Thursday, October 6, 2016

Parables Humor, Challenge, and Teach

18 September 2016 
Proper 21C 

There once was a turtle that lived near a hare. The hare made fun of the turtle for going 
so slowly all the time. One day, the hare had a marvelous idea. He was going to 
challenge the turtle to a race! Then he could really make fun of the turtle for losing. 
There was no way the hare with all his speed wouldn't win! When the hare saw the turtle 
the next day he challenged the turtle to a race and surprisingly the turtle accepted. They 
set the agreed upon start and finish and got themselves ready. At the starting sound, off 
they went along the path. The hare bounded ahead and soon became so far ahead he 
couldn't even see the turtle behind him anymore. After a little while, he thought to 
himself, I am so far ahead, I have time to take a little nap. I'll wake up and still have 
plenty of time to finish. So he found a nice spot and sat down for a nap. The turtle 
however, had been steadily walking all the while. Soon he came upon the hare along the 
side of the road taking a nap. He shook his head and kept going. After the turtle had 
crossed the finish line, the hare came bounding up. What!? he exclaimed! He had lost 
the race! While he had been sleeping, the turtle had passed him. We know the story, we 
know the moral. Slow and steady wins the race. This is a parable and in this parable we 
see a challenge, both for the characters in the story, but also for us. We see some humor, 
situational irony, in that it is funny that a slow turtle would win a race against a fast 
hare. And we learn a lesson, something to help change the way we live our lives every 
day. 

This happens over and over again in our readings of the gospel texts. We run into 
parables that are meant to challenge, humor, and teach us. Sometimes parables don't 
always make sense at first glance, or even second or third. The thing about parables is 
that they are supposed to make us think. Yes, we are supposed to be thinking in church! 
Thinking about what Jesus means. Because Jesus knows one of those human being quirks about us that we don't always know about ourselves. We learn better when we 
think about what we are learning. The parables are one way Jesus makes us think. 
Parables are stories or sayings that are usually metaphoric. They illustrate a point in 
such a way as to be personal, in such a way that we connect with what is being said. They 
want us to think. They challenge us. Some of them are even meant to be humorous. 
Gasp! To think, Jesus probably had a sense of humor. Sometimes I have to wonder, 
which one of the disciples was the jokester of the group? I cannot imagine thirteen men 
wandering around the countryside without a few inside jokes. And while we joke about 
the humor of God and the humor of Jesus in modern memes, most of the time we don't 
seriously consider where the humor of Jesus might show up in our bible studies. Yet, 
when I think about the stories people most often share and the ways we teach our 
children through stories, all those lessons, morals, stories include a bit of humor. It 
stands to reason that the gospels also include a bit of humor. 

In looking at all these aspects of a parable we can come to understand more fully the 
point that Jesus is trying to make. Luckily for us, we have a system of looking at the 
gospel texts in such a way that if we are regularly attending church, we see the same 
passages over and over and over again. This is helpful because we can see each parable 
differently each time. We are given the time and perspective throughout our lives to see the parables in new ways. To allow the parables to challenge, humor, and make us think 
in new ways. There are countless stories across the church of people seeing a certain 
parable always in the same way until something happens in their lives and all of a 
sudden, a new understanding or way of seeing a parable occurs to them. Of course, 
sometimes a parable has to challenge us in the same way over and over again before we 
have learned the lesson. 

When we turn to the parable today, what we see at first glance is a very confusing 
parable. "Commentators routinely remark that the parable of the Dishonest (Corrupt) 
Manager stands among the most challenging texts in the New Testament, often
regarding it as the most perplexing of Jesus' parables."1
 
We have a shyster, a slick, no-good manager and a wealthy owner. We don't know much about them, but we get to see 
into this bit of their interactions. The no-good manager is accused of squandering 
property and the owner realizes that he needs to fire the manager. So he brings him in 
for a conversation and tells him this. Then, either before or after being actually fired, the 
timeline isn't clear, the manager goes and forgives parts of the debts owed to the owner. 
Which is very much both a tricky and compassionate act. He both makes himself and the 
owner look good, but he is really only doing it to save his own hide. When the owner
finds out about the forgiven debt, he calls the manager in for another talk... and then 
praises him for acting shrewdly! Whoa, where is the upbraiding chastisement we were 
expecting? To top it off, Jesus seems to think this is the way we should be acting. 

There are some clues here, some clues to the challenge that Jesus is putting before us. 
Some clues to the humor of Jesus in this situation, some clues to the lessons we are to 
learn from this parable. Of course, there are multiple ways this can be seen. 

Two of the challenges that are offered for us in this passage are in the acts of forgiveness 
and faithfulness. The manager forgives parts of the debts of those who owe the owner. 
In a way, he is praised for doing so. His forgiveness helps everyone in the situation. The 
owner looks good and his reputation increases. The manager looks like a good man and 
someone who can be invited in after his displacement. Those who owe, now have to pay less than they did before, meaning they get to keep more for themselves, to eat or sell for 
other goods. Forgiveness in this story is a win-win-win. Forgiveness is always a win. 
Even though one could argue that the manager does it for the wrong reasons. The 
importance of faithfulness is also shown in this story. Early in the story, we hear that the 
manager is squandering the property of the owner. He is not being a faithful steward 
with what he has been entrusted with. However, in his self-interested turn around, he 
does act shrewdly and is a much better steward of the land and the owner's goods. He is 
also praised for this change in his stewardship. 

The humor of this story is in how strange it is. This is not how people act! Now, it may 
not all be haha funny humor. You may be reviewing the parable for this morning and 
thinking, but I didn’t laugh... The parable contains situational irony, the irony of 
juxtapositions of situations and surprising actions. But Jesus was not asking his 
followers, his disciples to act in the same way as the rest of society around him. He 
wanted to show his disciples a new way of living. When it comes to figuring out the lessons to be learned from this parable, we can easily 
look at the series of rhetorical questions afterwards. He wants us to forgive, to act 
shrewdly, and with great faithfulness. “We are given as stewards all of creation and a 
tremendous number of relationships. What we do with them does matter.” (Bishop 
Andrew Doyle) 

As we look at this parable, no matter how you understand it, it presents a challenge to 
the way in which you are living your life. Not many of us are able to forgive in the way 
that has been done here, or praise another's actions even after they have hurt our own 
feelings. Not many of us act as shrewdly as the manager in service of the kingdom of 
God. Our shrewdness is held for our own survival and comfort. (The Rev. Whitney Rice) 
“Jesus is saying that we would do well to be just as shrewd for the things of God, like 
good relationships, justice in our dealings, and love for each other.” Jesus knows the 
difference a story like this can make in our lives. Something to get under our skin. I 
invite you to take the parable home with you. To read it out loud and ask yourself, what 
challenge does this story present to me this day? Where do I find humor in this story? 
What lesson do I need to learn from this story? The answers that come out of such 
contemplation bring us closer to God and move us forward in the way of following 
Jesus.