Thursday, December 29, 2005

mmmm, theology

I love theology. I know, it sounds dorky, doesn't it? I'm allowed to love chocolate. I'm allowed to love my husband and children. I'm expected to love good movies, good music, good friends. I ought to even have a beverage to claim as my own, be it Izze or the beer from my favorite microbrewery, or the ever-addictive Diet Coke.

Provided you know that I'm one of those wacky born-again Christian weirdos, I'm also allowed to love God and love church and love either hymns or choruses (though people still look at you funny if you claim to love both.) I'm allowed to love Sunday school, I'm allowed to love worship, I'm even allowed to love interpretive dance... (though I never really have managed to love interpretive dance. Sigh. Always room to grow.)

But theology? Dry, dusty theology?

Daniel's mom got me a book for Christmas off my Amazon wishlist. Poet and Peasant / Through Peasant Eyes by Kenneth Bailey. And while I was at my parents' house for Christmas, I even got a few hours' time to read the first third or so of the book.

Admittedly, this book is hard to read. It's written by a scholar of Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic (as well as Old Syriac and several other languages, from the look of it) and he is trying to state his case to other PhDs.

I'll be the first to say that I don't understand half of his reasoning. I studied (and failed!) Greek in college. But after wading through the argument stage and getting to his conclusions, I'm loving this book.

This Mr. Bailey grew up in rural Arabic culture; his parents were missionaries. He says the reason that we Westerners don't understand (or don't fully appreciate) a lot of Jesus' parables is because we interpret them from a Western mindset. And how can we not, since we've (most of us) never known anything else?

He then goes on to explain several parables in Luke. The first one he talks about is the Parable of the Shrewd Manager in Luke 16.

This parable has bugged me and bugged me ever since I really started to read the Bible. Why does Jesus make an example out of this guy who cheated his master? How am I supposed to apply this story to my life?

I've pestered many pastors and scholars and Sunday school teachers to no avail. Bailey is the first one to explain it in a way that makes sense to me. Do I know if he's right? No, I don't. But what he says has the ring of truth, and it makes the story so cool.

OK, first if you haven't read it recently go here and read it, and then come back.

Done? Good. Now here it is with the first-century Palestinian context, so far as Bailey can reconstruct:

The owner hears reports from the town (which operates like an extended family... everyone knows each other's business) that the manager is being wasteful with the owner's resources. He comes home and fires the guy on the spot. Not "give me an account of your stewardship" but "give me the accounts": turn in your books NOW, because you're through.

According to prevailing law, the manager could have jailed the steward, and/or had him repay for his wastefulness. But, being a kind and loving owner he simply fires him.

Now the newly fired manager is humble enough to even consider farming or begging as occupations, but decides those things won't work. He comes up with a risky, radical plan.

Nobody knows he is fired yet, but everyone in the small town will know it soon. So, before word gets out, he gets all the debtors together. In all likelihood the debtors are tenants who are farming the fields owned by the master (land owner), in exchange for a set amount of the goods produced with his fields.

The ex-manager tells them (or implies) that the master has decided to be generous and give them a tax break. You owe him 1000 bushels? quick, make it 800. You owe him 800 gallons of oil? Quick, make it 400.

The tenants don't know what is going on or there is no way they'd go along with it; there's no way they would go along with a plan to cheat the master and end up in jail (and/or without anyone willing to rent fields to them). See how boldly the ex-manager says "my master"? They think that the master arrived home in an expansive mood and that the manager arranged for special Christmas bonuses for all of them.

So they change the books together, quickly, and the tenants all go home rejoicing at what a kind and generous master they have. There's partying in the streets, everyone's drinking a toast to the health and generosity of their loving master.

Meanwhile the fired manager gathers up the books and smugly hands them to the master - who, as he looks at the books and the manager's face, immediately knows what's going on.

The master now has a choice between going back out into the streets and saying to all the partying tenants "look, it was all a big mistake, I just fired this guy" - so that he and the manager would both be the jerks, the bad guys, the wet blankets who completely destroy the party...or the master can honor the last-minute changes in order to keep the goodwill of the tenants and the honor of his own name.

What was the shrewd manager praised for? Not for being deceitful, says Bailey, but for risking everything on the kindness and generosity of his master. The "shrewd manager" was a shrewd judge of character. He knew he could get away with this and that the master would keep the tax breaks on the books. The manager was, and would evermore be known as, the local hero who arranged the generous tax break from the generous master, just before he was fired.

The manager risked everything on the kind and merciful character of his master, and THAT is what he was praised for. Isn't that so cool?

Bailey had a lot more to say about it (and about verses 9-15, which he makes a case for moving to the end of the chapter) - but that's been the thing that really stuck with me. Such a deeply satisfying 'answer' to that parable. I find myself astonished again and again at the shrewd manager's complete trust in the master's mercy and kindness. How do I (how should I) "risk everything" on God's loving kindness? What will that mean for me? As of yet I don't know.

And I'm amazed by the fact that Jesus continually chose such unsavory characters (smelly shepherds, nagging widows, half-breed Samaritans, conniving managers, etc.) to drive home the truth of God's trustworthiness, his love, his patience, his kindness. After all, if God can show mercy to them, perhaps there's hope for me as well!


Blogger gray la gran said...

i ran out of wind tonight, while reading this entry. but, no worries. i think theology is very interesting. if there was only enough time in this lifetime to explore all our interests ..... i hope you had a merry christmas and enjoyed your micro-brew!

12/29/2005 10:52 PM  
Blogger gray la gran said...

ps ... i ran out of wind on the account of a certain bottle of wine. oops

12/29/2005 10:52 PM  
Anonymous kim said...

I admire your ability to persevere through hard to read books ~ I have completely lost that ability right now, and struggle just to stay alert through *easy* books!

I think it's neat to like theology. In fact, I think I like theology, too. I'm never sure I'm "smart enough" to really understand the different arguments, but I know that our view of God determines how we live, and therefore our theology is very important. Maybe someday when my brain comes back I'll borrow that book. Or maybe I'll be lucky and you'll keep blogging about things you read, and I'll be able to pick up some tidbits vicariously before then.

I have to admit I worry about the implications of vs. 10-13 in that passage and what I see as a big gap between my knowledge/understanding and my actions ...

Anyway, I'm glad you wrote about theology, and that's a really interesting thought to chew on. To risk everything on the generosity of the Master ...

12/30/2005 7:10 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home