. I love narrative but picked up some helpful stuff here. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review

Preaching Preparation with Accuracy: a book review

I like reading preaching books. As a regular, but rookie preacher, I know I have lots to learn. Preaching books provide me with ideas on how to engage the text and present it to a congregation. Preaching with Accuracy: Finding Christ Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching is a new book from Kregel Ministry on how to preach messages that are faithful to the Bible’s text and intent. Author Randal Pelton is a pastor and professor at Lancaster Bible College and Gordon Conwell. Pelton pairs Haddon Robinson’s ‘Big Idea’ approach with Bryan Chapell’s Christ Centered canonical approach. The result is a ‘homiletic hybrid’ which allows selected passages of scripture to control meaning while placing it in the larger frame of the Bible’s unity and the understading of Christ (13).

The seven chapters of Pelton’s book provide a hands-on approach to selecting and exegeting the preaching text with attention to its main idea, its function in the wider context of the individual book or genre, and its place in the canon–the larger biblical story. The first three chapters address how to approach the text. In the first chapter Pelton makes the case of the expositional (rather than topical) approach to preaching. In chapter two, he urges us towards locating the ‘big idea’ from the passage and warns that preaching the ‘little ideas’ skews our understanding. In chapter three he advises us on how to select and ‘cut the text’ (decide the limits of the pericope and whether or not our passage has a ‘big idea’ of its own or if it is borrowing from the immediate context).

The rest of the book describes his method. Chapter four exlains how to locate the ‘textbi’ (textual big idea). Pelton walks through how to identify the big idea in various genres (and invites practical hands-on practice in relationship to particular texts). Chapter five examines the ‘conbi’ (contextual big idea)–how our text functions within the larger context of the book it belongs to.  As with the text, Pelton gives helpful advice on how to determine how passage functions in its peculiar genre (i.e. a story fits into a larger narrative, laws and legal material, geneologies are also encased in narrative, epistle texts are a link in the larger argument, etc). Chapter six explores the ‘canbi’ (canonical big idea)–how this work functions within the God’s story (i.e. how it relates to the story of Jesus, the canon’s center). Pelton’s final chapter explores how to use these different levels in crafting a sermon with an eye toward application.

Pelton’s argument is that accurate preaching happens when we attend to the meaning of the text, its context, and then its larger canonical frame. The order is important. By attending to the literal-historical meaning of the text first, Pelton guards our canonical/theological interpretation from devolving to a shallow allegory with little resemblance to the plain-meaning of the text. But he also helps us connect the dots to the larger biblical story. I think in practice it doesn’t work as neatly as Pelton describes. Sometimes our understanding of canon or our wider theological commitments drives our understanding of an individual text (in ways we may not be aware!). Still I appreciate his emphasis on making sure what we are preaching is the passage’s main idea (not our own).

This is not a book about ‘preaching.’ This is a book about the work preachers do before sitting down to craft their sermon. Pelton has little to say here about the preaching moment. He doesn’t address the sermon form (other than a couple of paragraphs on thinking of an introduction for your sermons). His focus is almost solely on sermon content rather than delivery. I think that emphasis is appropriate but it does indicate the limits of this book. If you are looking for a book which gets you to think about how to preach the Bible, attentive to the text, to its larger context and the gospel, there is a lot here for you to chew on. If you are looking for a book which will aid you to proclaim in relevant, creative ways, you will be disappointed with what you find here. That is a different topic altogether.

Still for what it does and is, it is pretty good. I read through and implemented his approach as I prepared my Sunday sermon this week. It didn’t change how I approached my text significantly but it did help me organize some of my ideas. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection; I received this book from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Preaching for Listeners Instead of Readers: a book review

Preaching is an oral act. It involves climbing into a pulpit (or at least standing before a congregation) and declaring God’s Word. Strangely though, sermon preparation has become increasingly a literary act. Since the dawn of the printing press and proliferation of print media, our reading of texts (and the Bible) have become increasingly private and individualized. This has had an effect on how sermons are crafted and delivered. In many churches, sermons are read and performed and do not deviate one iota from the script. Sermons are theologically precise, but often stilted in their delivery.

Dave McCellan urges the recovery of ancient homiletic practices. This would mean preparing sermons with the oral patterns of listeners in mind (rather than a literary outline which appeals to readers). In Preaching By Ear:  Speaking God’s Truth from the Inside Out, McCellan draws on the insights of ancient authors like Augustine,  Aristotle and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus and the contemporary historian, theologian and cultural critic Walter Ong (1912-2003). It is McCellan’s conviction that recovering oral patterns for preaching will transform us as preaches, and as churches and that preaching in this way is more responsive to the Word–reading it and proclaiming it in the way it was intended to be read and proclaimed.

In part one, McClellan begins with a focus on preparing the preacher. Chapter one relates an anecdote about McClellan preaching a manuscripted sermon in the ‘Big Church’ (he was a youth pastor speaking to the main congregation).  His friend’s feedback to him was that his sermon was good but didn’t ring authentic. It sounded stilted. He concludes that extemporaneous sermons allow for the greatest amount of authenticity and vulnerability in the speaker. He then grounds his argument for extemporaneous preaching in ancient writings. From Augustine (chapter two), McClellan argues that we should be ‘theologians’ who sit under the Word. He encourages us to deepen our understanding of passages and how they relate to others and what they say to us. McClellan uses Aristotle’s Rhetoric to explore the proper ethos in communication–speaking with personal character in an authentic voice (chapter three). In chapter four, Quintillian provides the most profound lessons about oral communication and preaching. McClellan says that this ancient rhetorician calls us preachers to moral character formation. He also has a method for improving our rhetoric (ccuriosity constant oral reading and writing, and casual debates with fellow preachers and small groups.

In part two, McClellan makes the theological case for the primacy of the spoken word in proclamation and walks us through how to prepare and deliver an extemporaneous sermon. It is in this section that McClellan delves into the work of Walter Ong, Ong’s thesis in his classic Orality and Literacy was that with the dawn of the printing press, fruitful practices of oral culture fell by the wayside. He identified nine characteristics of oral speech: imprecise, redundant, tradition driven, quotidian, acquainted with suffering. participatory, united in purpose, and comfortable with stories (91-96).  In contrast, literary approaches are precise, follow a logical sequence but are not reliant on the same devices for capturing and communicating shared memory. McClellan than delineates the implications for preparing an extemporaneous preaching.  One of the most profound insights on how oral preparation, invites communal preparation and allows for conversation which feed into and reinforce discipleship (129).

My push back would be that my preaching teacher manuscripted everything in his preaching preparation but in the preaching act was as free to move off script and take a new direction, often depart from his page to connect with the congregation or respond to the winds of the Spirit. He also wrote his manuscript with the spoken word in mind (short phrases, redundancy, internal summary). I think many preachers are sensitive to the dynamics that McClellan describes, even if their approach is more literary than what he commends.

McClellan’s approach is most fruitful for practitioners of expository sermons. He advocates listening to the text, learning to place it, inhabiting it and preparing a storied outline to share its truths. Topical preachers will find this sort of preparation difficult. I personally lean in a more expository and extemporaneous direction (though I still preach topically and from a manuscript when I feel it’s warranted). I am still processing how to best use McClellan’s insights in my own preaching but he does validate some of my own homiletic practice. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Thank you to Weaver Books and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.