The Way Of The Cynic
Sunday, 22 September 2019 08:30
And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly (Luke 16:8)
There’s a well-known problem that’s used in teaching logic called ‘The Prisoner’s Dilemma’. Imagine you’re a prisoner in a cell with two doors. One leads to execution, the other leads to freedom. Each door is guarded by a sentry one of whom never tells the truth and the other always does but you don’t know which is which. You are allowed to ask one of the guards one question, what do you ask and of whom? The answer is that you ask either guard, “If I asked the other guard, which is the door to freedom?, what would he say?" Whichever door is given in answer, you take the other one.
This only works, of course, because each guard acts reliably - even the one that always lies. People aren’t like that and that’s what makes life difficult sometimes. There is no better example of that than the Parable of The Unjust Steward that we heard this morning. Some people have described this as a ‘problem passage’ in scripture, partly because the steward’s behaviour seems so reprehensible yet his master seems to admire him for defrauding him. Partly because of the reference to people may welcome folk who follow the steward’s example into their eternal homes - as if the Kingdom of Heaven welcomes such behaviour as ‘shrewd’ and ‘clever’. A straight reading of this parable, up to the last bit about loving both God and money, might almost be seen as Jesus saying that we should admire the steward’s actions.
No one in this parable, though, behaves in a reliable way - in a way that would allow us to trust them. First of all there’s the steward. To deal with the fact that his employer is sacking him for losing him money he goes around all his employer’s customers and reduces their bills in the hope that, when he is made redundant, one of them will take him on. Which is a bit odd when you think about it. Why would they do that when he’s just shown them he’s ready to rip off his employer? Then there is his master who, when he finds out that this guy has been ripping him off, commends him on how smart he’s been. Wait! What??
That’s the response, I think, that Jesus intends to invoke in the folk who are listening to him: “Wait! What??” The thing is that while they can probably understand the steward’s behaviour, while they can probably understand why he lies and engages in skullduggery it comes as a shock that his master should condone it as if it’s somehow OK - even admirable - to engage in such behaviour. That involves, for me, a terrible cynicism about human behaviour. People wouldn’t really admire such behaviour, would they?
The thing is, though, that there is a case being pursued in the Supreme Court at the moment that suggests that the Prime Minister lied to suspend Parliament to achieve a political end to do with our leaving the European Union. I don’t want to get into arguments about Brexit - I think there have been enough of those. Nor do I want to judge whether the prime Minister lied or not. what has troubled me has been some of the responses I have heard to the possibility that he has.
Some have spoken in admiration of his lying to achieve an end - to achieve his goal. “Sure” they’ve said, “He lied, but at least it means it gets us out”. Tell me, is that a million miles from the master commending the unjust steward on his shrewdness? Is it a million miles from normalising lying and suggesting that it’s OK? Others shrug their shoulders and say, “He’s a politician. They all lie.” Is that a million miles from normalising lying and saying it’s OK? To me that involves a terrible cynicism about human behaviour.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not claiming to be a saint here. I’m not going to tell you that I’ve never lied, or done anything else that’s wrong. As I was saying last week, we all say things and do things that are wrong, but the point is that we recognise that they are wrong. We all sin, but we recognise that sometimes the things we say and do are sinful. That doesn’t mean that they don’t matter or that we normalise them in some way and say that they are OK. Ultimately they are why Jesus went to the Cross for our salvation. We are supposed to regret them. We are supposed to recognise that they are wrong. We are supposed to think that we are supposed to think, “You know, I’m better than that.”
When we stop thinking that, whether as individuals or as a society, we lose ourselves. When we buy into the way of the cynic that says that shrewdness trumps virtue we lose ourselves. When we cynically live lives in which getting more and more stuff, living in comfort and ease, is more important than doing what is right, we lose ourselves. We throw away the things that bind us together as a society - the bonds of trust that have to be there for people to live together in harmony and we lose each other. If you can’t rely on the guards on the prison doors to give the answers they are supposed to give, how can you know which door to choose?
The Parable of the Unjust Steward is sometimes seen as a problem passage, but only because we tend to rip chunks of the Bible out of context. This parable follows three more famous parables that contain these lines; “Rejoice with me: I have found my lost sheep”, “Rejoice with me, I have found my lost coin,” “This son of mine was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found”. What our passage today is about is how easy it is to get lost - to lose ourselves. It happens when you buy into the cynicism that says that bad is good; that deceit is cunning, that lies are OK if they get you what we want.
You know, we’re better than that. We’re supposed to want to be better than that and despite all the temptations of the world, all the promptings to serve money rather than God, we do. At our best we feel good about ourselves when we do what is right despite the cost. At our best we value our self-respect before our possessions and we stand up for the weak and the powerless in the face of the strong and the wealthy. This is what the Church, at its best, has done done down the centuries. When we have not done it we have lost ourselves.
We have forgotten who we are - children of God, made in the image of God. we are not meant to walk the way of the cynic and conform to the standards of this world. We are meant to hold ourselves to a higher standard - a standard that insists that truth is better than falsehood; that kindness is better than coldness; that generosity is better than self-centredness; that all the wealth of the world cannot buy one gesture of genuine love or compassion, but it can undermine them and demean them as selfish or foolish. Honestly, which way is the better way?
That’s the question Jesus is asking in this parable. Do we, as individuals or as a society, buy into the way of the cynic and lose ourselves in a world where there is no right or wrong - only seeking after wealth and comfort and achieving our selfish goals - or do we allow God to find us and guide us home? Do we find in ourselves the light of Heaven and live as children of God?
Father, sometimes we get lost. Remind us each day that lost is not a good place to be. Find us when stray and remind us that we cannot pretend that wrong is right. Help us, each day, to do what is right and to live as citizens of your Kingdom
Preached at Greta: St Andrew’s church