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  • Writer's pictureLuigi Gioia

The Battle For Honesty

"Guarding our honesty requires a great deal of shrewdness– or, to quote a sentence by Jesus, to be innocent as a dove we need to be astute as a serpent".

“Whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” (Lk 16:10)

“I am a man, in his early 40s. Pretty much my whole career has been in the financial/technical sector. I live in London.

I have a clean career slate (never been fired) up till now; the biggest minus on my career is that I've changed job on average once every two years. […] Most recently, I worked on a contract in Asia. I came back to the UK to take what I thought was the perfect job for me. I lasted 3 months. While I was at the firm, I noticed more and more cracks in the organisation - a bit of a blame culture. Anyway, after 3 months I made a rookie error - nothing malicious, but I implemented a change (to fix a long-outstanding problem) which had a big downstream impact and could have had some financial consequences. The change was approved, though I should have been more vocal with the team that I was implementing it so that any potential problems could have been rolled back. Anyway, the error was picked up but it was at a time when the whole team was under a lot of scrutiny. I fessed up immediately, and I was fired. […] I'm gutted. I've worked for more than 20 years in this industry and never been fired before. […] The job market seems to be fairly slow - though it may just be my perception - and I'm worried about falling foul of agencies. […]

The whole experience of losing my job has made me quite depressed and anxious. […] I am not sleeping well and I just feel quite low. Maybe I'm still mourning the loss of my job, but I wonder if it's also the end of a career which I loved for many years.”[1]

I thought it was important to quote this testimony in full – I read it, with few others, on a blog in which people who lost their jobs in their middle-age share their experiences and offer each other support. It fleshes out today’s Gospel. If there ever was a scriptural page in which it is necessary to fill the gaps, this is the case of the weird parable of the so called “shrewd manager” in Luke’s Gospel.

How can someone who has just been fired for squandering his master’s property be praised and re-hired for precisely doing this: bribing his boss’s clients to his own advantage?

There are signs however that we are in the presence of a form of unfair dismissal. Had the manager really been cheating his master, he would not have found himself in the position of being completely destitute on losing his job:

“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”. (xxx)

The fact that among his only options there is the prospect of having to beg, means that he has not stolen any money from his employer. It might be that he was honest but simply incompetent, or lazy. But here too, his reaction to the dismissal displays know-how, resilience, and – as we are told- shrewdness.

The shrewdness cannot possibly lie in the bribery itself though. It is far too blatant. It would have been virtually impossible that a fraud of this magnitude (halving the debtors’ bills) could escape the notice of his employer – and indeed we are told that it is unmasked immediately. It is as if this was the manager’s very purpose – that his boss should find out about the scheme. It clearly was a message to his master: “Had I really wanted to take advantage of my position -the manager seems to say- look how easily I could have done it – and if I am resorting to this now it is to prove to you that I did not do it before”. The master’s praise can be explained by the sheer panache of the way in which the manager exculpates himself not with words but with bold actions. Is it not precisely this level of quick thinking what one values in a manager? One can even guess a level of understanding between master and manager, a similar sense of humour and almost interpret the scheme as a prank.

Be as it may, who can miss the tragedy represented by being told “You cannot be my manager any longer”, “You are fired” – who cannot resonate with the prospect of suddenly finding herself or himself unemployed, unable to provide for one’s family, at an age in life when energy and motivation to bounce back have been stunted, in a competitive and unforgiving job market.

We might want to believe that this applies only to the secular work environment – to the “children of this world” as Jesus says. He implies that just as in the secular sphere people display their ability and imagination by being shrewd so Christians should be inventive and even forceful in the practice of whatever value they consider essential in a sacred sphere, be it ‘faithfulness’, ‘self-abnegation’, ‘generosity’ and the like.

Indeed the first generation of Christians seems (for a very short while) to have dreamt of retreating in bubbles where people did not have to put up with the ways and concerns of the world, where nobody ever tricked or sued or fired anybody else, power would never be an issue, wealthy people could and would dispose of their riches and share them with their less fortunate brothers and sisters, nobody would ever be dishonest or cunning. This did not last long though. One of the harshest lessons learnt by Christians within less than one generation after Jesus’ Ascension was that the world could not be kept outside their buildings because everyone carries it in their hearts, that freedom to ‘seek the kingdom of God first’ requires a lot of logistics, infrastructure, buildings, and money – and that dealings with political, social, and financial bodies are unavoidable. There can be no church without money, and without power.

Whenever and wherever money and power are part of the picture, though, -as we know- one of the most arduous challenges becomes trust. Such is their potential for corruption that nobody can safely handle them without a measure of shrewdness, that is the ability to make accurate judgments about the honesty of those who are entrusted with them, and to guess the motives of the people we interact with – both inside and outside the church. No Christian, and especially no leader, can afford to be naïve in these matters.

I will never forget an interview in which Pope Francis described himself with these words: “I think that I am naïve, but a little bit shrewd”. Brilliant isn’t it? His conduct during the whole of his life has proved that he is personally immune to the enticements of money and wealth. He is known for having declared “Who am I to judge”, for always stressing forgiveness and compassion in dealing with others from a pastoral viewpoint. And yet, as Pope, he has found himself thrusted in the hornets’ nest of corruption, money laundering, power grab, and jealously self-perpetuating establishment which the Vatican had become especially during the decades preceding his election. Only someone instinctively capable to guess people’ motives accurately, nip schemes in the bud, be immune to flattery could survive in that environment. To the intense exasperation of his opponents, Pope Francis has proved able to keep his cards close to his chest, to eschew filters between him and the outside world. People who work with him say that it is virtually impossible to determine who, if anyone, is really close to him. He has not allowed any secretary to become a gateway between others and himself as with his predecessors. Sometimes he will tell one of his secretaries 'so-and-so is arriving in a few minutes' and that is the first they hear of it. Sometimes he tells one without telling the other. This gives him freedom to bypass rigid channels of communication and makes it impossible for anyone to become indispensable[2].

This is the length to which someone has to go sometimes for the sake of the Kingdom of God!

In the midst of all this, the crucial thing is a jealous, dogged commitment on our part to preserve absolute honesty. There never is any however small acceptable level of dishonesty. A little dishonesty is full dishonesty:

"Whoever is faithful in a very little – says Jesus- is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much”. (Lk 16.10)

Guarding our honesty requires a great deal of shrewdness– or, to quote a sentence by Jesus, to be innocent as a dove we need to be astute as a serpent (Mt 10.16).

Jesus wants Christians to be innocent, to behave with absolute fairness in whatever they do. He warns us that money and power can and will attempt to bring the worst out of human nature and that no amount of wariness is ever enough in dealing with them. Sometimes the pressure to lose our way will be enormous. Then we will have to remember that even the most trivial or casual act of dishonesty will catch up with us in the end – it is not worth it.

No wealth, position, or achievement will ever give us the comfort that comes from being able to look at ourselves in the mirror without needing to avert our gaze.


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