May 16, 2010

Crafty for the Kingdom

In our journey of stories this month, let me tell you another one. There was once this small business owner who was doing pretty well for himself. The business was growing and because of that he was able to expand in many different ways. He had several employees, but being a visionary man, he was not very skilled at managing his company. As a result after several careful interviews he hired another man to manage the business for him. At first things seem to be going very well. But after several months reports began coming in to the owner from various employees that the manager was perhaps not as honest as it first seemed. He caught wind of the fact that the manager was using company money to indulge a number of personal whims. Wanting to address the problem head on, the owner called the manager to his office and demanded a response to the charges against him. Moreover, he demanded a complete audit by an outside source of the manager’s books. Upon hearing this, the manager knew he was in trouble. The fact is, the manager was stealing money from the company. Knowing that the piper had come for payment, the manager began to worry. You see, he knew his job was lost to him. But he also knew that he was of an age that finding another job in his line of work was going to be tough. He was too old and his reputation was too damaged for him to be hired as the manager of another company. But, he was not in the physical condition to get a job doing simple physical labor. Tack on to this the fact that he was far too prideful to sign up for welfare and he was in a real mess. After thinking about his predicament for some time, he devised a plan. He knew from his time managing the company’s finances that his boss had numerous people who were in debt to him. So, one by one he began calling some of the company’s debtors and inquiring as to the amount they owed. For each one he reduced what they owed by half or better and fixed the books accordingly. By doing this, the manager banked a nice cache of favors from which he could draw employment opportunities until he was able to officially retire. Well, when it came time for the manager to meet with his boss again regarding the audit, his boss looked at the books and the auditor’s report, realized what had happened, and broke…into a huge smile. He started laughing! Be honest now, how many of you expected me to say that the boss broke the manager? Now, the owner of the company certainly was not pleased with how his finances had been handled, but he was impressed with the manager’s quick thinking to make sure he was provided for after he was fired.

Well, what can we say about this manager? He was certainly dishonest. He was greedy. He was generous, but only with other people’s money. He wasn’t someone you would want working for you. But there is another characteristic that could be used to describe him that most of us would probably not consider. This man was shrewd. Now, as a matter of full-disclosure I cannot take credit for this story. The person who first told the story was Jesus. The story of the shrewd manager in Luke 16 is one of Jesus’ most puzzling parables. We read it and spend hours trying to figure out why Jesus not only does not seem to condemn this dishonest man but in fact commends his behavior. A standard translation of Jesus’ explanation for this parable reads as follows: “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” A bit less literally to the Greek the Message puts it like this: “Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

Have you noticed that there are people in this world who seem to know how to get things done? They have an almost intuitive ability to work with people in such a way that they benefit most. We tend to say that these kinds of people have “street smarts” versus “book smarts.” Additionally, we say they have common sense (the problem, of course, being that common sense isn’t terribly common). A more concise description of these folks is that they are shrewd. That’s not a word we use very often. How many of you could give me a concise definition of the word shrewd if I ask you? Webster’s defines the word as someone who is wise in practical matters and also as someone who is crafty. If you read down the definition a bit further, it lists two other definitions, which it characterizes as obsolete, in which the word describes someone who is malicious or bad. But though those definitions might be archaic according to Webster, I suspect that for most of us the word still leaves us with a bad taste in our mouth. And yet here in Luke chapter 16 we have Jesus seeming to encourage this characteristic. Moreover, in Matthew 10:16, He encourages His followers to be “as shrewd as snakes.” Make no mistake, His listeners would have immediately thought of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. How should we deal with this? Here’s the thing: Jesus was using this word according to the first part of the Webster definition. The word shrewd describes someone who is wise in the ways of the world but not necessarily someone who succumbs to those ways. With this in mind, we want as many shrewd people in the world in the kingdom of God as we can possibly get. We want people who know how the system works and who can morally, ethically work the system to the benefit of righteousness. The kingdom of God is no place for dummies. The kingdom of God needs shrewd stewards. I tell you all this in order to tell you the story one of the more complex characters in the Bible. Kind of like his grandfather Abraham, this man’s story includes a number of episodes that seem pretty shady, but for which the Bible never offers a clear condemnation leading us to wonder which examples are worth following and which aren’t. But perhaps more than anything else about him, we can safely say that he was a shrewd man. He was a shrewd man whom God got a hold of for His kingdom purposes. After all, the kingdom of God needs shrewd stewards. This man’s name is Jacob. Let me tell you his story.

