So, Is This Stuff Supposed to Make Sense?
Lectionary Texts: Jeremiah 8: 18-9:1 / Luke 16: 1-13
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, September 18, 2016
- It’s Just Not Fair
When I was little, I was convinced that I was treated so unfairly. I was the oldest, 3 ½ years older than Donnie, so in my mind I should have gotten things first, right? And more of them? It just seemed only fair. I mean that’s the order that things are supposed to be, right? I remember one Christmas. I must have been about ten years old. I wanted a ten-speed bicycle so badly. I did all the right things to make sure that there was no doubt that’s what I wanted. I imagine my parents heard it more times than they really cared to hear it. But I had to make sure. It was time. It was my rite of passage.
Well, we went over to my grandparents late on Christmas Eve. There was an excitement as we were all ushered into the living room. There it was. My beautiful, yellow-gold ten-speed bike. And there beside it was one for my brother. I was crushed. I was older. I had waited. I had worked on it. That was not fair!
I think I actually spent a lot of my childhood voicing my opinion that something was not fair. It used to really make me anger when my mother would respond with, “Well, Shelli, life is not fair!” What kind of answer is THAT? That’s REALLY not fair!
The truth is, we all sort of have this assumed construct of what is right and fair in our lives and in our world. We know what the rules are because, frankly, we’re the ones that made them. And we want things to be fair, particularly when they affect us. After all, that’s the only thing that makes sense.
- So, This Parable Doesn’t Even Make Sense!
So, what is Jesus thinking when he tells this parable? This is not his usual style. We like those clear cut parables that depict the good and the bad, the right way to do things and the wrong way, the way to God and the way away from God. But most agree that this is the strangest, most confusing, most disconcerting story that he told. The proof of that is that there is even disagreement in what scholars over time have chosen to call it. For instance, you will see it called both “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward’ AND “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager”, among other titles. How can it be both?
Well, the manager was accused right at the onset of being dishonest (or at least incredibly careless) with the owner’s property. The owner wanted to see an accounting of all the transactions that the manager had handled. So the manager sort of goes into a panic. It doesn’t say that he was ready to defend himself, so maybe he HAD been dishonest or maybe he KNEW he wasn’t that good a manager in the first place. But he knows that he’s not strong enough to dig for a living and he’s too ashamed to beg. He had to figure out something else. So, he goes to Plan B. He calls his boss’s biggest debtors and he forgives a portion of what they owed. They would pay less and he would be in their good graces. Win-Win! Maybe this would even secure a job for him.
So he was probably expecting his boss be absolutely furious and fire him on the spot. And that’s probably what most of us were expecting the first time we heard the story. After all, he had really pretty much given away part of his boss’s earnings. But in a shocking turn, the owner commends him. And Jesus tells the parable like we should too. So, is this stuff supposed to make sense?
Well, first of all, we need some context. Jewish law did not allow interest to be charged on debts. So, that would have been illegal. So wealthy landowners tried to get as much profit as possible from their holdings and their tenants by sort of padding the amounts owed. Everyone knew that happened even if they didn’t like it. Think of it like a restaurant that adds the gratuity if your party is over a certain number of people. I don’t like that. To be honest, they’d probably do better with me if they just let me tip. But that’s not what happens.
The steward (or the manager) would have been a middleman between the landholder and the merchants and tenants in the exchange of goods and services, such as buying and selling grain, oil, crops, and collecting rents. If he could get an additional take for himself in those transactions, the master really didn’t care; in fact, it was sort of expected. As long as the owner’s profits continued to keep rolling in and it was not too overly obvious, it was fine. The merchants and tenants were really powerless and they couldn’t really confront the master. Their target would be the steward.
And the more risky the commodity, the larger the “add on” would be. Olive oil was valuable. It also could easily spill and easily spoil. So, they would tack on a larger amount. Wheat, on the other hand, was more stable and probably more plentiful so they added less.
So the “Desperate Steward” (that could be another name for the parable!) in an effort to save his job or at least save face knocks part or possibly even all of this “add on” cost from what was owed. He’s desperate, but he really is pretty shrewd about it. Notice that he calls each of the debtors in one by one, not giving them the chance to compare notes or collaborate together. So his actions please the debtors. They please the owner. Win-win!
And then Jesus tells us to make friends by means of dishonest wealth so that when it’s gone, we’ll be welcomed into their eternal homes. Huh? You mean we are supposed to in some way imitate this scoundrel? So, again, is this stuff supposed to make sense?
