18 September 2022 – Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
If I said that the way God sees the world…sees us…is not the same as the way we see the world, would that shock any of you?
We’re all pretty clear that the way God sees the world is not the same as the way we see it, right? “For my plans are not your plans,/Nor are My ways your ways/—declares the Lord. But as the heavens are high above the earth,/So are My ways high above your ways/And My plans above your plans,” as Isaiah reminds us. (Isaiah 55:8-9). Oh, we forget that all the time…fall asleep…fall into the trap of only seeing the world and all that is in it through our own narrow interests…our own limited perspectives…our own distorted lenses.
We get a jolt of this different way of seeing today from Jeremiah…who is giving voice to the lament of the entire city of Jerusalem who fears…who believe…that God has abandoned them to this horrible fate…”Is the Lord not in Zion?…The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved,”…But this lament comes after 42 solid verses of God describing in frightening detail how it is Israel who has abandoned God…and not the other way around…”They cling to deceit (Jer. 8:5), they do not speak honestly (v.6), They persist in their wayward course (v.6), They are greedy for gain and act falsely (v. 10),” and today, just after the Lament begins, God interjects again reminding the prophet that, “They have provoked me to anger [and jealousy] with their […] idols…” God’s ways are not our ways…the way God sees the world is not always the way we see the world.
Tammy highlighted these differing views last week in describing “the lost” and “the found”. In the parable of the lost sheep, one view is to focus on the “sinfulness” and repentance of the one lost sheep, but as Tammy pointed out, Jesus’ focus (and really God’s focus) is on the owner who knows something has been lost, and that one missing sheep, coin, son…makes the whole incomplete and so out of love the owner is compelled to go find it.
I think something similar is happening in today’s parable…which is mostly told from only one side. We need another lens.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field,” You’re familiar with that one, right? And what happens? Someone finds the treasure…hides it and “then in his joy … goes and sells all that [they] have and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44) That’s Matthew’s familiar version.
There’s another version in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. It’s a little different. It goes like this: The kingdom of heaven is like a person who had a treasure hidden in his field but did not know it. And when he died he left the field to his son. The son also didn’t know about the treasure. So he sold the field. And the buyer plowed the field and found the treasure, and began to lend money at interest to whomever he wished.” (Thomas 109).
Quite different, right? In both versions, the original owner has no idea there is this treasure buried there. But in Matthew, the person finds the treasure, sells all they have and buys the field…and that’s it. In Thomas, the finder uses the treasure to make money. Both versions are a little odd…Why would you find this treasure, give up everything and not use it?…on the other hand Thomas’ version just feels wrong…kind of like the parable of the shrewd manager just feels wrong…(Is Jesus really telling us to be duplicitous?).
Remember God’s ways are not our ways…and just like the sheep and the owner have different takes on being “lost” in Luke; Matthew and Thomas have different views on “finding”. I would argue that Matthew’s version…is closer to God’s point of view. Like the owner of the lost sheep, the finder recognizes something of infinite value, and does whatever it takes to have it…bring it back. Which is just like God…Becoming incarnate through Jesus, and living and dying as one of us, God does give up absolutely everything in order to find us…in order to have and redeem “the field” which is all of creation, and the treasure in it, which is each and every one of us. That’s God’s vision.
But Thomas’s finder IS one of us…Behaves like one of us, is joyful and grateful at finding the treasure, and then puts it to use in somewhat questionable ways. This finder demonstrates how, from our perspective, the treasures of God’s kingdom are always both rewarding and potentially corrupting.*
Which brings us to today’s parable…is this told from God’s view or ours? It has to be ours…The manager is seeing through the eyes of their fear and anxiety. They’ve been accused (perhaps falsely, perhaps not), they believe they are too weak to dig, and they are too proud to beg; so what do they do? They certainly don’t give up everything they have, but they do start to get refocused on what really matters…they do start to build relationships..shrewdly…trying to carve out a future for themselves.
The manager in today’s parable doesn’t behave a whole lot better than the finder of the treasure in Thomas, but there is a difference…a difference that changes everything.
It’s for this difference that they are praised…It’s not a big difference but it’s enough to be good news for all of us who tend to fall asleep and get distracted and wander down wrong paths. I’m always encouraged by the line, “whoever is faithful in little is faithful also in much.”
To understand the difference, I think we need another parable…one closer to God’s view…that shows how God views this shrewd manager…like this one from the Rabbinic tradition.
Once there was a king who had a dear child. But the child was rebellious, took a servant and went away. The father grieved terribly. Friends said to the child, “Return to your father, who loves you.” But the child replied, “I cannot do that.”
The father sent a messenger and asked the child to return. “I cannot. I have no strength,” was the reply. So the father sent the messenger back with this message, “then come to me as far as you can, and the rest of the way I will come to you.”
And the Rabbi’s conclude: “So the Master of the Universe says to each of us, ‘Come to me as far as you can, and I will meet you there.’” (Pasikta Rabbati, quoted in Megory Anderson, Sacred Dying, p. 319
Whether we are lost, or found, shrewd or rash, all we have to do is wake up, focus on what is genuinely important, and go as far as we can towards God, and God will meet us there. Amen.
*(There’s a reason why both this passage from Thomas and the Luke passage we heard today ends with an admonition to renounce wealth. Luke: 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.” Thomas: “Let the one who has found the world, and has become wealthy, renounce the world.”