Should we ever use worldly values in dealing with others? The Bible passage this week is the story that Jesus told of the shrewd manager. This is one of the most difficult passages to understand in the whole of the New Testament. The reason is that all the actors in the story are dishonest. Moreover, the owner commends the manager for being dishonest! Perhaps the owner is not meant to be a figure representing God, but this is unlikely when seen in the context of all the other parables of Jesus. For example, the owner in the parable of the vineyard. What then is the main purpose of Jesus telling this parable? I think it is this. To repeatedly reject all worldly values is not always very efficient and it is often not wise. Elsewhere in scripture Jesus admonishes us to be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves”. God is sovereign over all things and calls us sometimes to embrace the values of the world in furthering His kingdom. After all, some of the greatest hymns of the church were theological words put to well-known secular tunes. Seen in this light, the words of Jesus in the parable of the shrewd manager begin to make sense: “I tell you, use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. In this way, your generosity stores up a reward for you in heaven.”
The ‘Kingdom of God’ is mentioned no fewer than 126 times in the Gospels. It was one of Jesus’ central themes – perhaps the most vital. What does it mean? In the Bible reading for this week, we get a further glimpse. In the parable of the mustard seed, we learn that the Kingdom of God comes magnificently, unexpectedly and SLOWLY. The disciples looked for a swift and cataclysmic establishment of the Kingdom but Jesus teaches otherwise. The Kingdom of God starts from tiny beginnings and through slow pervasive growth it overtakes what is around it. From the mustard seed alone, it is impossible to ascertain what it will turn into; and yet its final form is a beautiful surprise. Of course, there is much more that Jesus teaches about God’s kingdom but this is enough to ponder upon for the moment because, like the disciples, there is only so much teaching that we can assimilate at one time.
The week beginning Sunday, 26th November is the Sunday before Advent and the Bible passage assigned to this week is the parable of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25 and verses 31 to 46. The key verse is verse 40, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” The huge challenge for all of us who profess to be Jesus’ disciples is: do we see the sufferings of Jesus in the sufferings of people around us? Throughout the Bible God reveals his passion for the oppressed. In the earliest times, God intervened miraculously to save His people. For example, the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt was driven by God’s love for His people and His passion for justice. In this present season, God has chosen not to intervene with grand miracles like the plagues on Egypt but has, instead, entrusted His work of compassion to the Church. Some Christians have responded to God’s concern for the orphan, widow and foreigner by fostering and opening their homes to those in need. What about us? In his best-selling book, ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’, Brennan Manning tells the story of a Catholic priest, Abbé Pierre, who worked in Paris after the second world war. In the cold winter of 1947, Abbé Pierre came across a family living on the streets with no way of keeping themselves warm. He took them back to his dwellings. He couldn’t accommodate them in his lodgings as they were already filled with vagrants, so he took the family to the chapel, removed the symbols of faith, and let them live there. Abbé Pierre’s Catholic brothers were incensed. They said: “Abbé Pierre, how can you remove the symbols of the Eucharist?” Abbé Pierre replied, “Jesus is not cold in the Eucharist but He is cold in the lives of this family.” The words of verse 40 are brought to life. ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’.
The week beginning Sunday, 19th November is the second Sunday before Advent and the Bible passage assigned to this week is the parable of the talents found in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25 and verses 14 to 30. I was recently listening to a friend who was telling me about a Hollywood screenwriter who was a Christian and had worked on some famous blockbuster films. I said that he was clearly successful, to which my friend replied, “It depends what you mean by success”. Of course, my friend was right. Success for the Christian is not measured in the same way as others might measure it. Jesus’ disciples were not people of wealth, influence and celebrity status – quite the reverse. How then do we measure success? I think the parable of the talents gives us an important clue. Jesus was not bothered whether someone made five talents or two talents but he wanted them to try to do something. Jordan Seng, a well-known Christian speaker, often says that faith is spelt ‘T R Y’. As a community, we all have different talents. Some of us are good at academic things and others are good at practical things; some of us are good at physical things and some of us are good at cerebral things. It doesn’t matter what we are good at or the measure of our ability. What matters is that we make an effort for God. What is the measure of success? The parable of the talents tells us that it is making the most of the opportunities that God gives us by trying, and not ‘playing it safe’.