The Shrewd Game of Chess

Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes, M.Div.
Proper 20/Year C: September 22, 2019
Gospel: Luke 16:1-13

Mother Hymes’ sermon this morning, “The Shrewd Game of Chess” (Luke 16:1-13).

Posted by Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church on Sunday, September 22, 2019

In 1989 five teenagers were wrongfully convicted of raping a woman in Central Park. After they had spent from six to 13 years in prison, a serial rapist confessed to the crime. Last week, one of the exonerated five, Raymond Santana, came to USF to share his life’s experience as an innocent child thrown away to rot in the corrupt prison system. He spoke of the helplessness he felt when the lawyers, and other power brokers around him, knew how to manipulate the legal system to get what they wanted, yet he and his parents had no knowledge of how to even navigate the system. And, it cost him his freedom. Santana said that looking back on those times he now realizes that he didn’t stand a chance. He said that he and his family were playing checkers when they needed to be playing a shrewd game of chess.

In our gospel passage there was a rich man who discovered that his trusted property manager, had been a reckless steward. When confronted with the revelation of the manager’s untrustworthy behavior, the rich man fired him.

Anticipating life as an unemployed man, not fit for manual labor and too ashamed to beg, the manager assessed his options for his survival, and manipulated the debt payments of the clients to create a golden parachute for himself. Bound by honor, those for whom the debts were partially forgiven, were indebted to him in his urgent time of need.

Some scholars say that the crooked manager forfeited his commission in the partial debt forgiveness deals. In that case, that the rich man still received his due; the manager lost out on his money in the short run; but reaped the relational benefits of his debt forgiveness.  In translating his negative consequences into relational currency, the crooked manager ensured his livelihood in the long run.

Not too long ago there was a car insurance commercial featuring three elderly ladies. Two of them were listening to their clueless friend as she showed them how she posted pictures of her friends on her wall—a literal reference to the social media’s Facebook “wall” posting online. One of the social-media-savvy friends informs her clueless friend that posting on the wall doesn’t mean putting actual pictures of friends on her living room wall. Rejecting her friend’s information, the clueless woman replies, “I unfriend you.” With a puzzled and concerned look on her face the social media savvy friend says, “That’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works.”

The unexpected twist in the parable is hard to swallow. The crooked manager, reckless with his boss’ property, and shrewd with his boss’ clients, is commended for his impressive shrewdness in making urgent provisions for his own self-interest.  Such an unexpected twist might just have us shaking our heads with puzzled and concerned looks on our faces, saying “That’s not how this works; that’s not how any of this works…is it?”

How do we make sense of this? We do well to remember that the ways of the Lord transcend human comprehension. Jesus used this parable to teach his disciples about what more is expected of them beyond good behavior.

Jesus made a comment acknowledging what is positioned as an advantageous skill that the “children of this age” have that the “children of light,” do not have. Shrewd dealers speak the same language and walk the same walk as other shrewd dealers, and are able to advocate impressively for their own self-interest.

Here, the purpose for Jesus telling this parable—not to a crowd of people; not to the religious leaders; but to his disciples—the children of light—becomes clearer. Jesus was warning his disciples that they needed to be both be single-mindedly focused on building up God’s kingdom, and be armed with keen awareness and skills to navigate a corrupt and oppressed world.

When disciples are effective vehicles for transporting the gospel to the ends of the earth, crooked practices are transformed into straight pathways for the sake of kingdom building. Faithful people of God must learn to navigate the visible and invisible, the just and the corrupt, societal structures which shape our temporal reality—those structures that reject, often in hostile ways, the truth of Christ’s presence in the world now and the truth of Christ yet to come.

Faithful people of God, entrusted with the spreading of the Gospel message, must reject the reckless behavior of neglecting our responsibility as evangelists. Through baptism we are heirs to the true riches of God’s kingdom.  Hesitating to embrace our identity as evangelists, is not good stewardship of the invaluable, true riches of the kingdom.

When verbal evangelism is not an option, in the many secular places in which me move, the embodied gospel message is still the gospel message. Do not miss the opportunity to share the life-saving message that Jesus died on the cross for the salvation of all people.

Faithful people, when confronted with the realities of hostile territories, which shut the gospel out, must act FIRST in the interest of Jesus.  And, even as we are placed among things of this world that are passing away—we must be single-minded and clever in the ways in which we work to bring about the eternal in territories that are closed or hostile to the gospel.

Like the shrewd manager we must leverage the structures of this world to spread and embed knowledge and experiences of the Eternal for souls existing in a decaying world.  Jesus encouraged the development of street-sense with his disciples, and offers that same wisdom to us—that in the face of evil on all sides, his faithful followers, in any age, must not back down from mastering a shrewd game of chess.

Amen.