Standing under the scriptures
September 18: Proper 20:
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 & Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7 & Luke 16:1-13
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
So, here’s what I usually do in preparing for a sermon…A couple of weeks in advance, I start out reading the text…praying them…asking myself: “what stands out? what’s confusing about this?”
I sit with the text a bit each day.Then a week later I’ll answer some questions that I know usually spark creativity: what’s the function of this as history? as scripture? as part of a biography? What’s going on in the world that might relate to this? What’s going on here at All Saints? And then when I have some ideas, or if I have specific questions about some details of the passage, I’ll go and check some commentaries to see what scholars say about it.
This week, I kept going back to the passage, and the only things that stood out were things that are confusing…and there is a LOT that is confusing about this. He’s called dishonest, but commended for it? Does he really lose his job, or does he get it back? What is going on here?
So I turned, as I often do, to a really great resource, the Jewish Annotated New Testament. It’s the same translation, but all of the notes, and commentary are written by contemporary Jewish scholars, which really helps set the gospels in their proper context. With something this perplexing, I thought surely, I would find the clarity that I needed here.
The note for this parable is one sentence. It reads: Luke 16:1-9 The parable of the dishonest manager, “The parable defies any fully satisfactory explanation.” (p. 134).
I mean if the best academic minds currently out there can’t figure this out…
But then I thought, there’s a lot about our faith that we really can’t fathom. There’s a lot that is paradoxical and confusing, and a lot that we simply can’t understand, rather we have to simply stand under it and let it work on us, like water softening stones.
So I can’t fully explain this parable to you, but I will tell you a few things I have noticed having stood under it for awhile.
The first is this: There are some key terms that have been lost in translation. When the manager starts forgiving debts, in the hope that people will take care of him after he’s been sacked, He says, “I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.”
Jesus echoes this when he says, “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.”
Now that sounds even better; an eternal home has got to be better than an ordinary one.
Trouble is, that’s not exactly what the text says.
The manager is talking about being welcomed into someone’s household…
Jesus doesn’t use the word household, the word he uses is “tabernacle”, or “tent”.
Jesus is not promising buildings, but tents.
Jesus doesn’t promise what the manager sought, a stable place of possessions and security…
What Jesus is promising is the unstable abode of the wanderer, the refugee, the pilgrim. The desert shelter that housed the Israelites while they traveled in the wilderness…and where they went to meet God, no matter where they were, during that long sojourn with God guiding them…
Our faith is really not about stability, its about movement and journey and relationships.
That’s the next thing I noticed:
The manager realizes that what he lacks is relationships. He’s been relying solely on his income, when what he really needs is to build relationships…relationships are what will sustain him even if and when his income disappears.
So he picks out a couple of likely candidates and demonstrates tremendous generosity towards them. These debts they are talking about are massive, commercial quantities—900 gallons of oil, and maybe a semi truck full of grain (New Interpreter’s Bible, V. IX, p 308). So he’s described as being “shrewd” or “wise” in part, I think, because he’s so incredibly being generous.
And Jesus says we need to do the same thing in building our relationships, be extravagantly generous in making friends, and not simply or exclusively with those who can increase our own bottom line, but with all who can lead us closer to God’s realm…and who are they? You know, all those blessed folks: the meek, the poor, the sick, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for for justice…
Make friends, be generous, build relationships he says, by means of dishonest or (unrighteous) wealth.
Well, that sounds a bit off, doesn’t it? What is “dishonest wealth?” And how is it different from “honest wealth?”
“The parable defies any fully satisfactory explanation.”
So I don’t know, but the third thing I thought was that Jesus might be encouraging us to admit that we have some conflicted, and some fairly distorted views about money in our culture. Money permeates every aspect of our lives. And yet we only ever talk about it in the abstract, or as it relates to someone else. It makes us VERY anxious to talk about our own money.
There is a pervasive view that money is neutral at best, and evil at worst. But I think the reason Jesus cautions against serving two masters, God and Wealth, is not because one is good and the other is evil, but because one is wholly good and one is a partial good. Money represents a positive good, but a partial one. Money is a marker of a relationship. Money allows us to be in relationship with people whom we would not otherwise be in relationship with. Money allows us to be in relationship with the people who grow and transport our food, who make our clothes, who produce our technology. But it is not the fullness of a relationship.
Where the dishonesty about money arises, it seems to me, is when we forget or ignore that money is primarily a means of being in and maintaining a relationship with others. It is therefore dishonest, or unrighteous (another way to translate that) to think of money as my possession. Because it represents relationship…viewing it as a possession breaks that relationship. And breaking relationship is another way of describing sin.
So make friends, be generous, and be in healthy, life-generating relationships.
Then Jesus says that those who are not faithful with what does not belong to them…And let’s be honest, none of this belongs to us, not the buildings that we live and work and worship in, not the money we use to buy the things we need to sustain our lives, not the resources that we extract to power our cars, and light and heat and cool our homes…None of it belongs to us.
It all belongs to God.
So Jesus says, sure be shrewd and clever and generous with all that you’ve been given, with all that you earn, be faithful in all your relationships; be faithful with all that doesn’t belong to you—which is everything—and above all be faithful to the one from whom all blessings flow.
And if we do that, maybe we don’t need a fully satisfactory explanation, Maybe if we’re faithful, and generous and keep working on building relationships maybe that’s enough.