SERMON 18 SEPTEMBER 2016
I know that in very many places, preachers will be choosing not to use the gospel reading set down for today. It is known as the most difficult passage in Luke’s gospel. Augustine said of it “I cannot believe this story came from the lips of our Lord.” So it is with fear and trembling that I offer some thoughts and would welcome your own responses later.
The parable Jesus tells concerns a rich man, his dishonest manager who is about to lose his job and the scheming, unethical way the manager responds, apparently trying to create some good feeling, indebtedness and possible support from those he has been mistreating for years. The whole system sucks, to use a colloquialism. The rich man is rich because of the profits he makes from the labour and effort of his tenant farmers who are trapped in economic and social dependency. The manager makes his money by over-charging these farmers and siphoning off whatever he chooses for himself. The farmers are trapped in debt they have no hope of escaping. Of course they will be amazed and delighted to find that their debts are being written down. They would have gone home feeling quite a lot lighter. Maybe they would regard the manager, and so also the rich landlord a bit more kindly.
The manager has been doubly dishonest, though the system always worked like this and the people listening to Jesus’ parable would have understood the scenario very well. The manager made his money at the expense of the poor and he also cheated his master. Yet Jesus constructs a story in which the man isn’t reprimanded but commended for his actions.
How are we to understand this? How can such behaviour possibly be approved, especially in the eyes of Jesus, the one to whom we look for clarity between what is good and just and what oppresses? I think this is the most difficult bit. Our faith is sustained by the things that remind us of integrity, compassion, self-giving, the things that cut through so many of the values that we are surrounded with today. We look for the things that give us the strength to make counter-cultural decision about the way we live. Yet, what we hear today messes all that up. Maybe that is the difficulty: this parable places us firmly in the world and its values, not outside of it. We aren’t allowed to place ourselves as people looking on in judgement. We should note that Jesus isn’t holding this up as an example of what his disciples should do. He doesn’t say “Go and do likewise”. What the master commends is his manager’s shrewdness. He has regarded the money, even as it is used dishonestly, as a means to making friends. This then is turned to use in the parable so that these new friends could then learn the better way, the eternal truth. But that seems a long shot. There is a warning about how dishonesty can become a habit, and what started off as small can become much greater. Can the manager paying down the debts be seen as a good thing, a step in the right direction? Apparently that is what we are supposed to think. The parable ends with that well-known statement that you cannot serve both God and mammon/money, or wealth as it is also translated. That’s the easy bit to understand. Somehow we have to see money, in this story, as being used to serve a reasonable end between people, when before it had been used to the manager’s personal monetary advantage.
Maybe it’s helpful to note that this parable is written as a bridge between the story of the Prodigal Son who also squanders his father’s wealth and that of the rich man and Lazarus, the poor man who sits, covered with sores, at the rich man’s gate. The same word for squandering is used about the Prodigal Son and the manager in today’s parable. We know how so much of Luke’s emphasis is on the great reversal in the gospel, where the rich are made poor and so on. We know that the Prodigal Son is welcomed, forgiven and embraced by his father who is the one with prodigal love. The customary expected and judgemental response is thrown out. In the other parable, Lazarus is the one who ends up in heaven and the rich man in the fires of hell. So, in between, we have this parable of the manager who wastes his master’s possessions yet is commended for being shrewd in the ways of the world.
We have become used, these days, to hearing about unscrupulous behaviour. We know how often people become wealthy off the backs of the poor. We know how often those at the bottom of the heap are supposed to be grateful for small bonuses which barely make their lives any more liveable, while those who make decisions about such matters live in comfort and excess. What are we supposed to do about it? Are we involved ourselves in some way, however small? I look at thing like clothes shops that say “Nothing under $10” and wonder about the conditions of those who made them. Is it a good thing to shop there or not? How are we to be shrewd in what we do? These situations are all around us. We are all very aware about the need to use our money wisely, whether as individuals, as a church, as part of the wider church. There are so many cut-backs and restructurings and people are hurt along the way. How is forgiveness offered, friendship and support cultivated? On a bigger scale, small countries have too often been held in debt to larger countries. There has been no way for the small economies to survive without huge loans for rich countries, which become impossible to repay. From time to time there are calls for such debts to be written off. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” as it is quite correctly translated. Would we be told that was good business practice?
What are the things that create friendships between peoples? The disciples are being encouraged to use wealth to make friends for themselves. If we release people from their burden, we are investing in friendship and companionship? It makes me wonder about North Korea and the alarming and terrible situation for the people there and for the world. What can create a pathway to peace? Is it sanctions and isolation? I don’t pretend to know even the beginning of an answer but I can perhaps see how we are called to be shrewd.
On Wednesday, countries all around the world will be marking the UN International Day of Peace. As you know, we will be gathering in the hall along with people of other faiths to come together and offer prayers for peace, from our different faith traditions. There is desperate need for peace in so many wounded and deeply hurting countries, and that, of course, means millions of people. It seems to me that we need to hold on to such simple and almost innocent approaches to peacemaking as we also have to entrust to our political leaders the wheeling and dealing and compromising that is required to achieve something like a cease-fire in Syria, however brief that may be. I can’t imagine what discussions, what compromises, what shrewd dealings go on in the back-rooms of the power-brokers, and that lie behind the formal handshakes we see on TV, and the signing of pieces of paper. But I know that for such things to have effect, we need to start with where we each are as individuals and communities. What compromises do we make along the way in order to maintain connections and relationships, and what inner integrity do we then need to keep our own eyes fixed on so that we know in our hearts the situation is good and true, wise and just?
Jesus’ followers would have to learn how to deal with the powerful and those who could use their influence against them. Maybe Jesus was showing, in this parable, that whatever helped the poor and disadvantaged could have some good in it. The manager had gone astray long before. He had only known what it was like to oppress people and ignore them. Now he had a glimpse of what it was like to put a smile on a face that hitherto had been anonymous to him. Now he could identify with them.
How do we begin to understand the other? Is it only when something happens to us that gives us some fellow feeling, or, when we remember that we are to serve God and not money that we discover things and people we might have been ignoring? I thought of this a bit after hearing Dan Macaloon from Frontier Services talking at Open House last Tuesday. It was a window onto the very different life of people who live in remote areas of this country. We know about farmers doing it tough, but we heard some stories about individuals and, of course, they make an impression. The way that Frontier Services works now is through creating partnerships with organisations and by encouraging young and not-so-young volunteer tradies to offer a week or two in the outback. One of the partner organisations is the NRMA. A farmer on a remote property had an expensive piece of machinery that had broken down two years before. He didn’t know how to fix it himself, and it sat there, at his farm, a constant reminder of his failure and of all that was going wrong. The NRMA man came and fixed it in 25 minutes, and we saw a picture of the farmer riding off on his machine, apparently with a big smile on his face. A great story. This and others like it, are used by the NRMA for their own publicity with no mention of Frontier Services who make it all happen. Does that matter? Is it a bit unethical? Is it just shrewd business by both parties? It certainly achieves a good result. And Dan MacAloon wasn’t very worried.
Jesus’ parable leaves us with many questions and discomforts. The world in which we live leaves us with many questions and discomforts. Let’s remember in this parable that, apart from the squandering of other’s money and unjust practices, there is also talk of forgiveness and its consequent easing of burdens, of friendships being created on whatever rocky a basis, and of a reminder that the bottom line is about money and how it is used. Does it serve God’s purpose or not? Does it help create a just and more peaceable world or not? Does it, in the end, rule us or is it a tool to be used with shrewdness in world where there is ruthless and discriminatory behaviour? May God guide us as we live in this world for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Amen.