“I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” This comment by the character we call the “dishonest steward” in today’s gospel reading is for me a profound statement of the difficulty we face in our lives as human beings in our world. This is the statement that sort of stood out in bold print as I read this parable from Luke’s gospel this week. There is a sense of genuineness to this statement, even though the rest of the parable that surrounds this statement is filled with deception and greed.
In the parable Jesus tells the story of a manager who worked for a rich man and who was being accused by his boss of “squandering his money.” It’s interesting to note that the Greek word that is translated as “squander” here is the same word that is used in the parable immediately preceding this one. That is the parable of the “Prodigal Son” in which the younger son “squanders” his inheritance.
In today’s parable, the manager is in a fix. He’s about to lose his livelihood and he has no other acceptable way to make a living; he is not strong enough to dig and too ashamed to beg. So he ingratiates himself to his bosses debtors by settling all their debts well below their face value. He does this in order to set himself up for some free meals once he gets fired by the boss.
And here is where the whole thing gets tricky. In the parable, Jesus tells us that his boss commended him for acting shrewdly. And then Jesus us gives this advice, “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.” If any of you can tell me what that means, please do. I have all afternoon.
But again, as I have read and reread this passage from Luke this week, the phrase that has stood out for me has been the manager’s self-assessment as he faces his dilemma. “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” It is the most honest sentence in the entire reading and I believe it speaks a profound truth, because it speaks of our own innermost insecurities, our greatest fears. Our weakness and our shame.
Even though we know at some level that we are loved beyond measure, we still spend so much of our physic and spiritual energy dealing with the weakness and shame that seems to be an integral part of who we fear we are. “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” To acknowledge the truth of this statement is to take a huge step towards living a life that is free from what the statement says. To say that “I am weak and I feel shame” is very possibly, even very likely, the first step in moving forward from that very weakness and shame. To admit this truth about ourselves is to become vulnerable, and contrary to what we may think or intuit, movement towards vulnerability is movement towards strength.
Popular writer and researcher Brene Brown has done a great deal of work in the area of shame and vulnerability. She has written several books on the subject but first became well known through a couple of Ted Talks that she gave not that many years ago.
In them, she described her research in the area of vulnerability as seeking and finding those people who have a strong sense of love and belonging. She wanted to know what it was that made them the way they are, and to discover what they had in common. Here’s what she had to say. “They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating… They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, ‘I love you’ first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.”
What Dr. Brown is describing here is risk taking, especially in terms of a willingness to live lives of authentic connectivity to ourselves, each other, and to God. What that risk taking can lead to is a life of courage and whole-heartedness. It is not safe, or at least it doesn’t feel safe, but it is ultimately the most rewarding way we can live.
Is it possible that it is mainly our shame that can most separate us from God? Isn’t this what the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit is telling us? When God appeared in the garden looking for Adam and Eve after their encounter with the serpent God asked, “Where are you?” Adam answered “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” God responded to this by saying, “Who told you that you were naked?”
God asked what was the origin of Adam’s shame, even though God knew the answer. If it is weakness and shame that separates us from God, then it is weakness and shame that is our sin, and that means that sin is not bad behavior stemming from arrogance or pride. Sin is our hidden vulnerability, that which we fear to expose. When we can create a world of love and acceptance where we can be free of the fear of exposure, we recreate Eden, we come closer to ushering in God’s kingdom, which is why Jesus said he came.
And this gets us back to that puzzling comment when Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth…” It sounds like Jesus is saying to ingratiate yourself to others by means of passing around ill-begotten gains. But that sounds pretty un-Jesus like to me. Maybe he’s saying something different. Maybe making friends by means of dishonest wealth means acting as if we have things that we don’t actually have. Maybe it means being brave when we are afraid or being vulnerable when we are feeling the need to isolate. Maybe it means we need to “fake it ‘till we make it” by doing things like praying when our faith is weak and we feel distant or disconnected from God.
Maybe behaving as if we love a stranger for whom we feel no sense of sentimental warmth actually has something to do with justice rather than charity.
It is axiomatic that we can’t think our way into good actions but we can act our way into good thinking. When we walk in love, when we “walk the walk,” even when we’re not “feeling the love” we are laying the foundation for building God’s kingdom.
Let us walk this walk together, knowing that none of us are alone in our weakness, and that in community with each other and with God, we can bring about a different kind of world all together.
 Brown, Brene. “Transcript of “The Power of Vulnerability”” Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability. Ted.com, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.