Here’s an old story, told by the Rabbis….
Once upon a time, a man caught stealing was ordered by the King to be hanged. On the way to the gallows he said to the Prison Governor that he knew a wonderful secret and it would be a pity to allow it to die with him, and that he would like to disclose it to the King. He would put a seed of pomegranate into the ground, and through the secret taught to him by his father, he would make it grow and bear fruit overnight.
The thief was brought before the king and on the morrow the King, accompanied by all the High Officials of State, came to the place where the thief was waiting for them. There the thief dug a hole and said:
“This seed must only be put into the ground by a man who has never stolen or taken anything which did not belong to him, I, being a thief, cannot do it”. So he turned to the Grand Vizier who, frightened, said that in his younger days he had retained something which did not belong to him. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that dealing with such large sums of money, he might have entered too much or too little. The thief turned to the King, but even the King confessed that he had once stolen a necklace belonging to his Father.
The thief then said,
“You are all mighty and powerful and want for nothing. Yet you cannot plant the seed, whilst I who have stolen a loaf of bread because I was starving am to be hanged”.
The King, pleased with the ruse of the thief, pardoned him.
Such stories, of clever tricksters, were very popular in Jewish and middle-Eastern folklore. Even in the Bible, tricksters like Jacob were venerated. You’ll remember how Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance, by putting on the skin of a goat. He pretended to have his older brother’s hairy back. Their blind father Isaac was deceived, and gave his inheritance to Jacob, rather than Esau.
So when we hear this parable of the Shrewd Manager, we must be cautious of how we read it. Many of Jesus’ parables are quite obvious metaphors…it is quite easy to see what he means when he tells the story of the Good Samaritan, for example. But this story – known as the story of the Shrewd Manager, is more nuanced. Jesus is not telling his followers that they should behave in such a dishonest way. Rather, he is telling a tale about someone being shrewd and clever in their own life, to indicate that we should be shrewd and clever about how we live our lives as Christians.
Each of us has only so many hours in the day available to us. How should we use them? Jesus encourages us to use our time and our talents wisely, and for the purposes of building his Kingdom. This was a theme picked up by St Ignatius, in the second century, who wrote these words to the church that was under the leadership of St Polycarp:
“Labour with one another. Struggle together, run together, suffer together, rest together, rise up together as God’s stewards and assessors and servants. Be pleasing to him in whose ranks you serve, from who you receive your reward”. (Ignatius Polycarp 6.1-2, in Kirsopp Lake, trans., The Apostolic Fathers, LCL (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1912) 1:275)
Each of us is required by our commitment to God, to be thoughtful and mindful about the talents that God has given us, and to be wise and shrewd servants. We are to be those who employ the talents that we have to the greatest effect, in the shortest possible time, for the good of the Kingdom.
More than that, we are to consider what our unique talents are…those that perhaps only we have available, and which only we can employ. If I might use a personal example, there are many things that I could do around this church. When I go down to the Community Café, there is a part of me that is very tempted to get involved with the day to day running of the café. I’m fit enough to move tables and chairs. I know enough about cooking to think that I could probably knock up a cooked breakfast, or serve tea and coffee. And I would enjoy doing those things. But, if I did, the other talents that God has given me would not have time to be used. I have to use my time and talents shrewdly.
I’m leaving for Ghana on Thursday, as many of you know. I have agreed to go to Ghana, not because I enjoy standing around in 40 degree heat for services that last for 4 hours. I’m going because I believe that God has given me the opportunity and the ability to make a difference in Ghana…for Bishop Matthias and his priests. It will be hot and uncomfortable…but I will be taking money with me that will make a real difference. I’ll be spending time, one to one, with certain priests who have asked for my help and advice.
I could, of course, choose not to go. I could, instead, stay and serve tea and coffee in the Café. Or paint a wall, or cut the churchyard grass. There would be nothing wrong with that. But others are called to those tasks. Those are not what I am called to do.
Similarly, in our Ministry Team here in the parish, we divide up the tasks of ministry between those whom we believe are the best equipped and talented to do those tasks. As most of you will have worked out by now, I am not a natural ‘pastor’. I just don’t have the gifts of listening and compassion which a really good pastor needs. So, in this Team, Kim takes the lead on pastoring…because as we all know, God has given her just those gifts. Fr Tony is serving the Diocese as Chair of the Board of Education, at the moment…because he has just the gifts and talents required to do that. I could chose to try to run the Pastoral Work of the parish…but I’d be rubbish at it. I could try to chair the Diocesan Board of Education….but I wouldn’t be half as effective as Tony.
Instead, like every Christian, I am called to undertake an honest assessment of the skills and talents that I do have…and then seek to use them, as effectively and efficiently as possible, for the building of the Kingdom. My task is to be faithful in each small task I can do…so that I might learn to be faithful in the larger ones, when they come along.
A writer called Fred Craddock makes a similar point, like this…
“Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday School class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice and fee the neighbour’s cat. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much”. (Fred B, Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990. 193)
So, as I leave to Ghana on Thursday, where I feel called to be and to minister for a while, let me ask you to consider this question while I am away. “What is your gift or talent?” It might be the gift of making tea…or the gift of leading the Choir. It might be counting the money, or painting a wall, or visiting the sick. Whatever you can do it…do it faithfully. Offer it to God and to his church.
For whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (v.10)