Year C, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, 22 September 2019
Trinity Church on the Green, New Haven, CT
“Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
I’ve repeated today’s collect, the Prayer of the Day, assigned by the Prayer Book, because it stops me in my tracks every year. This is one of my favorite collects, as it never fails to speak to me. Every year, around this time, something in my life, or in the life of my community, is actively passing away, and I am anxious about it. Maybe it’s the season: the start of fall is so beautiful with leaves changing beautiful colors, and yet – that change of color is their active death. With so many people marching for climate change last Friday, we fear our earth as we know it is passing away. Here in our parish community, we have beloved friends among us who are passing away. This collect is so appropriate for whenever life seems uncertain – and goodness knows, that can be every day. A cynic may say, “if you’re not anxious, you’re not paying attention.” Yet, we as Christians are called to try to not be anxious – to love things heavenly – to hold fast to those things that shall endure. If you too feel anxious about earthly things, then I invite you to take your bulletin home with you, cut this collect out, and put it where you can see it. Put it on your computer monitor, or on the refrigerator, or in your wallet, somewhere you will see it and pray it this week. I will join you in so doing.
Our Gospel reading today also has something to say about holding fast to the things that will endure. The Parable of the Dishonest Steward or manager is a complicated parable of Jesus – I will admit I needed to read it over and over and over again before I had any idea of what I could or would say about it. It’s a difficult and confusing text. Apparently, Martin Luther once said of preaching passages such as these, “Sometimes you have to squeeze the Biblical text until it leaks the Gospel.” Such is the case today.
The Parable of the dishonest manager poses significant theological challenges, especially when it seems to tell us to imitate the unrighteous behaviour of the manager: the master surprisingly commends him. The text then takes a turn in the last 3 verses, where the command to renounce the dishonest practices of the manager cancels out the previous command to be like him. And the final moral of the story in our last line is what may all the more stand out to us: one cannot serve God and wealth.
We are reading through this portion of the Gospel of Luke that consists of back to back parables. Last week we had the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and the Lost Coin. The very next passage is The Parable of the Prodigal Son, one of my favorites – I’m not sure why the lectionary skips over it, and I’m kind of annoyed it does! Next is today’s Parable of the Dishonest Manager, which does show some parallels to the Parable of the Prodigal Son that precedes it. Both parables feature a subordinate character (the son or the manager) who squanders the goods of the superior character (the father, or the rich man). There are some key differences, however: the manager, unlike the son, does not repent and change his bad behaviour. The rich man, unlike the father, does not forgive the squandering (he still fires the manager), And then, he does commend the manager’s shrewdness. The story of the Prodigal Son wraps up a little more morally definitive than the story of the dishonest manager, which leaves us to wonder whether any of the characters in the latter story should be commended, let alone imitated.
By way of a brief recap: after being fired for squandering his boss’ money, the unnamed manager goes on to squander more. One way of hearing the story is that the manager diffuses his master’s investment portfolio in order to protect his own future, and to secure a home for himself. He trusts in wealth to protect his own uncertain future. By giving the debtors small breaks, he seeks not to free them of their debts, but instead he indebts them to himself. In his self promotion, he situates himself as a benefactor to whom a return of gratitude is owed.
And lest we assume his master condemn him, he instead praises the manager for his actions! And then the greater surprise, Jesus seems to also praise the manager, and commends his hearers to imitate him. What gives, Jesus?! What is Jesus asking us to imitate?
One commentator notes a clue in verse 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.” The word that is translated as “homes” is skenas, which usually translates as “tents.” Perhaps Jesus does not promise stable homes, with possessions and security. Instead, he promises tents, the unstable shelter of wanderers, refugees, pilgrims, and many of our undomiciled neighbors here in New Haven – all of whose mobility requires the giving up of material goods.
Perhaps Jesus is calling us to dissipate wealth, to even give recklessly, but to give up the notion that our gifting will indebt others to us. Even more so, to give up the illusion that wealth gives us security and stability. Instead, God calls us to free ourselves to be on the move, to be at the ready to serve.
Alternately, perhaps the manager is more of a Robin Hood character than we think. By reducing the debts, the manager is dismantling the master’s system of gaining wealth. Perhaps he was reducing the debts by excluding the interest – interest is expressly forbidden in Jewish Law, by the way. So, maybe the manager was acting righteously as well as shrewdly?
And maybe there is something else for us here to learn. Maybe there have been times when we have acted like the manager, in times of crisis and uncertainty. Maybe we can see the character of the manager in ourselves.
In praising the manager, Jesus is not praising his dishonesty, but praising his creativity and shrewdness. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…” We are called to be faithful whether we deal in little things or vast resources. Whether we are as shrewd as the dishonest manager depends on whether we use our material goods, great and small, to help others in need. Or as the great preacher and teacher of preachers Fred Craddock captures it:
“Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday School class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”