I heard a sermon preached on Luke 16, the parable of the Dishonest Steward on Sunday in a church in Hanoi, and I wondered what the Wisdom Tradition would say about that. My take on it was that commending the immoral steward forces the reader to let go of duality and create new relationships, which result in a Law of Three reconciling force that establishes something new in the universe. I was in Vietnam over the weekend celebrating the opening of a new campus of one of our Lutheran international schools. Communists and Christians had to forego their organizational dualistic orientations (why would atheist communists work with people of faith? why would Christians invest in a country in which the Gospel cannot be proclaimed?) and shrewdly and somewhat clandestinely establish new relationships with an “opponent.” The unforeseen result 20 years later is a different kind of Christian school in a communist country. It’s a vibrant community because of the challenges they face. Adventurers of the spirit are welcome; traditionalists need not apply! It’s come to me recently that non-reactivity seems to be the fundamental spiritual discipline. If so, then a concept like going beyond duality is not something peripheral to the story, but at at its very heart, which means texts like this have much more to teach us than we would assume. I’m wondering if the Wisdom Tradition would agree with this interpretation.
~ Marty Schmidt
What a great question, Marty—and I’ll bet you were probably the only one out there in that sea of Christian worshippers pondering the gospel in terms of the Law of Three! But your take is exactly on target, and as you suspect, the issue hinges on this question of “shrewdness.” While we often hear it as implying “immorality,” there is absolutely nothing immoral in what this clever steward brings off here. He simply skillfully assesses the situation and successfully invokes Third Force. It’s a win/win. Nobody goes to jail, everyone is relieved of debt.
Your analogy with the situation in the founding of the new school is similarly right on target. It is because people were able to let go of their identification with fixed positions or moral stances (with accompanying rhetoric) that the turf was freed up enough to start something new. And this does indeed look like something new: not quite looking like a traditional Christian school, but looking even less like a secular or communist academy. Truly, a new beginning.
I am impressed that you’ve noticed this, and are able to make the connection so skillfully with the Law of Three and the Biblical story. Yes, Jesus was advocating alert, supple presence—as he himself demonstrated on many occasions, such as when confronted with the “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” question, or the woman taken in adultery. Rather than allow himself to be backed into a corner, he skillfully assesses the possibilities already inherent in the entire moment (not just his verbal response, but what’s there before him at the material and sensate level), and responds in a way that brings surprise, embodiment, and liberation.
What if, in our age of fixed positions and inflammatory rhetoric, we could do likewise— turn those soapboxes into plowshare?
This also ties into the last question you posted here, in which you lamented that traditional spiritual practices seem to be based on celibate and sequestered models which disadvantage people busily engaged in the world. And that may indeed be where contemplative spirituality has tended to gravitate in the past. But we are in a sea-change, my friend. Do come back to this parable as often as you want to, to reaffirm to yourself that Jesus himself was not advocating permanent isolation or solitude in order to attain/maintain profound states of nondual realization. Instead, he modeled a way of working in the world skillfully and shrewdly in order to bring about compassionate change (and yeah, it grows out of maintaining a certain threshold of nondual attainment, but this is accessed through continuously renewed attention and surrender, not permanent withdrawal into specifically engineered and gated environments.) His heroes are often rogues, tricksters, and rule-breakers who nonetheless know how to get things done without hurting anybody. Those friends and relations of yours who got the new school together are the real gospel heroes in your story. And you have indeed spotted the Wisdom Jesus—caught in the act!