Sermon for September 20th, 2020

From Neal's Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

Luke 16:1-13

1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 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.

10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 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.”

Jesus and His Pair of Bowls: The Unjust Manager

Please forgive me if you've heard me tell the following joke one too many times, but it's perfect for today's parable, so I couldn't resist.

One day a wealthy businessman was riding in his limousine when he saw two men along the road eating grass. Disturbed, he yelled at his driver to stop, and he got out to investigate. He asked one man "Why are you eating the grass?" "We don't have any money for food" the poor man replied. "So we have to eat grass." "Well then, come with me to my house and I'll feed you" the businessman said. "But sir, I also have a wife and two children with me. They are over there, behind that tree." "Ok, bring them along too" the businessman replied. Turning to the other poor man he stated, "You come with us, also." The second man, in a pitiful voice, then said, "But sir, I also have a wife and SEVEN children with me!" "Very well then, bring them all" the businessman answered. They all piled into the limousine, which was no easy task. Once under way, one of the poor fellows turned to the businessman and said, "Sir, you are truly too kind.. Thank you for taking all of us with you. The businessman replied, "No problem, I'm glad I could help. Besides, you'll really love my place...the grass is almost a foot high!"

Today's parable is about an unscrupulous businessman, someone who seems pretty unlikeable in all respects...and yet, Jesus himself commends this character and says we should be more like him. This is probably one of the most difficult and perplexing parables in all of the teaching of Jesus, and there have been as many different interpretations of it as there have been readers and interpreters in the past 2,000 years.

As you know, I like to ask the question, "who am I" in this story, or "who are we?" Last week I suggested that as wealthy Americans, we could best identify with the rich landowner in the parable of the vineyard workers. But in today's parable, even though it begins with a certain rich man--I'm not so sure he's the one I identify with the most.

On the other hand, the dishonest, unscrupulous manager, who squanders what has been entrusted to him, and when his actions finally catch up with him, he risks losing everything and being thrown out on the street, too weak for manual labor and too proud to beg? Yeah, I can identify with that guy. That may come as a surprise to some of you.

When I first began to sense that God was calling me to ministry as a pastor, my honest reaction was, "Hell no!" I'm not qualified to be anyone's role model. I know what goes on in the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind. I know all the horrible things I do when I think no one is looking. I was not--and still am not--a "good" person by any stretch of the imagination. My closest friends from childhood, and my family members all validated this for me: "You? A Pastor? Are you sure about that?"

I have spent the last eight years of my life dreading the day when I really screw things up, and everyone finally realizes, "What were we thinking? That guy is a mess--he should *never* have even set foot in a church, let alone think that he could actually lead one."

And when that day comes, I have often wondered, "what will I do?" Like the character in our story, I am too weak to dig, and too proud to beg. But maybe, if I really screw things up, maybe someone will remember something nice I did for them, something kind, and maybe--just maybe--the judgement I truly deserve will be tempered with a little bit of mercy, which I don't deserve, and there will be a place for me, even a small one, in our community.

So yes, I can identify with the dishonest manager, in all of his flaws, and in all of his desperation to redeem himself in his hour of judgement.

But there's another interpretation of this parable that intrigues me, and (predictably) it's not a common or very popular one, for reasons which will be pretty obvious.

I ask the question "who am I" or "who are we" in the story, but there's another question you can ask when trying to understand one of Jesus' parables: Who is Jesus in this parable? Who is God? In many parables, God is the rich man, the landowner, the one who owns everything, controls everything, and who executes judgment or extends mercy. That makes sense. In this parable, I think the rich man to whom everyone is indebted is clearly God. We owe everything we have, everything we have been given, to God our creator. And most of us fail to live up to God's expectations of us. We are therefore in debt to our provider, and we cannot possibly pay the bill. We are the debtors in this story.

But God chooses to send an intermediary, a "middle manager" if you will, to negotiate the balance. And that would be Jesus. I think Jesus is the "dishonest manager" in this story. Wait a minute, Pastor Neal... are you saying that Jesus is dishonest? Unscrupulous? The Bad Guy??? Maybe you were right about not being qualified to be a pastor...

