Today’s Gospel—the parable of the dishonest steward—is a hard one. It’s so hard that for most of the church’s history we have protected you from hearing it. In fact, it has only been in our Sunday lectionary since the 1970s. Prior to that it was deemed too difficult and so left out. And it’s easy to see why. Jesus tells the story of a dishonest manager who learns he will lose his job. He decides to make friends for himself by cutting deals with those who owe money to his boss. If you owe a hundred jugs of oil, we’ll make it fifty. If you owe a hundred measures of wheat we’ll make it eighty. The shocking moment in the story comes when the master praises the manager for his shrewd, if dishonest, behavior. And then Jesus concludes with this puzzling statement: “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.” Now we get to preach on it. Lucky me.
It might be helpful to take a step back from this difficult story and think about its economic context. It is, after all, a parable that uses economic relationships as a way into theological ones. In Jesus’ day, lending money at interest was forbidden by Jewish law. One way they got around that law was to lend commodities—oil and wheat, for example—and to demand inflated amounts in return. So instead of lending money, a landowner could lend 50 jugs of oil and demand 100 jugs as payment of the debt; or he could lend 80 measures of wheat and require 100 measures in return. This was not technically usury, because no money changed hands. But it was a usurious practice. The real thief here was not the manager but the boss, who had been lending commodities at usurious rates. When confronted with his own survival, the unjust manager chose to blow the whistle on the master and so save himself. When it is all over, the master cannot help but admire the manager’s shrewdness. He has saved himself from destitution by cutting deals with those who were being cheated by the landowner.
So one way—perhaps the only way—to understand this story is to see it as a story about honesty, about truth-telling. The impending crisis in the manager’s life provokes a moment of truth when everyone has to stop deluding themselves and face in to what is actually happening. Jesus praises the manager not because he is dishonest but because he breaks the collusion and denial and forces a community to tell the truth to itself and each other. And isn’t our desire for truth our deepest desire? “Be it life or death, we crave only reality,” as Henry Thoreau said.
I once read an essay by the poet Tony Hoagland (“Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness: The Tribes of Contemporary Poetry,” Poetry, September 2010) in which he asserts, “We have communication sickness.” As he said in an interview when asked what he meant, he said this:
We are terribly, terribly weary of untrustworthy speech—the ways in which we feel helpless and hopeless about our public discourse and about our situation in a very commercial society. (“Poetry Magazine Podcast,” September 1, 2010)
According to Tony Hoagland, this communication sickness is exacerbated by “the corruption of commercial and political speech.” He describes this disease as “our resulting collective dizziness” and identifies it as “a fundamental symptom of modern life.”
Communication Sickness. If you are anything like me, as soon as you hear this you know what Tony Hoagland means. We are all “terribly weary of untrustworthy speech”—from our leaders, from those who want to be our leaders, from those who comment on our leaders. We suffer untrustworthy speech from those who want to manipulate us into thinking or buying or voting or behaving in a certain way. We are made collectively dizzy by our inability to latch onto words that make simple, trustworthy sense.
And it’s not only that speech is untrustworthy. It’s also that we’re surrounded by so much of it. In an interview published after he died, the late writer David Foster Wallace described what it is like to suffer the continued onslaught of communications messages:
I received five hundred thousand discrete bits of information today, of which maybe twenty-five are important. And how am I going to sort those out, you know? (David Foster Wallace quoted in “Smarter than You Think,” Wyatt Mason, New York Review of Books, 7/15/10)
Emails, sound bites, advertising, infomercials, blogs, tweets, Facebook postings: How am I going to sort those out? What is being said to me that I can trust, that I really need to hear?
We all have communication sickness. Whom can we trust, and how?
In this morning’s Gospel, the dishonest manager has provoked a moment when another group of people suffering communication sickness were suddenly empowered to face into the truth of their situation. Only when faced with a question of survival did the manager have the ingenuity to call his master’s bluff. The situation we find ourselves in today may not be quite so dramatic. But it does require courageous and decisive action.
I believe we all have communication sickness, frankly, because we are too plugged-in. We have all signed on to a vision of the world that suggests that the important messages come to us from outside ourselves. We do not trust the depth and quality of our own interior lives. And so we seek to bring words and ideas from outside into ourselves as a way of filling what we think is a void.
Now don’t get me wrong. I believe, as a Christian and as a human being, that there is much I need to take in from outside myself—that I am made complete only in my relations with others and with God. But believing that is not the same thing as being alienated from my own interior life. So I would say, along with the great majority of writers about spirituality in the Christian tradition, that the way into trustworthy speech, the way out of communication sickness, the way to sort out the true from the false messages—that way is the journey within. It is the journey into solitude, into silence. It is the journey into self-knowledge and self-acceptance. If I cannot spend the day alone I certainly cannot spend it with you. And if I cannot be present to you I cannot be present to myself. We have communication sickness because we have overdosed on noise. And we overdose on noise because we are ignorant or afraid of what we might hear coming from within once the exterior distraction stops.
Christian spirituality has always lived in the dialogue between community and solitude. The world Jesus describes, like our world, is a culture given over to what Tony Hoagland calls “untrustworthy speech,” to what David Foster Wallace named “five hundred thousand discrete bits of information today, of which maybe twenty-five are important.” And the point Jesus is making to us this morning in the parable is that there is a place we can go for trustworthy, important speech. And that place is into the place of silence. God is doing something inside you. If that weren’t true, you wouldn’t have come here to explore it. How are you going to attend to what God is doing unless you tune out the distractions and listen?
We don’t know what happened after the dishonest manager blew the whistle on his master. But we do know that the master praised him for his clarity and shrewdness. I don’t know precisely what you will hear when you turn off the noise and listen to what God is saying to you. But I do know that God is saying something unique to you that only you can hear, and I know that I and the church will be the less if you do not attend to and act on it.
We owe it to each other to make the space to listen to what God is up to in our several interior lives. We may not be praised for the truths we bring back. But those truths will be our truths. They will be trustworthy. And they will bind us to one another and the reality we crave. Amen.