Proper 20, C
Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
As we join our Gospel action today, Jesus is sketching another parable for the disciples. He’s been on a run of them – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and He has just completed what was to become the best known of all his parables, the story of the Prodigal Son – that beautiful story of forgiveness and all-encompassing love. He moves from that pinnacle of story weaving to spin today’s offering.
Accused of dishonesty and facing dismissal, too old for manual labor and too proud to beg, a rich man’s manager devises a new scheme. Hoping to guarantee friends for himself in his upcoming indigence, he arranges hefty unauthorized discounts on the debts owed to his master, ensuring that the debtors know who to thank for their unexpected windfall. So far a pretty typical self-interested villain story. The master returns. Instead of sacking him, the master commends the steward for his cleverness. Lest we think the master somehow had the wool pulled over his eyes, Jesus confirms the affirmation, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
So sorry the kids aren’t up here for the sermon today, ‘cause “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” is just exactly the take home message I’d like them to leave church with.
If you read a half a dozen commentaries on this parable, you will find at least a dozen interpretations of it. It’s that baffling. For the moment, we are going to resist the temptation to assume that Jesus sprained a parable spinning muscle with the Prodigal Son and simply went wildly astray with this story. We are going to further, for the moment, put aside the attractive idea that the meticulous Luke got his notes out of order somehow. Finally, we are going to reject the simple and entirely plausible notion that some scribe some time in history overindulged in mead before he got to this page and in an alcoholic haze inadvertently altered the sacred word forever. Eliminating these explanations leaves us with one simple question…“Huh?” Is Jesus really telling us to cheat and steal our way into eternal life?
If all else fails, take a look at the context. Back we go to Jewish first century Palestine. The torah forbids charging interest. It is understood to be exploitative. Respectable people (like the manager’s rich master, for example) must abide by the letter of that law. Abiding by the letter of the law is what respectable people do. Ah, but a person’s got to make a living, right? Witness the attitude Amos illustrates in our first lesson today: Can’t work on the Sabbath? When will worship end so we can get back to selling? Not making a profit? Change the value of the ephah and the shekel, the currency. Torah says you can’t charge interest? You get around the law about charging interest by rolling the number into the total debt. No itemized bill, no interest – sort of like adding the gratuity to the bill for large parties in a restaurant. And while it wasn’t technically interest, it was a standardized rate – higher for the more risky commodities, lower for more stable things. Olive oil, which can spill or go rancid, fetched 50%. Take your hundred jug bill and make it 50. The more stable wheat fetched 20%. You owe 100 containers of wheat? Make it 80. (source: Alyce McKenzie, The Dishonest Steward: Reflections on Luke 16:2-8a) While the steward’s motives are far from philanthropic, he gives back to the debtors only what they should never have owed. Rather than bemoaning his losses, the master commends the manager – possibly for finally showing the cleverness the master thought he was hiring in the first place.
But still we wait for Jesus to tell us why the manager was wrong, how the master was duped. We are respectable Christians following respectable rules doing our respectable Christian thing. Surreptitiously redistributing the wealth of others doesn’t fit into our notion of What Would Jesus Do.
Fr. Robert Capon (Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus) makes the case that although we – and by “we” I mean the church; the fine, upstanding, respectable church – that although we cannot resist the urge to gussy up Jesus, to make him respectable and clean and pretty, Jesus tells this parable precisely to illustrate that He most definitively, deliberately, decidedly is not respectable. He broke the sabbath and ate with sinners. He disrupted worship and overturned the money tables. He was executed as a criminal. He’s not respectable. He’s down and dirty and real.
According to Fr. Capon, “The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing–which is the only grace there is.”
“For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human” Jesus came. To live. To die. One of us. With us. Like us. Sometimes, we forget the living part. The psalmist says, “He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” We might be willing to help God’s purpose, but we want to look around and make sure nobody gets the wrong idea if we should jump down in that ash heap.
I don’t believe that Jesus intends us to steal. He was pretty insistent a number of times about that whole 10 Commandments thing. But he does expect us to throw off the yoke of respectable, predictable behavior, to creatively challenge the status quo of power and wealth differential, to jump into that ash heap and lift up the needy so that so “that we [all] may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” – no matter who might be looking or what they might think. As Mother Theresa reminded her nuns, “In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
“You cannot serve God and wealth”. You cannot serve Christ and respectability.
To paraphrase William Purkey:
You’ve gotta serve like there’s nobody watching,
Forgive like you’ve never been hurt,
Pray like God’s always listening,
And live to bring heaven on earth.