This week's scriptures; which are Daniel 3 and Luke 16:1-13, raise some really interesting questions.
Jesus' parable seems to praise a dishonest man. It has made the groups I've discussed it with very uncomfortable. Everybody casts about to find a way of looking at this story that will make it okay. One way that some folks have done it is to define the money that the 'dishonest manager' gives back as his commission (assuming of course that he worked on commission-which wasn't unusual).
On the other hand, I like to think of this as one of those stories, popular in most cultures, of crafty guys who get the better of other crafty guys. I think Jesus' audience would have found it hilariously funny.....kind of like watching the movie The Sting, except funnier. The rich man is put into a position where folks are going to look at him (because of his 'generosity' created by the manager's behavior) as a hero. His level of "honor" (a huge thing in this culture) is going to go WAY up. He's totally boxed in. He's been had. Now, to admit that he's been had will drop his honor level; and if he goes back on the new terms of debt that the manager has arranged, he'll be lucky to escape with his life....not to mention that he'll be thought of as a rotten guy and a spoiled sport to boot.
It's almost like Jesus is saying, "These are the games the world plays. If you're gonna live in the world, you better know what the games are and how to play them." Do I think there are ethical limits? Of course. This is what Jesus was driving at when He told us to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves." There is a line; and each of us needs to find it.
The story in Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is about drawing one of those lines.
Remember that Daniel is, in part, a "handbook" for young Jewish men about how to survive in exile, in Babylon. These three have done more than survive. They have risen in the ranks. This is apparently part of what draws the ire of the Chaldeans who brought word of their refusal to bow down and worship the Golden Image. These foreigners were successful. Maybe they'd even gotten promoted over these 'home town boys.'
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow down. Live or die, they say, it ain't gonna happen. Whether their God saves them or not (look at verses 16-18), they just aren't going to do it.
When we put these two passages together, we can get a picture of a freedom we have to be "in the world, but not of it." We make our livings in the world. But when we are called on to "bow down" to some "image" of the gods of this world; that's where we are called on to draw the line.
I can't tell you what your line should be. I can certainly make a case for not "bowing" to the extreme examples. But each of us faces in our life questions about who we will serve. For example, many of my Quaker friends and family refuse to serve in the military. They believe that God has called them to a life of non-violence, and that to engage in military violence is to "bow" before the gods of nationalism, violence, and hatred. In fact, the Anabaptist tradition from which we come (Quakers, Mennonites, Baptists, etc.) has generally opposed violence in any form. However, some Baptists have felt differently.
Where ever we are, whatever we chose, however we draw that line....the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abendnego tells us that we will not be alone. There was Someone....the Great Someone....in the furnace with them. Now this does not mean we will always be rescued. Believers have died for where they drew the line in every generation. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were clear, 'if our God rescues us-fine. If our God does not rescue us....we still will not bow down.
The challenge for us is being attentive to the times we are being asked to "bow down" and to find the courage to say, "No."