Monday, September 20, 2004

Sermon: Pentecost 16 - Year C

Luke 16:1-13

Let me just say right off the bat that NO ONE knows what this story is about. I must have read at least 25 sermons on this reading this week, countless commentaries, and consulted some colleagues, and no two people can agree on what this passage from Luke is all about. So then I consulted the fountain of all wisdom and the source of all knowledge - my wife Rebekah. She pointed me to a brilliant sermon she published on this text, but despite her creatively ingenious unpacking of the story, she didn’t solve the problem as much as she skillfully and imaginatively deepens the tension we have with it. I had my nose stuck in a book most of this week hoping that some of the big name scholars might be able to help me out, but all of them seemed just as lost as I was.

The problem is this: This parable makes absolutely no sense. As Willimon points out: “We teach our children to be honest, and then Jesus praises dishonesty? We teach our children to be thrifty and hard-working, and then Jesus celebrates laziness and waste? Maybe Luke dozed off while writing this one down. Maybe something is lost in the translation. Maybe, Jesus, or Luke, or the Holy Spirit put this story in the bible because it was incomprehensible, to keep us humble, lest we believe ourselves masters of scripture.”

Whatever the reason, this story is in the bible and it is the reading for the 16th Sunday of Pentecost – Year C. There is no getting around that.

But it’s clear that Jesus was warning his listeners about the perils of riches. I know what you’re thinking, I can tell by how some of your eyes are glazing over: “Yes, we get it.” You might be thinking to yourself, “Money isn’t everything. Materialism and consumerism is killing us, blah, blah, blah…” I know you’re thinking that because that’s what I was thinking last Monday when I looked up the readings for today. “Here we go again,” I thought to myself. I’m probably just as tired of talking about the dangers of money and wealth as you are probably of hearing about it.

Some of us might take Jesus’ message seriously enough to want to make radical lifestyle changes. We muse about selling off the boat, living more simply, giving more money to charity. Methodist preacher Will Willimon makes fun of our brief willingness to change our lives, “You may hear a sermon and think, ‘I’ll go home and be Mother Teresa. I won’t be materialistic anymore. I’ll pray five times daily for an hour. I’ll be a saint.’ But it won’t last past lunch time….admit it. You won’t be Mother Teresa. You’ll still be materialistic; it’s the air we breathe.”

So what do we do then? Admit defeat then move on? Maybe you’re going to brutally honest and simply say, “I’m not likely to sell all I have and give it to the poor, becoming a modern-day Francis of Assisi.” But maybe I can do what I can. Maybe I can drop some food in the food bank bin, maybe I can kick in a little more cash to Canadian Lutheran World Relief, maybe I can donate some old clothes to the Salvation Army. Is this what God wants from us? Perhaps.

But I’m not entirely sure that Jesus knows what he’s saying. In the parable, the connection isn’t totally clear between honest and dishonest wealth, and which kind of wealth Jesus was praising and which he was condemning. Why was the master happy that he just got cheated out of half what he was supposed to get back? Maybe he thought that getting half was better than getting nothing. But what then is Jesus praising? Jesus seems to be saying that scheming is a good thing, that people should be just as shrewd in sacred things as the steward was with his business dealings. But then Jesus gets angry with them for being able to effectively work the system. Then Jesus, almost out of nowhere launches into a diatribe about serving two masters. So which is it Jesus, is it a good thing to be manipulative and scheming? Or should we shun the system altogether because our loyalties might get confused? Jesus, a little more clarity would be helpful here.

But Jesus says what he says, and leaves it with that. You can almost see the puzzled looks on the peoples’ faces. Was Jesus being intentionally obtuse or did he mis-speak? What exactly is Jesus trying to say?

But we do know that this parable is about money, but he has a funny way of getting there. Jesus speaks here, and throughout Luke’s gospel about something other than the unfettered acquisition of wealth, and warns of the perils of riches. Tucked away in Luke’s gospel is some vision that life is more than money. But that, of course, is something we already know, we don’t need the Son of God to tell us that life is about more than what we possess and what we gain.

