Sermon for 15th Sunday after Pentecost 2019
Amos 8:4-7 Psalms 113
I Timothy 2:1-7 Luke 16:1-13
A rabbi and a priest get into a car accident and it's a bad one. Both cars are totally demolished, but amazingly, neither are hurt. They crawl out of their cars and the rabbi sees the priest's collar and says, "So you're a priest. I'm a rabbi. Just look at our cars. There's nothing left but we are unhurt. This must be a sign from God. God must have meant that we should meet and be friends and live together in peace the rest of our days." And the priest said, "I agree with you completely. This must be a sign from God." And the rabbi said, "and look at this. Here's another miracle. My car is completely demolished but this bottle of Mogen David wine didn't break, surely God wants us to drink this wine and celebrate our good fortune. And so he handed the bottle to the priest. The priest said he agreed, took a few big swigs, and handed the bottle back to the rabbi. The rabbi took the bottle, didn't drink at all, put the cap on, and handed it back to the priest. The priest asked, "aren't you going to have any?" And the rabbi replied, "No . . . I think I'll just wait for the police."
I love a good story. A story that draws us in, that brings emotions out of us, that surprises us. A parable is simply a story that illustrates a moral or religious lesson. The strength of parable as a way of teaching is that it is the people’s story. A parable is a grassroots lesson connecting the ordinariness of life with the extraordinary nature of God. Parables are usually gifts of clear insight into God’s choices for our lives.
Luke used parables as an important vehicle for Jesus. They demonstrate the interplay between tradition and Jesus’ immediate and transparent dependence on God. They are attuned to the deep connection between spiritual things and natural things. Almost all of the parables illustrate one truth or another about the kingdom of God. They are also a wonderful way for Jesus to teach the importance of responding to the presence of God.
But today’s parable is hard to read and understand. We are left to struggle for meaning. Why would Jesus make an example for godly living so unsavory? The parable presents someone whose life is the complete opposite of everything Christ ever taught as the model of our faith. But can’t we relate to some of what he feels. He is so human, so self oriented, self absorbed. Jesus weaves a story where the main character is a shyster – a lazy, conniving, self-centered manager of someone else’s treasure. He is out for personal gain. He is out to save his own skin. We listeners are on the edge of our seats because we want to see this scoundrel get what is coming to him. But when the master speaks, we are shocked.
While this is a compelling story, the ending is anything but satisfying. Instead of being defeated, the scoundrel wins. His plan succeeds. His former boss, the one whose estate he has mismanaged, now praises him for being so clever. We sigh in disbelief that the manager does not get his due. The lesson is lost. Adding insult to injury, there is one last surprise. The parable ends by saying: The scoundrel gets it…. Believers do not.
But Jesus isn’t falling for it. Jesus turned conventional wisdom upside down, always teaching an alternative. He was working against the flow, against culture. He did say, “Give and it will be given to you. A full measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put in your lap,” but somehow those who use this verse to talk about how much God will give God’s followers forgot how the verse ends, “for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38).
With this in mind, let’s see if we can better understand the parable. The rich landowner probably lived away from his property managed by our steward. Maybe he lived in a cosmopolitan Mediterranean city. He has been told that the steward is robbing him blind. So, he summons the steward and gives him his two-week notice, requiring him to produce the books with a hint of “they had better balance or you are not going to just lose your job, but you’re going to jail.” The steward is a realist. “What will I do…? I’m not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg” (Luke 16:3). He has a little time to make a plan.
What the steward decided to do is intriguing, and the source of much confusion. He called in those who owed the boss money (measured in oil and wheat – remember this is a farming economy) and had them, in their own handwriting, help him, “clean up” the books. Brilliant. Not only does he make the debtors very happy, but he also keeps himself out of jail. By reducing the amount owed on the books, he seems to be erasing the amount he has stolen, while simultaneously reducing the amount owed by the debtors. Everyone is happy except the rich master, but he probably got a nice tax break on the loss.