III. So, What Do We Do With This?
You know, I always do quite a bit of reading during the week as I’m putting sermons together. But I have to confess. I read more this week than I do. Sue said she did the same thing trying to come up with one of her beautiful altars. This was hard. If I had not committed to myself to stick to the lectionary, I would NEVER have preached on this. (Which I think is part of the reason the lectionary is a good thing!) The truth is, we can’t help but read this through the lenses of our own culture and our experiences in that culture. And it makes no sense. These are bad guys. They take advantage of the situation and of others. They are in it for themselves.
I was reminded of something from my previous life as I studied this passage. Some of you know that I was in Oil & Gas accounting before God shoved (or called…no, it was really shoved!) me into full time ministry. I started that career with a company and then moved with them to Denver when they moved the corporate office. It was fun. They were growing really fast through acquisitions and I usually got to be on the acquisition team. So, one of our acquisitions was a Houston-based O&G firm and the deal was such that their key management kept the marketing segment of the company and we had the rights to the properties and the name. I remember one night sitting and talking to some of the management team that was about to start a new company with the existing marketing segment. They were explaining their ideas about lending companies money in return for locking in marketing contracts at commodity prices and then charging interest based on an overstated target price. I listened to them for about thirty minutes. My response was that the whole thing sounded squirrely if not illegal. “No, it will be fine. It’s just smart.” they said. We asked them if they had come up with a name for their new company. “Enron.”
See most of us probably read this parable through lenses clouded by Enron and other well-known acts like that. We want things to be fair. We want everyone to get what they deserve. We want everyone to do what they’re supposed to do and obey the rules and the laws that we have laid down. But think about it. Do you REALLY want life to be fair? Do you REALLY want what you deserve? Think about it. If life were fair, most of us would not be in the top 5% of the world’s economy the way we probably are. Do we deserve to be here? Probably not. We are benefactors where we were born, who we are, and the opportunities that we have had.
Life is not fair. But that’s not what Jesus promised us. And maybe this parable is not meant to give us a moral lesson. Maybe it instead points us to the Kingdom of God and what God envisions that looks like. And the world we know does not fit into that Kingdom without some changes to it.
Think about Rosa Parks. She lived in a world that shut her out. And then one day, she had had it. She refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, a move that was illegal. It was something that didn’t fit into the world that she knew. We look back with hindsight and we celebrate her because that single act of defiance of something that made no sense to her would begin a change to our society that has made us all better for it, an act that has brought us at least one step closer to the welcoming Kingdom that God envisions.
- But, What, Really is the Point of the Story?
But what, really, is the point of the story? Commentators and Bible scholars appear to be all over the map on that. One thinks that it depicts the welcome that God extends to the shrewd and the faithful alike. Another looks at it as a focus on radical mercy, even radical forgiveness that God has for us and that we are called to have for others. Another view thinks that it illustrates the need for radical decisions and actions in preparation for the coming of God’s Kingdom. I think it probably has a little to do with all those.
But remember that the Bible is not a collection of separate stand-alone stories in a single volume. When you’re studying the Bible, it’s important to look at what comes before and what comes after the passage. This passage comes immediately after the Parable of the Prodigal Son (which is also called the Parable of the Prodigal Father). Most of you know the story. It tells of a younger son who demands that his father share his estate with him and then he squanders it in a far-off land. Long story short, the son returns to his father, fully penitent, and the father welcomes him home.
The word that is translated as “squander” is the same as what the manger did in the first verse of our passage today. The stories are different—the steward, unlike the son, is not penitent and the owner, unlike the father, doesn’t forgive him but instead commends him. The problem is that the manager is trusting in wealth to secure his future.
So, what, then, are we supposed to imitate exactly? Jesus actually says to make friends with dishonest wealth. (VERY confusing!) Because now we’re talking about being welcomed into our new friends’ eternal homes. But here’s the deal. The word that is translated as homes is “skenus”. That’s not really homes. It’s better translated as “tents”. (Home is “oikous”) So, tents imply a pilgrim, a wanderer, one whose mobility requires the disposition of goods and wealth. Moving around requires that one sort of position oneself to be nimble. It means that we let go of our security.