When Isaac, Abraham and Sarah’s son, grew to the appropriate age, Abraham sent a servant back to the land of his family to find a wife for him. This was an arranged marriage, to be sure, yet the servant put this process in God’s hands and God made sure that he was led to the right woman: Rebekah. Well, Isaac and Rebekah (who was his first cousin, by the way) were married and thus the weight of the promise of God to Abraham to be the father of a nation passed on to them. But they faced the same trials as Abraham and Sarah: Rebekah was barren. Isaac, however, proved that he had learned a thing or two from his father’s past and instead of trying to take matters of childbearing into his own hands, he prayed for his wife and by God’s grace she eventually became pregnant. Hers was no easy pregnancy, though. Not only was she carrying twins, but it felt as if they were already fighting with each other. When she poured her heart out to God on her painful condition, she received this curious bit of revelation from Him: “Two nations are in your womb, two peoples butting heads while still in your body. One people will overpower the other, and the older will serve the younger.” Culturally, this would not have made any sense as the eldest son was assumed to be the leader of the family in the father’s absence. Yet as was to be discovered, this younger son was an ambitious young man. When it came time for the twins to be born Jacob came out holding onto the heel of Esau. It was as if he was trying to use the constraints of the system to advance his own interests from birth. Indeed, the story of his life is one of him working to make sure circumstances came out in his favor by whatever means necessary.

As the boys grew this battle for dominance between them did not end but in fact became an integral part in their relationship. As a point of fact, the next time we encounter the brothers in Scripture, Jacobs swindles Esau’s birthright from him. Esau was an outdoorsy hunter while Jacob preferred to work the fields nearer to home. One day, when Esau came in from hunting he was exhausted and starving. Upon finding his younger brother making some stew, he quickly demanded some. Jacob agreed for a price: Esau’s birthright. In the ancient world when it came time to divide the estate among the son, it was divided into one more part than the number of sons. Because there was just Jacob and Esau, Isaac’s estate would have been divided into three parts, two of which going to Esau, one to Jacob. This second share of the estate for Esau was his right by virtue of being the firstborn. This was what was sold to Jacob for a pot of stew. Essentially, Jacob took advantage of his brother’s weakness (both physical and mental—because he was stupid not to agree to such a bargain) in order to be treated as the firstborn by his father. Some number of years later, Isaac was nearing the end of his life and so he called in his favorite son, Esau, and told him to prepare a meal from one of his hunts (kind of like our going out to dinner) and then Isaac would bless him. This blessing was a big deal. They believed it to be a binding statement on the recipient. A good blessing would assure the gods’ favor in a person’s life. Once given, the blessing could not be taken away, nor could anyone else receive a similar blessing. The father’s blessing in this way was viewed as a pie just like the estate was. Well, following his mother’s advice (and revealing the source of Jacob’s shrewd approach to life), Jacob tricks his father into giving him the blessing instead of Esau. With this treacherous act, Jacob has now swindled his brother’s birthright from him and cheated him out of his blessing from their father.

