Fear muddles your thinking. It makes it hard to focus. In the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 16 (see bottom of this post) there is a story known as the parable of the Dishonest Manager. It’s about an employee who loses his job and goes on to recover by using his master’s money for personal gain. He won’t dig to earn a living, saying he’s not strong enough. He claims to be too proud to beg…and yet he comes out smelling like a rose. He gets applauded for being shrewd…for being clever. Yes, really.
Biblical scholars contend that the point is that Jesus is telling us that we, the children of the light, should be as clever as our enemies. And still, I’m not sure I buy it.
Looking more closely at the parable, the dishonest manager is faced with a crisis – he has lost his job. Regardless of what we think of his personal character, he is facing an uncertain future, and needs to act and act quickly. And this is how he acts: by playing to his strengths – he goes back to the customers with whom he already has a relationship and charms them…tells them he’ll cut their bills in half…and wins their favor. Another thing he does is to decide what he needs, and he goes after it. He needed people who might help him get a new job or otherwise get along while he was unemployed. Then he did them each a favor, thereby sealing his relationship with them so that they might help him. And once he did that, the fear of his uncertain future, we presume, likely subsided.
In J. K. Rowlings, Harry Potter series, Book 4 (The Goblet of Fire), Harry, an up and coming wizard, is also facing an uncertain future. He has been forced to compete in a tournament in which he must pass three tests. The first test requires that he get a golden egg from the foot of a dragon. And not Puff the Magic dragon either.
“Four fully grown, enormous, vicious-looking dragons were rearing onto their hind legs inside an enclosure fenced with thick planks of wood, roaring and snorting – torrents of fire were shooting into the dark sky from their open, fanged mouths, fifty feet above the ground on their outstretched necks….Mesmerized, Harry looked up, high above him, and saw the eyes of the black dragon, with vertical pupils like a cat’s, bulging with either fear or rage, he couldn’t tell which…It was making a horrible noise, a yowling, screeching scream…”
Yes. Harry is facing one heckuva crisis, much like the unemployed manager, much like many of us today. And because of his fear, Harry can’t think clearly about what to do. So, he goes to one of his professors for advice on how best to defeat the dragon. But the professor doesn’t tell Harry a magic spell that will put the dragon to sleep. He doesn’t give Harry a special potion to slip into the dragon’s breakfast bowl. And he doesn’t say, “obviously Harry, you’re too darned scared, I’ll go face the dragon FOR you”. What he does say to Harry is this:
“I’m just going to give you some good, general advice. And the first bit is – play to your strengths.”
Play to your strengths means do what you do well. And what Harry does well, is fly on a broom. It is a wizard school after all. So Harry is slightly relieved until he remembers this:
“I’m not allowed a broom, I’ve only got my wand…”
To which his professor replies:
“My second piece of general advice is to use a nice, simple spell that will enable you to get what you need.”
Play to your strengths. And get what you need. I think it is safe to say that that is exactly what the manager in our parable did today. The manager who, we remember, was commended for acting shrewdly.
Today there is a huge rally going on in Washington D.C. The Restore Honor Rally, the brainchild of Glenn Beck. I tuned into the live-streaming feed on facebook long enough to be sufficiently shaken. And without debating the politics, the patriotism, the streaming comments from supporters and haters alike, one thing was clear: we are a country of frightened people. We face a future that is clearly uncertain. We are in the midst of a stunning recession. Depression and mental disorders are at an all time high. Natural Disasters of epic proportions greet us every morning. And we remain engaged in war.
How many more reasons do we need to be afraid? The dragons for us are very, very real.
But if, instead of torturing ourselves with the question of how did all this happen, or, who is to blame, we were to take some advice from today’s gospel, these might be the questions before us:
What are our strengths and What do we need?
Collectively, we are children of God. Individually, God has given each of us distinct strengths. And while our individual needs vary, there are some needs that are universal: the need for food, shelter, and love come to mind.
In addition, some of us might need strength to move forward. Some of us might need to take care of our health or family situations. Some of us might need to get busy, because that is the only way we can shake the darkness that threatens to immobilize us.
And once we each decide what we need, we need to use our strengths for this purpose: to build up the kingdom of God here on earth. And in the kingdom of God, God is known by many names. God is worshipped by many people – some in temples and churches and synagogues; others in gardens, and deserts, and city streets. Wherever people come together to listen for divine guidance, or shoulder one another’s burdens, there is God in the midst of them.
What frightens me the most in this age of political, religious, and economic conflict, is the number of people who think the answer to our fears is to polarize one group against another. To divide and conquer. To adopt an attitude of I am right and therefore you must be wrong. To make statements that attack or insult another simply because their belief does not align with yours.
And if I am not vigilant, I can easily be sucked into the game, choosing a side, demonizing the opposition, painting an entire category of people with the same brush. And if I succumb to this, the dragon wins.
Let us return, for a moment, to Harry Potter, and witness him face the dragon.
“He swung his leg over the broom and kicked off from the ground. And a second later, something miraculous happened…As he soared upward, as the wind rushed through his hair, as the crowd’s faces became mere flesh-colored pinpricks below, and the dragon shrank to the size of a dog, he realized that he had left not only the ground behind, but also his fear….He was back where he belonged…
He was back where he belonged, doing the thing that made him feel most alive, doing what he did well.
Doing what we do well is what gives us life. Doing what we were called to do by the one who created us with specific gifts and talents, is to help usher in the Kingdom of God.
I have no doubt that when we experience the next realm, that place some call heaven that is known by many other names as well, we will find people of every religion and every political perspective present. We will see undeniable saints and horrific sinners all, and they will likely be hard to tell apart.
I personally see the world through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who has been raised from the dead. I believe his Spirit lives in you and in me. I don’t know if the Spirit of Jesus lived in Ghandi, but I do know that Ghandi’s presence on this earth helped usher in the Kingdom of God.
If this strange parable from Luke’s Gospel means that we are called to be every bit as strong and clever as those who walk in darkness, we must intentionally choose to live freely, without allowing fear to drive us to despair.
Fear is what prevents us from being humble enough to ask for what we need. Fear is what prevents us from using our God-given strengths. Fear is what causes us to buy into the divide and conquer theory that polarizes and demonizes people by the insistence that there is only one truth, (and by the way, we have it).
Freedom is what we have been given not by any politician, but by the grace of God Almighty. It is given to us so that we might love one another. If leading with our strength and getting what we need is the plan, our strength lies in our freedom to use our God-given gifts; and our need is to reject any plan of action that is not rooted in love. Just as we cannot serve God and wealth, we cannot serve love and fear.
GOSPEL: Luke 16: 1–13 (New Revised Standard Version)
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And 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.
10Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”