The Thrill is Gone -- Time for Some Shrewdness

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Luke 16:1-13

The Thrill is Gone – Time for some Shrewdness

There is a solemnness present in the lectionary texts for the week, a sense that all is not right with the world.   The music style appropriate for this week might be B.B. King classic The Thrill is Gone, rather than Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.  Maybe it is time to sing the blues!

According to Jeremiah the joy is gone, the grief is upon us, and the heart is sick.  It is a cry of absence – the good times are long since passed and now it’s time to mourn.  As we hear the strains of the song sung by Jeremiah, it’s clear that he hasn’t been talking to either Norman Vincent Peale or Joel Osteen.  Instead of the power of positive thinking, we hear the prophet cry out – Is the Lord not in Zion?  (Though we hear the parenthetical statement from God:  “Why have you provoked me with images?”)   It seems likely that God has some issues with the people, but the prophet cries out none the less on behalf of the people, asking if there’s a physician in the land, and if there is, then why are the people sick?  In the midst of all of this we hear the phrase that inspired one of the great spirituals: “Is there no balm in Gilead?”   Is there no healing ointment that will provide a sense of wholeness to the people?  Is there no word of hope?  The author of the spiritual did find a thread of hope in all of this, and responds:

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole,

there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

The point is not one of naive positive thinking will get you through, but an answer to the cry of the heart – in our grief, in our darkness, there is hope – for as the song puts it when feeling discouraged that one’s work is in vain, the Holy Spirit revives the soul.

There is a thread of hope present in the text, but in this passage from Jeremiah, there is much more grieving than rejoicing.  The two texts from the New Testament reflect this sense of concern about the state of the world.  The authors of these two sources of wisdom understand the predicament that they face.  Again, there’s no Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, or Joel Osteen present, but there is recognition that the people of God could learn something from the world – don’t be naïve, but instead have a bit of shrewdness.

The first letter to Timothy, which claims Pauline authorship, likely was written near the end of the first century, likely by a second or third generation follower of the great apostle.  The letter offers guidance for living a quiet and peaceable life, marked by prayer.  The readers are encouraged to offer prayers, supplications, intercessions, and prayers of thanksgiving for everyone, including kings and those in authority.  All of this is what is acceptable to God.   You get the sense here that the readers are being told to be good citizens, for this will prove beneficial to their calling, for God desires that everyone be saved and know the truth.  This needs to be the guiding principle of life, the recognition that God is at work, changing the way the world exists – a “fundamental transformation.”  Thus, there is the need for a bit of shrewdness.

As for the message that will transform:   There is one God, and one mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ, who at just the right moment gave his life as a ransom.  As a side note, it’s It is interesting that a ransom is mentioned, but the recipient of the ransom isn’t named.  Indeed, no mention of the cross itself is made, only that he gave himself as a ransom so that everyone might be saved and know the truth.  There is no double predestination present here, just a straight forward statement of God’s intent and the Apostles calling to make this message known to the Gentiles.

All of this leads us to a rather odd parable that requires more time and effort to untangle than I wish to commit.  But, if Jeremiah sings the blues and the letter to Timothy offers a cautious promise that God has a plan to bring everyone into the circle, Jesus’ parable, as found in the Gospel of Luke, seems to reaffirm the need for shrewdness in the life of faith.  Again, there is the recognition that the world we live in isn’t a utopia.  Things could go bad, so be careful, live quietly, and make God’s message known.

The parable itself is a good reminder that while some illuminate, others cloud our understanding.  At one level it almost seems as if Jesus is encouraging people to engage in shady financial strategies, and I expect that more than a few religious hucksters have used this text to justify their snake oil salesmanship.  So, even if Jesus does seem to be saying that we should make friends with dishonest money so we can be welcomed into our eternal homes, that doesn’t fit as well with the character of Jesus, or the conclusion of the text.  But, so we get a sense of what is happening here, let’s rehearse this parable.

According to the story, a rich man has discovered that his manager has been squandering his property.  The rich man has no choice but let the man go, but the manager is shrewd – and both too weak to dig and proud to beg – calls in the rich man’s creditors, and cooks the books, cutting the debt 20% to 50%, hoping that after his employment ends, these creditors will treat him kindly.  The master commends him for his shrewdness, for and here’s the kicker: this generation knows how to deal with the realities of the world better than do the children of light. So, make friends with “dishonest wealth so when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  If none of this makes much sense, you are part of the club, for biblical interpreters have struggled to make sense of it – and I’m not biblical scholar enough to untangle it here myself.  Whatever Jesus is getting at in the parable, at least one point is quite clear – we live in a world where money is important and how we deal with money has implications for the way we live the life of faith.  If the dishonest manager is shrewd, and shrewdness is a quality to be prized, then this manager is worthy of commendation – except that even more prized than shrewdness is honesty.

Jesus closes with an explanation that seems very clear:  If you’re honest with a little, you’ll be honest with a lot, and if you’re dishonest with a little, then it’s clear you’ll be dishonest with a lot.  The choice is yours – honesty or dishonesty?   Even if it is good to be aware of the way the world works, in the end honesty is what God prizes.    And while money may rule the world as it stands, you can’t serve two masters – you’ll love one and hate the other – so it’s a choice – God or money.

And so we while it seems as if it’s time to sing the blues, in reality, there is a word of hope – God is at work bringing salvation and knowledge of the truth to everyone.  That is God’s choice, and the message we’re called to proclaim – if we’re shrewd enough to catch the word.  The choice is ours.

By Bob Cornwall

Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November.  Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.