PROPER 20, C, 2019
Sometimes words just sound biblical. Even if you cannot place the phrase chapter and verse, it seems nonetheless biblicalish: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud.” “This too shall pass.” “The Lord moves in mysterious ways.” You don’t have to know chapter and verse to know the source. In case you, like me, like most Episcopalians, don’t know chapter and verse of every bible quote someone spits out, the first is from John 3:8; the second from Romans 12:16. No one quite knows where the third is from, but it’s not actually in the Bible. The notion of its biblicalness can be traced to football coach Mike Ditka’s misquote at his press conference after the Chicago Bears fired him. As to the last, The Lord moves in mysterious ways – we actually have poet and hymnodist William Cowper rather than Jesus to thank for that one. From Jesus we have instead, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes”, Given everything that Jesus teaches before and after, this sounds not only NOT biblical, but mysterious indeed.
This parable follows the lost chapter we discussed last week – the lost coin, the lost sheep and the prodigal son. 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. We’ve gone from the lost chapter to the insoluble parable. 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 reaching 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 due to its exploitative nature. 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 that law by rolling the number that would have been interest 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% price hike. “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. What they could never keep up with. What kept them perpetually beholden. The steward forgives their debts -forgives their debts in the name of the Master. Suddenly it seems bit more biblical.
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. 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 is more Robin Hood than Jesus. But forgiveness – that is Jesus. That is so very Jesus.
Anglican scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer explains it this way,
“FORGIVE,” Jesus says. “Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all. Forgive even someone who’s sinned against you, or against your sense of what is obviously right. You don’t have to do it out of love for the other person, if you’re not there yet. You could forgive the other person because that’s what you pray in Jesus’ name every Sunday morning, and because you know you’d like forgiveness yourselves. You could forgive because you know what it feels like to stay unforgiving, the bad taste of bitterness festering inside you. You could forgive because you are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus’ power to forgive and free sinners like us. Or you could forgive because you think it will improve your odds of getting to heaven.
It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Imagine how extending the kind of grace God shows us into every possible arena – financial and moral – can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace. (Sarah Dylan Breuer, SarahLaughed.net: dylan’s lectionary blog, Proper 20, Year C)
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 and disrupted worship and overturned the money tables and 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.”
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 forgive radically – 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 the status quo and forgive. 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.