Sept. 22, 2019
One of my commentaries on today’s gospel text begins, “So what do you think: is it ever okay to tell the congregation that you really have no idea what a passage means?” Honestly, I read those words with some sense of relief. This guy was a preaching professor, a seminary president, and is now the senior pastor at the largest Lutheran church in the country. If he doesn’t get it then maybe it’s okay not to get this one.
It does kind of read as if Luke was sitting at his desk with a number of Jesus lessons that he wanted to get across while struggling a bit to fit them into the narrative. “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” “Make friends by means of dishonest wealth.” “Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much.” “You cannot serve God and wealth.” It’s not easy to see how all these lessons really cohere. On top of that, it’s not clear why Jesus treats this shrewd manager as the hero of his story. By most reads he’s a conniving scoundrel out only to save his own skin. Are we really supposed to model ourselves on his behavior?
In the past I’ve focused on the fact that these are words from Jesus to the disciples, to insiders, to those who were supposed to “get it.” They were kingdom people in the midst of a world that lived by the ways of the world – ways of dominance, and ego, and forceful power, status, and standing, and subordination of the low in order for the high to be high. The world was really good at behaving according to these principles, but why are kingdom people not so good at living according to the ways of the kingdom? Why are kingdom people not so good at lifting up the lowly, finding life not in self but in sacrifice, showing power not through dominance but through mercy, trusting less in money than in God? It’s a parable about living in the kingdom as shrewdly as the world lives in the world.
Maybe we can use that thought to launch us into what’s on my mind this time around. It’s been attributed to St. Augustine, the saying that, “God gave us people to love and things to use. Our ongoing sin is reversing the two: loving things and using people.” That fits pretty well with Jesus’ concluding words, “You cannot serve God and wealth,” says Jesus. You cannot serve God and things, says Augustine, yet we keep trying. We keep trying to satisfy ourselves with things. We keep feeling that we don’t have enough of them. We keep accumulating them and striving to preserve and protect them.
And, I’m thinking that maybe that’s where this parable comes in as well. You know, the nature of the manager’s original crime isn’t exactly clear. He’s called in by the owner on the grounds that he is “squandering the owner’s property.” But, it doesn’t say how he’s squandering that property. What we know is how he responds to the accusation. He goes to the debtors (I imagine them as tenants) and he relieves them of some of their debt. Since the meaning of the parable isn’t exactly clear, maybe this is a time to use our imaginations. Why not imagine that this is the type of squandering that’s been going on all along? The man’s final act of management is an indication of what he’s done from the very beginning. All along, his “management” has been an effort to forgive debts and build relationships. Of course, it’s at the owners expense and done without his knowing, but imagine this isn’t real. Imagine it’s a fable. Imagine it is an outrageous story about a manager who is recklessly intent on using wealth for people and not people for wealth. Imagine its about a manager who is more interested in relationships than money, a manager who does not comply with the world’s expectations.
Now, also understand that this story comes immediately after another story with which you are likely familiar. It’s the story of a father who defies convention, abandons social protocol and comes running out to embrace his “prodigal son” even before that son has made his way fully home and even before he can say he’s sorry for squandering his father’s money. The Father isn’t worried about the slight; he isn’t worried about the money; he’s worried about the relationship. “This son of mine was dead and he’s alive again!” he proclaims. That’s all that matters to this father, and with unrestrained joy he throws a feast.
We continue with today’s passage and see that the owner experiences something of a conversion. He begins by condemning the manager and he ends by praising him. Maybe we’re meant to imagine the owner as one who has begun the process of tuning into a prodigal father as well, as someone who like his manager is willing to be wasteful for the right reasons.
I’m not entirely clear on the true intent of this parable. But, what I’ve heard from it this time is a call to love people and use things, not the other way around. What I’ve heard is a question: Are we, people of God, as smart about the ways of God as we should be? Are we willing to love extravagantly, even recklessly, and put our trust in God to use that love?
Here’s why you have an envelope in your bulletin: I would like you to take a minute here. Close your eyes and invite God to be present to you now… Talk to God about whom you might more intentionally make an effort to love. Listen to God. Maybe God has some thoughts on that too. Maybe it’s a person. Maybe it’s a group of persons… Now, write their name or names down on the back of your song insert and seal your envelope. Today is Sept. 22. Write the date on the envelope, take it home with you and put it in a safe place. Open it in a month and think about what’s come of your efforts. Amen