At this point Esau has had it and threatens to kill his brother. Not wanting to see another Cain and Abel episode, Rebekah sends Jacob to live with her brother, Laban, until things between the brothers cools down. During Jacob’s journey east he has this incredible experience with God at Bethel in which God promises a lavish blessing quite similar to that bestowed on his grandfather, Abraham. Now, the obvious question here is why. Why would God reveal Himself in this powerful way to a man who was on the run for stealing the blessing that should have belonged to his brother? The Bible doesn’t say. All we really have to go on are God’s grace and sovereignty. But let’s suppose for just a minute. Esau is kind of portrayed in Genesis as a big, lumbering, ox of a man who has more brawn than brains. Yes, Jacob took advantage of him, but he was still dumb enough to sell his birthright for a bowl of stew. Also, when it came time for marriage, families back then usually looked in-house. The reason for this was that other families and clans worshiped different gods and goddesses, they had different customs, and given that owning your own land was a big deal, they brought the risk of losing family land to outsiders. With all this in mind, when Esau went out to find a wife, he married two women, neither of whom was family. Jacob, on the other hand, though a shrewd man who was perpetually on the lookout for his own best interests, had always kept the family first as far as we know. Perhaps God saw in Jacob a man who, though shrewd, was faithful to those whom he loved. Indeed, throughout Jacob’s life, he demonstrates that when he favors someone he is faithful to them to a fault. He knows how things work on the street: pick your allies carefully and remain faithful to them at all costs. This shrewd investment of loyalty comes with big risks, but it also has big payoffs. The kingdom of God needs shrewd stewards.

Back to the story…When Jacob arrives in his uncle’s land, he meets a beautiful woman, falls in love, and seeks her hand in marriage. This beautiful woman happens to be Laban’s daughter Rachel, Jacob’s cousin. Well, after negotiating a bride price (a fee paid to the bride’s family to cover the income lost if the marriage didn’t work out) of seven years of labor, they have a grand wedding. But there was a catch to this. In this culture the bride wore a veil the completely shielded her face from view. By the end of the party, when Jacob gets to take his new wife home to consummate the marriage, he’s too drunk to notice that it wasn’t Rachel, but her sister Leah. That’s right, the shrewd swindler, got swindled. Remember Jacob’s shrewd faithfulness? Instead of getting mad and leaving Laban, he follows his heart and works another seven years for his deceptive uncle so that he can marry Rachel (what a love story, by the way). Well, after having this source of free labor for nearly fifteen years, Laban wasn’t all that interested in letting it go so easily. He convinced Jacob to stay by promising (at Jacob’s insistence) to give him all the spotted or striped sheep and goats in his flocks. Laban promises Jacob these wages and then sends his sons out to remove all of the spotted and striped animals from the flocks and hide them so that when Jacob went through to claim his wages there would be nothing left for him. Laban wasn’t so much a shrewd man as a simple cheat. Well, what does an honest cheat do when a dishonest cheat has cheated him? He cheats right on back. Shrewdly using a blend of husbandry and superstition, Jacob gets the ewes and nannies to bear only spotted and striped lambs and kids. Furthermore, he only used this trick on the healthiest and strongest animals in the flocks, leaving the sickly ones to bear plain babies for his uncle. He knew Laban’s character and so he used all the resources available to him to swing things in his direction. Imagine having someone with this kind of practical wisdom (that would be shrewdness) focused on expanding the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom needs shrewd stewards.

After putting up with his swindling uncle for nearly thirty years, Jacob has finally had enough. Laban had made clear that he was going to resist any attempts to let Jacob leave peacefully so Jacob gathers his household and sneaks away in the night. This adventure of leaving opens the door to a second, more frightening one: meeting back up with his brother. Using the same shrewd skills that have served him very well thus far in his life, Jacob sends Esau several lavish gifts of livestock and servants to soften things up. Then he leaves his family in a safe place and prepares to meet Esau alone. On the night before this meeting, God visits Jacob’s little camp; and by visit I mean attacks. Unaware of the identity of his divine guest, Jacob fights back for all he’s worth, and just when it seemed things were coming to a draw, God puts Jacob’s hip out of joint. When he realizes that his opponent isn’t just some ordinary bandit, Jacob tightens the hold he has and demands a blessing. He uses those same shrewd skills once again to work things in his favor. In the end, God changes Jacob’s name so that he has a name worthy of his personality: Israel; one who contends with God. Following this night of contention with the Creator, Jacob meets Esau who has long since forgiven him and things have a pretty happy ending.

