Proper 20C, 2022
Blessed be the Name of God
This morning, we find ourselves in the midst of some of Luke’s finest stories. Just ahead of this morning’s reading, Jesus told the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the parable that should rightly be called the Prodigal Father. We’ve talked about that before.
Following our reading, comes the story of the rich man and Lazarus. That’s on the docket for next week, when we will have the delight of hearing Tom Johnson. I’m confident he will bring us his usual abundance of insight and edification.
In today’s reading, a story typically called the Parable of the Unjust Steward, we have a well told and eventually puzzling tale, one the Evangelist gives us, I think, simply for our enjoyment, on the one hand, and to give us something to gnaw on, on the other.
In order for us to engage this story rightly this morning, I need to tell you another story, one drawn from my life and Amy’s.
While we lived in Austin TX, we would, from time to time, drive from our home to Taos NM, where we had dear friends. We would stay with them when they were in town and when they were away, they would let us stay there on our own. Driving from Central Texas to Northern New Mexico meant that we drove through the part of Texas known as the Panhandle. On one such visit, we stayed in the small town of Post TX, a town founded by C.W. Post, maker of memorable breakfast cereals. Post intended to town to be a kind of experimental, utopian community but when Amy and I arrived, it was just a dusty little town in the very flat part of northwest Texas.
We had dinner that evening at the hotel where we were staying the night. As it turned out, as a benefit for dining at the hotel, we got a free pass to the local playhouse, just several doors down the way. So, after dinner, down the way we went!
When we came through the playhouse doors, we learned that the specialty of the house was melodrama—stellar heroes and beautiful heroines and remarkably evil villains. Also, each of us was given a large paper bag full of wadded up newspaper—to what end Amy and I did not know—but we soon found out.
Seated in the small theatre, an announcer took center stage and explained the role we were to play in the evening’s extravaganza. When the hero appeared, we were to cheer. When the heroine appeared, we were to swoop. And when the villain appeared, we were boo robustly and throw wadded newspaper balls at him! You can imagine how much fun that was, and the chaos!
Turns out, the villain walked with a cane, so once the stage floor was littered the wadded newspaper balls, the villain would invert his cane and, as if playing golf, hits the paper wads back into the audience. Consequently, we had a nearly endless supply of re-usable ammunition!
Why am I telling you this? Well you may wonder. Why? Although this morning’s story really has no hero to cheer, we do have a proper villain. And although I have not outfitted you with wads of paper, you are all capable of booing.
So, to enjoy this puzzling story all the more, I will read this story to you again, hoping you will treat the villain properly.I will read this story to you again, hoping you will treat the villain properly.
“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that [the manager] was squandering his property. So [the rich man] summoned [the manager]* 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?’
Then the manager* said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?’ [We have a rarely used word in our language that works beautifully here. The word is “sniveling.”] I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ *
So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, [the manager] asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ [The manager] said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ * Then [the manager] asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ [The second debtor] replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ [The manager] said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ *
When the rich man learned of the manager’s conniving, the rich man “commended the dishonest manager because [the manager] had acted shrewdly…” *
Here is where the parabolic story ends. We’ve had our fun. Now what? Well, this is where Jesus’ commentary begins. And truly, this is where the puzzlement sets in. But that is the nature of parabolic stories, isn’t it? They intend to draw us in and require that we work with the text, “gnaw on it,” I said earlier, worry it like a dog with a bone.
The rich man, in commending the shrewd dishonest manager, says “…for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Then Jesus, speaking for himself, says, “…make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
At this point, the story and the commentary require us to scratch our heads. Is Jesus commending this sort of self-serving maneuvering? Do the children of light need lessons in personal survival in business by nefarious means? Is Jesus being sarcastic? Is Jesus being ironic? Had Jesus made a wrong turn somewhere? My commentary says, “…the parable defies any fully satisfactory explanation.” [JANT, 149] So, there you have it!
Perhaps we’d best enjoy our engagement with the story and just keep going, moving beyond our particularly villainous manager.
What Luke the Evangelist gives us next is a companion to the previous story, an exposition perhaps. Jesus speaks about faithfulness and money, clearly topics central to the preceding account, sniveling and conniving as it is. “Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much…No [one] can serve two masters, for [one] 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.”
Think of how often Jesus has told us something like this. Not only about money, greed, ‘Mammon,” but about other choices he expects us to make so as to fix our allegiance on God. Typically this faithfulness to God is put in terms of following Jesus.
Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has told us very harshly, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” [Lk 14.26-27] Surely a cringe-worthy challenge but equally as surely, it makes the point. In Matthew 16, we hear Jesus saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” [16.24] Allegiance, fundamental and singular.
Last Thursday, some of us saw allegiance acted out. At the Naval Air Station, we were privileged to attend the Change of Command of Wing Ten. In a very large hanger, richly decked out for the occasion, serenaded by a small brass ensemble, we watched as Captain Mike Martinez receive command, succeeding Captain Jonathan Voorheis. Once the pomp and ceremony were accomplished, Captain Martinez was in command. In earthly terms, very clean and very clear.
Jesus, in his frequent and challenging counsel, knows that we are likely to vacillate, to waffle, to slip. And that is doubtless why he so often reminds us of necessity and singularity of our devotion. There must be nothing that interferes with, intrudes upon or obstructs our life with God. We Christians accomplish this singular devotion by following Jesus.
As to the challenge that wealth poses, the challenge that money poses to that devotion, it an easy one to grasp, and timely.
As a parish, we are on the verge of our annual stewardship effort, under the able leadership of Tom Johnson, next week’s preacher. What this morning’s text tells us, pointedly, is that we cannot serve God and money. What the text ought to say further is that we can and do and should serve God with money. Exploring that is likely best left to times to come.
Blessed be the Name of God