Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Dishonest Manager


Today is the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Readings appointed for today can be found here. The gospel reading, from the sixteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel, is a challenging one. I was at Trinity Church in Shrewsbury today - a congregation that is struggling to discern their future. It seemed to me as their guest a convergence of Word and context, as they wrestle with some hard questions.

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The parable I just read – it’s confusing, yes? Actually it’s more than confusing. For two thousand years it has stumped Christian interpreters. It stumped the early church fathers and mothers, it stumped reformers like Calvin and Luther, and it has stumped even those wicked smart German-trained twentieth-century scholars. I looked this week to my favorite interpreters for help. I read a bunch of commentaries because I really wanted to wow you all today.

But to be honest, none of them were much help. Seriously, nobody understands this parable. Which at least puts us in good company! They could explain why the parable is confusing, but not what it means! Well that part I could do on my own! Because the parable itself is reasonably straight-forward. Jesus is talking to his disciples – not just the original twelve but to us, across the centuries. We know Jesus and we love him and we probably have our own favorite stories. But today he says:
There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this manager was squandering his property.

There are some little cues here worth noticing. First of all, we have met rich men before in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus tends to be pretty critical of them. I know that surprises some of the evangelists on television who like to think Jesus showers his friends with money, but almost always in the New Testament when Jesus talks about the1% what is implicit is that they’ve missed the memo about sharing with others. If they are rich, it means others are poor. They have missed the memo on generosity and gotten confused about which god they worship – the living Abba of Jesus or mammon. (In fact this story will return to this point at the end as you may have noticed.)

We also heard the word squander in the previous chapter of Luke in a story I bet you all know. This man had two sons – the younger son went off and “squandered” his inheritance. Remember? So if we were listening to a performance of Luke’s Gospel these verbal triggers would catch our attention. I’m not sure what they mean, but they are worth noticing.

So there was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.
And 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.'

Now the manager is freaking out. He's just been handed a pink slip. Perhaps some of you have been there yourselves. About to become unemployed, he says 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.

But he has an idea. If he’s going to be fired, the most important thing he can do is network. That’s what everybody says, right? He needs to make some new friends on LinkedIn. One way to do that (not necessarily an honest way but still, one that often has success) is to bribe them. He does this by reducing their debts to the rich man who is about to fire him.

You owe him a hundred jugs of oil? Let’s call it fifty. You owe him a hundred containers of wheat. What do you say we call it eighty?

You all with me? We may not expect it in the Bible – on the lips of Jesus of all people – but we surely aren’t surprised to learn that this is how Wall Street works and this is how Washington, DC often works and sometimes other places, too. Money makes the world go round. No wonder ivory-tower-trained clergy don’t get this! But people who work for a living get it, right? Maybe?

But that isn’t the confusing part; it’s what comes next. The master
commends the dishonest manager for acting shrewdly. Say what? He apparently reconsiders and it sounds like the guy gets to keep his job even though he just cheated the rich man, because the rich man likes his shrewdness. So this is a confusing response. But then Jesus says to his disciples, not just the twelve but to us, wait for it:
…the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 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.

And then there is some more teaching on money:

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? 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.

Wow! Confused yet?  I hope so! The form critics help us to remember that like Matthew and Mark and John, the gospel writer Luke didn’t follow Jesus around with a clipboard. He’s not writing a play so much as putting together a whole bunch of teachings. Think of Luke with a pile of index cards and these sayings of Jesus that maybe he said on a Tuesday or a month later on a Wednesday – all of these like forty or fifty years before Luke writes them down. So they are all yellow by now and mixed up and there’s a pile of cards about money, all kind of jumbled together and Luke is trying to order them. So in other words we can blame Luke if we want rather than Jesus for a good bit of the confusion. Even so, when I said today that this was the gospel of the Lord, you said “Praise to you, Lord Christ.” Did you mean it?

Is there good news here for us?
What comes next in this sermon? I’ve been telling you that none of the scholars agree on what it means. Or have a clue, even. But you are tempted a little bit I bet, and I’m tempted a lot, for me to now tell you what it means. To pull a rabbit out of the hat and show you that I cracked the code, that I did my homework, that I have the answer and so then we can all go home a little smarter. Sorry to disappoint. But I don’t know.

In my day job as Canon to the Ordinary I’ve taken to using, in a very particular way, the word “agnostic” to describe my work. I believe in the living God, don’t worry. And working at the diocesan level actually reinforces my trust in the Holy Spirit every day. But literally the word agnostic means “to not know.” And I find that most every day I am facing questions that lead me to say, “I don’t know.” I may have a hunch, but not certitude. We get hints and guesses…

So when is it time for a congregation to merge with another or to take a risk and spend the endowment to call a bright young energetic priest or to say “well done good and faithful servants, while the Church of Jesus Christ is forever, congregations come and go you have fulfilled your ministry?”

I don’t know. I am agnostic on these questions and many more. I find that what I think will happen if we do “a” sometimes doesn’t happen. And if we just wait and see, sometimes “c” happens out of nowhere. I find myself surprised a lot, sometimes at the resiliency of congregations and sometimes at how much they are their own worst enemies. I get a glimpse from the pulpit or behind the altar or in a vestry meeting of complex dynamics of a complicated history that is never really past. I had that experience here a couple of years ago when we reviewed Trinity’s history and reflected on it. But it’s only a glimpse. I don’t know. I am agnostic about whether the Church is dying or being born again, although I suspect that these may be two sides to the same coin. By faith, I believe in the resurrection and I trust that God will be God, to the end of the ages. But whether or not that is with the Episcopal Church – or if denominationalism needs to die because Jesus really doesn’t care whether one is a Lutheran or a Methodist or an Episcopalian or a Roman Catholic? I don’t know. And so I walk by faith, not certitude.

We have been taught to be afraid to say “I don’t know” but here is what I’m learning: when we don’t know together, we can become explorers together. We can listen better to each other because we haven’t settled anything. The Bible is a book meant to be opened – to be learned and marked and inwardly digested. But too often we try to settle it and close it. We are meant to ponder the parables and let them work on us and it seems that when Jesus told them they were open ended and often left people scratching their heads. But 2000 years later, we moralize them and tame them. We hear the story of a man with two sons and we say “just forgive your little brother and join the party” or about a man going down from Jerusalem who is mugged and we say “if someone’s car breaks down on the side of the road, help them.”

But today’s parable from the sixteenth chapter of Luke 16 won’t allow this. We can’t moralize or tame what we don’t understand. So for today at least we have to leave this place, if we are honest, and simply say, “we don’t know…”

Congregational meeting after worship
You all are trying to figure out your future as a congregation. It’d be nice if the bishop or the canon or the senior warden or the vestry could just say, “all you need to do is this! Believe me! Just do this and all will be well. It’ll be great.” Sometimes that comforts our anxiety, to believe that someone has an easy answer to a hard question, because hard questions can keep us awake at night. But in my experience, easy answers to hard questions are usually just wrong. It takes courage to say, “we don’t know” or “we aren’t sure” or “we’ll continue to ponder this…”


And maybe that’s the great gift of today’s gospel reading and maybe it really is good news for a world weary of clich├ęs and false assurances. It means we look to each other not for the answers, but to be companions along the way. And we look for God to be God – the one worthy of our trust. 

We try to worship that living God – and no other, Not mammon, Not false messiahs. Only the one worthy of our trust, who has claimed and marked and sealed us in Holy Baptism.