Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Sermon July 24, 2016 9th Sunday after Trinity

What was he thinking?  That could be, I believe, a common reaction by preachers who are given the dubious gift of preaching on this Gospel passage.  You have to think, “Why in heaven’s name did Jesus teach this parable to his disciples and what was the lesson he was trying to teach them”?  Then you have to wonder why it was included in Luke’s Gospel.  The only thing positive I could think of initially is that it is only in the Gospel of Luke and not the other three.
The next thing that came to my mind after reading it this week was, “Perhaps someone did not get the story right.  After all is was written down at least forty years after Jesus was crucified and raised from the tomb and ascended into heaven.  Perhaps the story got mangled along the way.   

It reminded me of that wonderful scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, where someone listening to Jesus deliver the Sermon of the Mount asked the person beside him, ‘what did he say, was it blessed are the cheese makers’.  That doesn’t sound right.  Why should the cheese makers be blessed?  But I guess that’s what he said.” 

This Gospel passages raises more questions than it seems to provide answers.  But let’s try and unpack it and understand what Jesus is telling us.  I will summarize the parable briefly for our consideration.  A rich man calls his steward—in effect his manager of his property—to tell him he is being dismissed for “wasting his goods”.  The steward decides that as he cannot make a go of it by either manual labour or begging he will collude with his master’s customers to discount their bills.  In that way the customers will be in his debt and will owe him and by implication enable him to succeed in life after he has been dismissed.

All well and good; this seems to be the usual moral lesson.  The lesson should be that dishonesty doesn’t pay and that dishonest steward will be cast into the outer darkness with the other children of darkness.  However, now comes the twist; the rich master praises the steward for his prudence.  It is a distorted echo of the Parable of the Talents where the first two servants who make prudent use of their talents are told, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master”. 

If that is not enough of a surprize Jesus then seems to confirm this assessment and tells us, “Make to yourselves friends by means of mammon of unrighteousness; and when it fails you, they will receive you into everlasting habitation”.  So much for blessed are the poor in spirit or otherwise for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

I have done more research into commentaries on this passage than I usually do.  I need all the help I can get to try and understand this puzzling parable. 
I must thank Lorna in finding a commentary on-line which shed some light on this puzzle.  The commentary notes that it is important to put it into the cultural context which I agree is always a good idea.  The author notes that parable as reflecting the Palestinian laws and customs of agency and usury. The steward would have acted as the agent for his master and was legally empowered to act in his name. But custom permitted him to make a profit for himself, which may not have been precisely authorized by the master. By discounting the bills the manager has, therefore, merely foregone his own profits on the transactions and has not cheated the master out of what was owed him.  In this case his subsequent conduct is hardly dishonest, since he is renouncing what in fact was usury.

That may explain the master’s positive response on discovering the steward’s action.  However, in my view, it doesn’t ring true in excusing the steward’s behaviour.  It seems apparent in the way the events unfold, that the steward was gaining from this at the expense of his master; otherwise why would he have done it rather than taking what he was owed him in cash which would have been more beneficial to him in his present circumstances.  Both positions can be argued but I don’t believe it sheds much light on Jesus’ message.

Another perspective the author of the commentary brings is helpful.  He notes that the parable is placed in Luke’s Gospel between the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  There are two messages here that are relevant.  First the rich man in today’s parable commends the steward for his prudence.  The prodigal son was not prudent with his inheritance and wasted it on wine, women and song.  As noted in the commentary the story of the Dishonest Manager admonishes Christians about the prudent use of riches and the danger of slavish servitude to them. The verse immediately following our Gospel today which is often included in the Parable, notes that, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” 

The story of Dives and Lazarus as it is often called, shows what happens to the rich man who has no pity on the poor man Lazarus who sits by his gate every day.  He ends up in eternal damnation beyond help.  This reflects Luke’s position on what has been called the preferential option for the poor.  Luke particularly emphasizes Jesus’s association with those on the outside of acceptable society.  
From this perhaps we can conclude in the words of the commentary that, “the dishonest manager can become the model for Christians, who are expected to grasp the dramatic situation of the kingdom and the crisis that it brings into the lives of men. It is a situation which calls for a prudent use of one's material wealth. In this there is a connection between this parable and those of the Prodigal Son, the Talents, and Dives and Lazarus”.

To this I would add that Jesus was not, I believe, talking only of money or mammon.  He was speaking about the use of our talents in the non-monetary sense—the prudent use of what gifts God has given us to follow the will of God and to work for God’s Kingdom.  We cannot serve two masters; we cannot make mammon our master and serve God.  We can use the gifts that God has given us, monetary gifts and non-monetary talents to serve God.  Amen.  

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