Pr. Michelle Sevig
September 21/22, 2019
Middle Management Service
Is anyone here a manager? Or a middle manager? I wish I’d known that yesterday, I could have given you a call and done an interview. Instead I turned to Google because I have zero management experience, unless you count household management. 😊
Google directed me to an article in The Atlantic titled The Secret Suffering of the Middle Manager. It names the woes of middle management because it occupies what the researchers call a “contradictory-class location”: Middle managers have higher wages and more autonomy than the workers they manage, but they earn less than their superiors and don’t get to make big decisions. Middle managers often must enforce strategic policies from the top—ones they didn’t develop—on subordinates who might object to those policies. Basically, middle managers have the stressful task of absorbing the discontent of both sides.
Now today’s parable from the Gospel of Luke is often called the parable of the dishonest manager, but I think we should rename it the parable of the middle manager. This guy was absorbing the discontent of both sides—the rich guy who owned the land and the farmers who were required to give a portion of their crops to the owners.
I didn’t know much about how the system worked back then until I watched a video by preacher and theologian Brian McLaren. So I’m going to tell you a little bit about what I learned this week about how the system worked.
The Roman empire occupied the whole territory and they exploited the natural resources and its people. They required everyone to pay taxes, even the poor farmers who had lived on the land forever. But when the farmers couldn’t pay their taxes, the Judeans offered to help and paid their taxes in exchange for the deed to their farmland in Galilee. They promised the farmers they’d get to stay on the land and farm it as long as they gave a portion each year to the owners, so the owners could make a profit in Judea and pay the Romans the taxes. The rich owners sent mid-level managers to collect the products.
The manager was caught in the middle. And once he wasn’t getting a big enough return on the rich guy’s investment, he was expendable. The middle manager was caught within a flawed system where the rich man’s profits were the main concern. He was expendable to the rich guy in the economic pyramid of power and privilege.
And in a bold and fascinating move of self-preservation, the middle manager in today’s story works within the system to cut deals with the rich man’s debtors. He sets up honor for himself, so he’ll have some friends later once he’s dismissed, and in the process, he provides honor for his boss too.
And surprisingly, the middle guy is commended for acting so shrewdly. His shrewdness, or street smarts, or creativity when caught between a rock and hard place in a system that was unjust for everyone, ended up helping not only himself, but also the poor farmers who were being crippled by an unjust system. Jesus teaches us through this middle manager that instead of using dishonest means to exploit others we are to act shrewdly (wisely) to build relationships. This is how the kin-dom of God works. It overturns hierarchies. It shatters old rules of power and positions. It creates new relationships that last forever.
Remember in the beginning when I asked if anyone here was a middle manager? Well in some ways we all are. We are tasked with the responsibility to act shrewdly in God’s kin-dom. We are to calculate the cost, the risk and the options, like the middle manager did, working within a flawed system so that all find honor, have hope, and a more just life.
And it’s not always about money. Sure, this parable is and it’s important to talk about money and our relationship to it; how we use it, share it, worship it. But this parable and Jesus’ interpretation of it showed the disciples who knew the Roman system of oppression well, how to turn it on its head and make everything different in the economy of God’s world.
“Whoever has been faithful in little has been faithful in much,” Jesus says. We are to care for what has been entrusted to us. We must care for the most vulnerable among us now. The erroneous belief that wealth and worldly success will cure what ails us needs to come to an end. This parable gives us a wake-up call to examine our roles in oppressive systems.
I’ve been learning over time that I certainly have not been faithful in much, especially when it comes to my own racism. (that’s a big jump, but hear me out here.) We have let the empire lull us into complacency and inaction for far too long. But now the church, our church, The ELCA and Holy Trinity are taking some bold steps—shrewd steps—to recognize and rise up against a flawed system of racism that fuels poverty, lack of education, poor physical and mental healthcare, housing insecurities, food deserts, and so much more. Next weekend we begin a new initiative to help us discern and enact a plan for the future, so we can begin the hard work or living fully into God’s kin-dom.
The list of what we middle managers have not been faithful to is long, but that does not mean there isn’t movement toward change. Millions, maybe even some of you, left work and school yesterday [Friday] to march against climate change. Led by Greta Thunberg and other young people of this world, we must be lulled out of our complacency to act now for the healing of the earth, because it is the people on the margins who suffer the most from increasing floods in some areas and droughts and failed crops in others.
Let us imagine Jesus talking to us today about the systems (or empires) that oppress us and those around us. How can we middle-managers act shrewdly today to give honor to the earth? To challenge a system that works against our black and brown siblings? To welcome the stranger standing at our border, people who have risked everything out of their own desperation for a better life?
This parable of the middle manager reminds us that the greedy pursuit of wealth creates far more problems than it solves and separates us from the love that does not let us go. We are all in desperate need of hope and healing, and of being re-membered and reconnected to the God who cradles the earth with tenderness and loves us with a love stronger than death. Here in this place, at this font and table, we have the chance week after week to recommit our lives to middle management service.