So what do we make of Jacob? He’s a tough character for folks who study the Bible very closely to figure out. On the one hand, he’s one of the three patriarchs of the people of Israel. He is, in fact, the namesake of the people of Israel. God promises him the same blessing of land and descendants that He promised Abraham and Isaac. On the other hand, Jacob swindled his brother out of his birthright, deceived his father out of his brother’s blessing, and manipulated his uncle’s flocks in a way that was morally gray at best. Some scholars find little redeemable about him. One of my study Bibles even calls him a scoundrel in order to make the point that if God can use a scoundrel to advance His ends then he can certainly use you and me. So again: what do we make of Jacob? Well, to answer that question, let me take you back to what Jesus said in Matthew 10:16. The context of the quote is Jesus giving the disciples their final instructions before He sent them out in pairs to spread the message of the kingdom of God. He wanted to make sure they were prepared to face whatever the world would throw at them as they went on their mission. It was in this context that Jesus said to them: “Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning [or shrewd] as a snake, inoffensive as a dove.” The word there in Greek is phronimos and a quick word study reveals it to have been used to describe the wisdom of God. Its antonym is a fool in a practical, intellectual, and moral sense. A fairly recent phenomenon in the church is a movement of believers who take Paul’s claim to know nothing but the crucified Christ extremely literally. Here’s the reality, though: it’s okay to know how the world works. In fact, as Jesus chided in Luke 16, the people of this world know how the world works better than we who are not of this world. That’s not advantageous for us. Understanding that the Greek word behind our word shrewd is descriptive of God’s wisdom and knowledge in creating the world, we should be pursuing this deep, practical understanding of how things work in all the areas over which God declares, “Mine.” (That’s all of them, by the way). The kingdom of God needs shrewd stewards.

Like Jacob, then, we should be well-versed in how things are done. We should aim to have more knowledge regarding the world and how it works than anyone else around us. And our constant goal should be to use this knowledge to advance the purposes of God’s kingdom and to excel in righteousness. We are not to be prideful in this stockpiling of knowledge, but instead as inoffensive as doves. We should never let ourselves be taken advantage of because of a lack of knowledge, but neither should we be manipulative in our methods of achieving God’s ends. Indeed, the means count with God. In Jacob we see the good, the bad, and the ugly of this shrewdness. It was ugly when he swindled Esau’s birthright. It was bad when he duped his father into giving him Esau’s blessing. It was good when he protected and provided for his family in the house of his deceptive uncle. In terms of being more like Christ, then (the goal of our journey), being wise, being shrewd in ways of this world allows us to be salt and light in unflavored and dark places more effectively. If we are simply discounted as naïve or ignorant, the world isn’t going to give us a second glance. But, if we can hold our own against the world while at the same time offering the love, the hope, the grace, the joy, and the peace of the Gospel—none of which are truly found anywhere else in this world—we will establish ourselves as having something to offer and at the same time be storing up a great treasure in heaven just as Jesus’ shrewd manager did on earth. Just as those who are shrewd in this world but have no loyalty to the kingdom of God manage to amass cushy lives for themselves by knowing how the system works, we should use our intimate knowledge of the same system in order to store up for ourselves huge treasures in the kingdom of God and to expand that kingdom as fast and as far in this world as we can. God’s kingdom needs shrewd stewards. So let us seek to be the smartest, wisest, most cunning people in the neighborhood, understanding intimately the ways of this world, and then let us give ourselves without constraint or reservation into the hands of the God who is the only fount of this shrewdness so that He can use us in the places He created us for to accomplish His ends. Jacob did this and God used Him to conceive a nation. God’s kingdom needs shrewd stewards. Will you be one?