So, again, what is this story about?

This steward was manipulative; there is no getting around that, but the violation of what seems to be the right thing to do can be used in astonishing new ways by God. Jesus never spent too much time with the squeaky clean. He seemed to prefer the company of those whose lives coloured outside the lines, those who never really quite fit in inside the houses of official religion or even inside the halls of economic prosperity. But this motley crew, this gaggle of misfits, this group of nobodies became his followers and changed the world. But if we know our bible at we know we shouldn’t be surprised that God never chooses saints to do God’s work. What about Jacob the liar and the thief. Noah never saw the inside of a bottle that he couldn’t cozy up to. Moses was a murderer. What about Dorothy Day? Divorced, having had both an abortion and a child out of wedlock, sneaking back into the church, serving the poor and beginning a religious movement that remains as vibrant today as when she gathered people together in Harlem back in the 30’s. Consider Martin Luther King Jr, an adulterer and a plagiarist. Just consider you and consider me. I’ve been here long enough and I know myself well enough that none of us can claim total righteousness. None of us is wholly pure and none of us is completely saintly. The most charitable among us would say that we are, at best, a jumble of mixed motivations, a concoction of sweet wine and sour vinegar, a mishmash of both the good and the evil that stalks the world.

So maybe Jesus is telling us in a round about way that there is no clear division between clean and unclean, between good and evil, between comedy and tragedy. Maybe Jesus is saying that just as there is no such thing as clean money there is also no such things as a pure person, and that God can use us small, sinful, dishonest selves to accomplish God's work. We are mixed both with the blood of Jesus which declares us clean, and the blood of Adam and Eve which announces us broken and sinful. We are, as one writer puts, “citizens of heaven and tax-payers of earth. It’s no excuse for the trouble we get into, but it does explain our spotty record.”

So what does this story mean? I still don’t know. But what I do know is this: the world will behave shrewdly and with calculation. Perhaps Jesus is asking us to make the best of a bad situation by being shrewd and calculating ourselves, not worrying about following every rule, but daring to colour outside the lines, knowing we aren’t saints, but forgiven stewards trying to figure out how to live authentically and faithfully, serving one master who is merciful and loving and in who’s name we are saved while living with another master who asks us to be shrewd and calculating. Maybe Jesus saw just how impossible such an arrangement is. Maybe that’s why Jesus offered us a way out through his cross. Amen.


1 comment:

ATL Bling Bling said...

What a great parable!

I think its about context and power; that ethical action is impossible unless you have the correct values at your center. I think its also about little steps. Obviously the manager is no Mother Teresa; however, his actions helped him move forward.

In the parable there is the implication that Money is a poor master, and that the religion of Money values selfishness and dishonesty as shrewdness. Honesty in that realm could not be as transcendent as spritual honesty; it would merely act to preserve and administer the wealth of a rich man.

The path from serving the wrong master to serving the correct master will be seen differently by your past and future masters, for they value different things. Yet, transcending the limited value system of wealth and property, and acting ethically in the higher realm of spirituality will paradoxically lead you to acclaim in all areas of your life.

In Jesus's eyes, securing yourself welcome in the homes of the poor is good, and is compared to securing yourself welcome in gods eyes as well. Luke/Jesus do not value the masters riches, nor do they blame the sinner for the individual sins; rather, they look deeper, at the cause of the dishonesty, and blame the situation and the false values.

In some ways the parable is tame; in other ways, it is very radical. Today, property is valued differently, and ethical action is strongly associated with the protection of property. I don't know that you could apply this parable to Enron and say that the CEOs should have started giving to charities once the game was up, and that somehow that would have been the ethical action to take.

Still, it would have salvaged the situation somewhat, and allowed them to move forward in their spiritual life by leaving behind a life based on pure, unmitigated greed. Of course only god would know if they were sincere; the members of the board would see it as good PR and no more.