By Alice Gerard
A "dastardly, scheming, low-life manager" was the main character in the parable that Trinity United Methodist Church pastor Larry Baird shared in the second week of the Grand Island Ministerium's Lenten Luncheon series.
Baird chose to discuss the "Parable of the Shrewd Manager," found in chapter 16 of the Gospel of St. Luke. In this parable, Jesus told his disciples the story of a crooked manager, who had been wasting his employer's money. When the manager's rich employer found the discrepancies in the accounts, he let the manager know that he was going to be fired. This manager quickly began planning for unemployment. He decided that he was too weak to dig ditches and too proud to beg. His only alternative was to curry favor among people who owe his employer money by cutting their debt in half. In that way, he would have grateful people to take him in should he become homeless.
Baird compared the shrewd manager to J.R. Ewing of the 1980s television show "Dallas." Ewing, played by the late Larry Hagman, "perfected the role of the shrewd manager. He would do anything to benefit himself, and he was quite accomplished in doing so."
The manager in the Bible, Baird suggested, had been spending his employer's money on such things as "fancy luncheons, trips here and there, and 'helping the business.'" The manager was "shrewd, scheming, and smart. It's all about him." He was not necessarily doing a favor to the people who had owed money to his employer. "He probably over-billed them. He was trying to look good to people so that he could sponge off of them after being fired."
Baird also compared the shrewd manager to Dr. Seuss' Grinch in "The Grinch who Stole Christmas." He said that the song in the 1966 animated television version of "The Grinch who Stole Christmas" best described the Shrewd Manager and Ewing, as well as the Grinch: "You're a rotter, Mister Grinch, you're the king of sinful sots. ... Your soul is an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of rubbish imaginable mangled up in tangled up knots!"
Jesus, Baird said, "delighted in telling stories of dastardly, low-life characters, like the Grinch or J.R. Ewing."
The story of this corrupt manager ends with this verse: "And it is true that the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with the world around them than are the children of the light." Baird explained, "If it weren't for this verse, it would appear that Jesus was commending dishonesty. That character (the shrewd manager) is lifted up as a prime example. It's a wonder that he didn't have an office in Alden (Erie County Correctional Facility)."
Baird discussed the concept of worldly versus faith-based, when he quoted a list, created by the Barna Group, of "the most post-Christian cities in America." There were a bunch of guidelines for cities to be ranked high as "post-Christian." These included the number of people in the city who profess not to believe in God, who identify as atheists or as agnostics, who don't attend church, read the Bible, or share their faith, among other things. "The top nine were all in the northeast," Baird said. Buffalo ranked eighth in that list. The number one most post-Christian city in America was Albany.
The Barna Group is a research company based in Ventura, California. It was founded in 1984, and it describes itself as "a leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture."
Jesus was having a bad day with his disciples," Baird explained. "The disciples didn't always seem to be the brightest bunch. I think that Jesus looked at his disciples and wondered if they had what it took to get the job done. Jesus' message to his disciples was that, if worldly people have street sense wisdom, wouldn't it be great if the disciples could adopt shrewdness to do kingdom work?"
Baird challenged people to do more, to learn how to be shrewd, and how to strategize.
"Let us hear the words of the shrewd manager and take heart," Baird said.
Baird talked about the role of the church in 21st century culture, especially in cities such as Buffalo that are described as being "post-Christian." "How do we effectively communicate in an era of social media? How do we speak as one holy, catholic (universal) church? Jesus knew that it would not be easy. He said, 'I send you as sheep into a field of wolves. '"
"Incredibly," Baird said, "the disciples got their act together, and they changed the world."
In a personal note, Baird said that he is retiring from his position as pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church this year. His four years on Grand Island have been "great joy," he said. One of things that has given him joy has been the Grand Island Ministerium. "Our congregations and parishioners are fortunate to have a gifted and talented group of clergy," Baird said.
Next week's Lenten Luncheon will feature the Rev. Earle King of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church, who will discuss "The Good Samaritan."