Well, let's take a closer look. In the beginning of the story, Jesus doesn't actually say that the manager was dishonest. He says in verse one that "charges were brought" to the rich man that the manager was "squandering (or wasting) his property." Who is bringing those charges?

In the gospel of Luke, charges are repeatedly brought against Jesus by the religious leaders of his day that he associates with tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes--wasting his time and his God-given talent on hopeless people they believed God had already forsaken.

In our parable, the boss doesn't exactly agree with the charges. Instead he says to the manager, "What is this I hear Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer." That sounds harsh in the English translation, but the Greek language is a little more ambiguous. It could also be translated as "you will not be my manager for much longer." In other words, your time on this earth, your ministry of management, is quickly coming to an end.

The manager then asks himself, "what will I do now, so that people will welcome me (and perhaps my message, my teachings) into their homes in the years (or centuries) to come? I know what I will do.

And Jesus goes out to the sinners, the debtors, the unforgivable people of the world, and he says, "I forgive you, in the name of my boss, in the name of my father." He doesn't forgive the entirety of the debt, but I believe that what he is forgiving is the portion of the debt which the debtors are unable to--and will always be unable to--pay. We still give to God what we can, but Jesus writes off what we cannot.

Verse 8: And his master commended the dishonest manager (and here, when Jesus calls the manager "dishonest" I think he probably did so with a wink and smile to his listeners) because he had acted shrewdly, or wisely... or compassionately.

Here the parable ends, but Jesus goes on to add to it several sayings about money and possessions. Biblical scholars have debated for centuries whether these are actually connected to the parable, or whether Luke, in writing his gospel, was just adding all of his spare "Jesus talks about money" sayings to a parable that seems on the surface to be about money.

I'm not going to resolve that debate today, but I do think this parable has a lot to say about generosity. The generosity of the manager who forgives the debts of the people. The generosity of his master who praises him for his shrewdness. The implied generosity of the people who will welcome the manager into their homes when and if he loses his position.

The sayings that follow the parable are also about generosity. Beginning in verse 10, Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?"

I often hear people tell me, "Pastor, I would like to be more generous in my giving to the church, to charities, and to good causes, but I just don't have much to give. If God would only bless me by winning the lottery, or with a raise, or by somehow improving my circumstances, *then* I would be more generous."

But here Jesus is clearly saying that if you can't be generous with what you already have, what makes you think you actually would be generous with more? A habit is a habit. If you have developed the habit of not being generous--out of fear, out of caution, or whatever excuse you're making--then you will most likely carry forward that habit regardless of your circumstances.

So be generous now. As a pastor, I can tell you that I have witnessed (and been humbled) by great acts of generosity from wealthy people and poor people alike. They aren't generous because of what they have. They are generous because of who they are?

Who are you, today? And who will you choose to be?

In rural Africa, a farmer will catch a troublesome monkey by carving a hole in a tree, and placing some food inside the hole. The hole is just large enough for the monkey to put his hand inside it, but when he grabs the food, his fist becomes too big to remove from the hole. Instead of letting go of the food, the monkey will continue to struggle and pull against the tree... while the farmer runs up and hits the monkey over the head with his club (or, I suppose if it's a kind and compassionate farmer, he might simply catch the monkey and release him elsewhere).

We laugh at this and say, "Foolish monkey--just let go of the food and save your life instead!" But the joke is on us. We are like the monkey. We get so caught up in clinging to what pitiful possessions, property, or money we have, that we don't realize the danger to our lives and our freedom.

It is only in letting go that we may be truly free to live. The dishonest manager in today's parable lets go of his position, his pride, and his fear, in order to be generous with what has been entrusted to him. In doing this, he finds freedom, life, the praise of his master and of his fellow human beings.

And that's good news for a dishonest, unscrupulous, ungenerous, stubborn, self-righteous sinner like me.