Lectionary 25 + Year C
Sunday, September 22, 2019
Text: Luke 16:1-13
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Many years ago, in my internship congregation, I was teaching confirmation class. I had a group of about a dozen kids, and during that session I gave them scriptures to read. The class obediently obeyed my instructions and soon the class of 7th and 8th graders, sitting in a large circle, were quietly reading their bibles.
As a good teacher, I thought I would circulate around the room as they read, maybe the readings would spark a question among the kids that I could answer. So I walked through the room, and came to the far end of the room where one of the quietest, though not necessarily one of the smartest, boys sat with the bible in his lap quietly reading.
But as I approached him, and looked more closely, I realized that while it looked like he was reading the bible, he was not reading the bible, he was reading instead the book he had put inside of his bible.
Instead of the Holy Scriptures, he was reading Harry Potter. Now in that moment, I have to admit, a part of me was amused. It was pretty good, he was pretty sneaky. He had me fooled, and if I hadn’t walked around the room, I might have never known.
I thought of that story as I thought about this Gospel reading for today.
This strange Gospel reading that made 10 Lutheran pastors this week in text study, scratch our heads, search desperately for relevant meaning in this text, and consider skipping it all together and preach instead on the second reading.
What’s going on in this gospel story? This story told by Jesus, in which the manager who has squandered the owner’s property and who must give an accounting for himself, went about lowering the debtor’s accounts so that when he gets fired for misconduct, one of the debtors might feel sorry for him and take care of him.
This story that ends with this dishonest manager, who has worked against the economic interests of his boss – being commended by his boss, for actions which actually cheated the boss out of his property!
What do we do with this Gospel reading today?
What I believe is helpful, is to begin by breaking this gospel reading into two parts. I encourage you to grab your bulletin, look at the gospel reading, and find verse 8. Verse 8 begins: “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”
Some scholars believe that is where the story, as originally told by Jesus, ended. That’s the parable.
The rest of the reading, verses 8b that begins “for the children of this age are more shrewd …” and through verse 13, are attempts by later Christian community to try and figure out just what in the world Jesus was talking about.
So the first half, up to the first half of verse 8 is the parable as told by Jesus, beginning with the second half of verse 8, are later moralizations by Christian community attempting to place some meaning onto this challenging story. There are three meanings that early Christian community attached to this parable.
First, right there in verse 8, is the commendation that the disciples in proclaiming the kingdom of God, act as shrewdly and cleverly as people in the world. If we back up to the beginning of the parable, we find that Jesus told this parable to the disciples, not to the crowds, not to the Pharisees & Scribes, but to the disciples as if instructing them how to live in the world.
The disciples were given permission by Jesus to be as clever, as shrewd, as creative in proclaiming the kingdom of God, as people in the world were clever, shrewd, and creative in pursuing other things.
A second meaning attached to the parable, recorded in verse 10, is more like a proverb: Whoever is faithful in little is faithful in much, whoever is dishonest in little is dishonest in much.
This approach turns our attention to the ways in which we manage our possessions, with some scholars reminding us that each of us is only the manager of our possessions – none of us own even what we own – it all belongs to God. This parable becomes a story of stewardship, and that each one of us as managers must one day give an account of how we have managed what God has given to us to manage.
A third meaning is found in verse 13: No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Is that what this story is about? That each of us must finally choose whether we place God as priority in our lives … or whether we choose to prioritize something else … money, possessions, status, accomplishments?
I have to confess, it seems to me that these three explanations by early Christian community, is like they were throwing multiple explanations on the wall to see which one sticks. That they were trying to tidy up, and make neat and clean, a messy situation that rattles us, shakes us, and disrupts our thinking.
To truly find the life-giving message in this parable, here’s what I propose.
I propose instead of looking for meaning at the three moralizations tacked on to the end, we look instead to the three parables that precede it.
The three parables, recorded in Luke Chapter 15, are these:
- the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep in search of the 1 lost sheep
- the woman sweeping the house for her one lost coin
- and then the largest part of Luke 15 is the story of the prodigal son, the son who squandered the inheritance and returned home penniless to a loving father.
Central to each of those stories is a foolishness, a very real financial foolishness that leaves us scratching our heads. The shepherd risks losing 99 sheep to search for one lost sheep … he woman lights the lamps and spends one coin searching for one lost coin … the fatted calf killed for the sake of the son who lost the inheritance …
None of those stories make economic sense to our western capitalistic ears: Why risk the entire flock for the sake of the one lost sheep? Why spend a coin searching for a coin? Why reward a son who squandered the inheritance? Why commend a dishonest manager for squandering property?
These stories don’t make sense – but what they each do, is lead us out of our logic, and reasoning, and paradigms of right and wrong. What they each do is proclaim, and lead us into, the shocking grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Each of those stories proclaim the heart of our faith: God, in Christ Jesus, pours out unconditional grace and love to sinners! God in Christ Jesus emptied himself on the cross, eliminating any and all of our debts, from the cross proclaiming welcome – welcoming sinners home into the eternal home that is the kingdom of God!
Maybe Jesus wanted this parable to have no simple and easy explanation? Maybe Jesus wanted this parable to shake us out of our certainties, to stop us in our tracks, to free us from bondage to our preconceived notions, and to liberate us for life lived in the lavish grace and mercy of God?
Maybe this parable, just like the ones before it, proclaim the foolishness of God who in Christ Jesus pursues the lost, offers reconciliation with sinners, and rejoices when sinners return home.
This reminds me of another story … of the time as a boy my grandparents took their eight grandchildren from Iowa on a weekend road trip 5 hours down the road to Kansas City. On Saturday morning we ate breakfast at a restaurant and our server was objectively the worst server I have ever experienced: grouchy, disinterested, moody, we had to ask for things multiple times and when she brought them she plopped them down on the table without even looking at us.
At the end of the meal when she brought the check, my grandfather left a 20% tip!
My oldest cousin and I both looked at my grandfather. We protested. She doesn’t deserve a tip! Why are you leaving a 20% tip?!?!?
In response to our protests, our stubborn (he called himself strong willed) German grandfather didn’t change his mind. Instead he told us: We don’t know what’s going on in her life, but we know she’s having a bad day. Let’s help her out.
From our sense of right and wrong that 20% tip made no sense. She didn’t deserve it! But yet, in God’s grace, and God’s mercy, and God’s love, maybe that’s exactly what she needed on that day. In response to that tip, one she probably knew she didn’t deserve, I’ve often wondered about the service she gave the next family.
God’s amazing grace, announced in the mercy and forgiveness of Christ doesn’t make sense. God’s forgiveness of our sins, God’s forgiveness of heinous and awful sins … God’s forgiveness of people we find it impossible, reckless, or even dangerous to forgive … is in fact, at the end of the day, foolish, and impossible to believe, isn’t it?
But in this parable today, read alongside the three parables that come before it, we enter into the mystery of God who in Jesus dying on the cross risks it all, who lays it all on the line, who gives everything that God is as Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, to us who are sinners!
To us, dishonest managers we are, who have squandered what we’ve been given. To us, to you and to me, commended not because we are perfect and right, but commended because in God’s great, and merciful, and shocking love, we have been named and claimed as God’s beloved children forever!
Thanks be to God!