Choice and Struggle: Proper 20

One of the most frightening things my wife can say to me as I leave the house for work is, “Honey, on your way home tonight could you stop at the supermarket and pick up a can of tomato paste?” It doesn’t really matter what item she wants – whatever it is (tomato paste, paper towels, bread, carrots), I’m assured of two things – first, that I will be overwhelmed by choice, second, that I’ll get it wrong.
For someone who is intuitively driven, supermarkets (and libraries and websites and warehouse shopping centers and tablet or telephone app stores and, and, and) promise descent into sensory overload. Delbert McClinton and Lyle Lovett sing a song entitled Too Much Stuff. That’s the supermarket for me – rows and rows of products that are at the same time similar and different. So, let’s say I manage to find the aisle that has the tomato paste (usually only after asking two or three employees); I stand transfixed in front of an ocean of tomato paste containers on shelves that extend from below my feet to above my head. Horizontally, the tomato paste section extends from my left to my right further than I can easily see and I realize that half of all rushing plays in the NFL on any given week don’t cover as much territory as the vertical expanse of the tomato paste wall before me. I begin scanning labels on containers. “A can, she said,” I think – that eliminates the ones in jars. One would think that I could just grab a can and go, but no – did she want sun dried, organic, house brand, imported, with garlic, tiny can or feed-an-army size? People maneuver their carts around me, grumbling that I’m blocking the aisle, and in desperation, I pick a familiar brand name and put it in the cart. No, wait – better get two different kinds, just in case. Uh, in maybe three sizes.
When I return home, I turn out the assortment of containers I’ve bought only to have her look at me patiently and say something like, “No, honey, paste, not sauce.”
I’ve often said that one of the secrets to a successful, happy, and productive life is having choices. Choices provide options, and options provide the flexibility to be proactive. Once we are pushed into an either/or position, we have lost our capacity for choice and we become reactive. “Black and white” thinking is restrictive, signaling a loss of freedom in a person’s cognitive or behavioral palette.
Our economy is based, to a large extent, on our hunger for choices to the extent that we have begun to identify ourselves by those choices – try to buy clothing that doesn’t sport the maker’s or designer’s name somewhere on the garment. Look at the number of vehicles that display through sticker or license plate frame the driver’s allegiance to car brand or sports team or political affiliation. Billions of dollars are spent each year to frame persuasive arguments that attempt to draw us from Apple to Android or Honda to Ford or Charmin to Cottonelle. Choice is freedom and freedom is our creed, the antithesis of “one size fits all,” extending the promise of enhanced individuality. Like Frank Sinatra eating at a Burger King, we all want it My Way.
This presents something of a dilemma when it comes to the Gospel. I once saw a cartoon in a clergy journal that had a drawing of a church with a large sign out front – “Welcome to the Lite Church! One service a month, Only Four Commandments (your choice), Visa, Mastercard, or IOUs accepted.” To be sure, lots of us would prefer such an institution in the same way that most of us try to create God in our own image.
For decades, I’ve listened to preachers grapple with difficult and alarming passages of Scripture by highlighting the cultural differences between contemporary and Biblical mores or geography or value systems. While some of those cautions are valid and require consideration, others, I believe, are just intended to get us off the hook by making Christianity seems as palatable, pleasant, and nice as possible.
But the truth is that some assertions and insistences are tough to reconcile with personal or societal sensibilities and choosing to avoid or go elsewhere doesn’t help us much. This week’s Gospel lesson is a good example:
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. So 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.’ Then 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then 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.’ And 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. And 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.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No 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.” (Luke 16: 1-13)
While some might try to dismiss this passage with an “everybody loves a rogue” approach and other might try to put a benevolent spin on the calculating self interest of the steward, I think Jesus is driving for something else here. Those who would “pick and choose” their Gospel lessons might be tempted to leave this one behind as unattractive or indecipherable. However, this teaching is not a single discordant note in an otherwise harmonious symphony. In fact, Jesus urges consideration of the same behaviors in other places in the Gospel narrative. In fact, this passage is reminiscent of his admonition in Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Christianity has suffered from a variety of attitudinal flaws over the years – a lot of the “selfs” (self-righteousness, self-importance, self-satisfaction, etc.), “ark” thinking (We’re on the boat and you’re not”), absolutism (We have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth) among others. One of the attitudes I have found most counterproductive is one I would call Divine Default: an attitude that God will solve all the problems of the faithful if only they believe enough. It is a mindset described succinctly in the old hymn:
Be not dismayed whate’er betide,
God will take care of you;
Beneath His wings of love abide,
God will take care of you.

God will take care of you,
Through every day, o’er all the way;
He will take care of you,
God will take care of you.

As remarkable (and possible heretical) as it may sound, I think God expects us to take care of ourselves, and God expects (if, in fact, God does any expecting) that we will use every tool at our disposal to do so effectively and efficiently including the tools of craftiness and cleverness employed by those not disposed to universal benevolence. I think that it was this reliance on self-sufficiency (and not the deceptive practices of the steward) that Jesus was praising.

Albert Bandura, a highly respected psychologist, spent much of his career developing a concept that he asserted was necessary for a healthy and well adjusted life. The concept was self-efficacy, the confidence that we are able to engage and succeed in the complex business of living. The presence of self-efficacy is, in my mind, one of the key indicators of sound mental health and maturity, and I think we have the capacity for self-efficacy for a reason.

I would never suggest that God is not able, but I suspect that being created in that divine image, we must strive to be able, too.