It is the moment of reckoning that confuses us. We can understand why the steward and the debtors would be pleased with the changes. But how do we make sense of the master’s response: “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly” (Luke 16:8)?
With the end in mind, the manager redeemed whatever he could about his present situation. He understood that, to be where he wanted to be in the future, how he handled today counted. Solomon wrote in his proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). The parable of the dishonest manager speaks especially to Christians or communities who have lost the vision of the larger picture. Who are the people of God? What have we been called to do? When we have no idea where we are going, the treasures in front of us are hardly treasures at all; they are simply things, things that have no larger value beyond our own need for them. These things too easily become objects to be used, misused, and manipulated. These things too easily separate us from others, from a community.
I am reminded of Jesse’s story. Jesse was a cancer survivor, who began to have some difficulty. She had suffered an obstruction from adhesions caused by her radiation treatment years before. The pain was severe and she realized the significance of it. She packed a bag and drove herself the twenty-five miles to the hospital. She had to pull over several times to throw up. She finally made it to the hospital. Later, she was asked why she didn’t call a friend to help her. She said that it was the middle of the day and all her friends were working. She spent the next day in the emergency room alone. When asked why she didn’t call anyone then, she said, “Why would I call anyone, none of my friends know a thing about intestinal obstruction.”
She had looked for expertise, when perhaps she needed a connection. She had wanted a solution for the pain, when she could have had a hand to hold to share the pain. Having someone with her would not have helped the pain, but it surely would have helped the loneliness. Perhaps that is what we see as a redeeming aspect of this parable. The shrewd manager was taking care of himself, but his behavior also impacted those who were in debt. The greater good was addressed as he struggled with his misconduct.
A slightly different way to read the text involves looking at the folks in the crowd. The crowd to whom Jesus addresses this parable includes Pharisees, “lovers of money,” leaders of the chosen people, keepers of the treasures of God, they were like the dishonest steward. They had traded their call to be God’s people to become servants of the treasures of the present day. Controlled by wealth, by money, even complacency, they had blended into society and lost their vision. To these folks, Jesus says something like - “You can either serve this present age and love its treasures, or you can love and serve God. But you cannot do both. One leads to death. The other leads to life.”
However we interpret the role of the unjust steward, children who walk in the light of the Lord, understand this: We not only are entrusted with the vision of the kingdom of heaven; we are given its treasures! Even in the present age, with the imperfect treasures of this world, we are stewards of God. However we use what we have before us, we should use our gifts in light of our eternal relationship with God.
The parable warns that the children have lost that eternal perspective of who God is and who we are in relationship with God. Too easily we separate life as it is now from life in the future kingdom. Not long ago, we shouted at Easter, “He is alive!” but already we are whispering our faith because we are not quite sure what we believe anymore.
Perhaps, somewhere in the middle of our journey we stopped living for Christ. We stopped believing that Jesus died and was resurrected and that life was made new. Somewhere along the way it became easy to serve all those pressing demands of people, schedules, money. Somewhere along the way, the vision of God’s call became distant, cloudy and muddled. We stopped hearing God’s voice and joined the “self-centered winner-take-all I’m gonna get all that I can” mentality. Somewhere along the way, the challenges seemed so much bigger than the answers. So, we huddled in an effort to save whatever was left and forgot about living for something greater. We buried our treasures.
This is the crisis that Jesus addresses in his parable. The children of light have lost the vision for God. It is easy to grow complacent about responsibilities God gives us. The parable is a call to reclaim who we are and to renew our vision today for the kingdom of God among us and beyond us.” What is it that we hold onto? What is it that we need to entrust to God, so that our lives, our service can go on? What is it that we need to acknowledge to reclaim our vision, to reclaim our place as children of the light? J.C. Rule wrote, “ No one ever said at the end of his days. ‘I have read my Bible too much. I have thought of God too much. I have prayed too much. I have been too careful with my soul.” What do you say? Amen.