See, the deal is, the Kingdom of God has nothing to do with how much money you have, so it’s meaningless. Jesus tells us that we can’t serve two masters. The steward had served the almighty god of money. And when he realized that he was going to lose it all, he let it go. It might have even been his share that he let go. Maybe THAT’S the reason the owner was so pleased. He let go of that which made him secure to secure his future.
When you think about it, he could have almost been called a whistle blower at his own expense. He was trying to set things right, even if he had been complicit in setting them wrong. It’s not normally what happens in our world. Maybe THAT’S the whole point.
- So, Choose, Already!
God has given us free will. We found that out at the very beginning of the whole story. (Remember that these are not stand-alone passages.) God has given us the wherewithal to choose. If God hadn’t, we would have just followed along as mindless bodies (I’ve often referred to it as “Stepford Christians”) and there would be no need for faith. But God gave us a choice and then hopes desperately that we CHOOSE God, that we CHOOSE Kingdom living.
Barbara Brown Taylor says this in her wonderful book, “Speaking of Sin”, as she comments on the story of Adam and Eve in the garden:
She says that “the apparent inevitability of Adam and Eve’s decision [in Genesis 2] makes their story even more compelling. If God did not want them to eat from the tree, then why did God put it there in the first place? And who dreamed up that talking snake? If it was all a test of the first couple’s obedience, then why didn’t God let them work up to it a little? You know, start off with something less significant, such as “Don’t call me after 9 p.m.” or “Remember to feed the goldfish”?
Adam and Eve were still trying to remember the names of things when they were presented with their first moral choice. Their skin had barely dried off yet. They made the wrong choice, but there is hardly a human being alive who does not understand why. Innocence is so fragile, so curious, so dumb. Choosing God cannot be the same thing as staying innocent. If it is, then there is no hope for any of us.[i]
So we read again from the prophet Jeremiah. It is a passage that depicts Jeremiah weeping for his people. He is weeping because he so desperately wants them to change, to turn toward God, to CHOOSE. They have gone so far down the road that there is no longer a “right” or “wrong” side. God is in the midst of their sorrow and their grief, calling them to complete and total transformation.
It’s a foreign thing to us. We want to be with God but we want to do it on our terms. But the Kingdom of God doesn’t fit into our terms. And that’s what we have to see.
- Rogue Discipleship
So, back to the question…so, is this stuff supposed to make sense? The answer is no if you stayed mired to the workings of this world. The answer is no if you follow Christ with expectations of what you will find.
There’s a story that writer and Episcopal priest Terry Hershey tells in his book Soul Gardening about a first grade Sunday School class. He writes that “the children were restless and fussy. The teacher, in an attempt to get their attention, said, “Okay, kids, let’s play a game. I’ll describe something to you. And you tell me what it is.” So the kids quieted down. “Listen. It’s a furry little animal with a big bushy tail, that climbs up trees and stores nuts in the winter. Who can tell me what it is?” No one said anything. The teacher went on. “You are a good Sunday School class. You know the right answer to this question. It’s a furry little animal with a big bushy tail, that climbs up trees and stores nuts in the winter.” One little girl raised her hand. “Emily?” “Well, teacher,” Emily declared, “it certainly sounds like a squirrel to me, but I’ll say Jesus.”[ii]
Don’t rely on your expectations; rely on your faith. God is not the God of Sundays or Worship Services. God is the God of our life. See, Jesus seldom followed the rules that society had created. You know that. Jesus ate with sinners and forgave people of, oh good grief, just downright unforgiveable things. Jesus wasn’t really into right belief or synagogue membership or societal standing. Jesus never asked if someone was a member of the synagogue before he served them. Jesus sort of went rogue on a continual basis. And now he’s touting this sort of crook. Jesus’ teachings were full of stories where the wrong people came out right. That’s not fair. Well, thanks be to God!
So, what if we are not just called to follow but to be rogue disciples? What if we are called to actually go out into the streets and give away forgiveness and welcome and healing and compassion and food and service and love with utterly reckless abandon? What if we are called to break the rules? What if we are called to risk our standing and whatever we hold onto so desperately in the name of God? What if we are called to imagine the world through the lenses of our faith rather than our expectations? What if we are called to let go of everything so our future will be different?
I think we are. I think that’s the point. So, is this stuff supposed to make sense? Only if you choose God over everything else. But the good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. When we turn our lives toward God, God has a wonderful way of being there all along, whether or not it makes sense.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000), 46.
[ii] Terry Hershey. Soul Gardening: Cultivating the Good Life. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 2000), 102.