Monday, December 16, 2013

making friends the dishonest way (or, jesus as the dishonest steward)

Year C • 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20
Amos 8:4–­7 • Psalm 113 • 1 Timothy 2:1­­–7 • Luke 16:1–13 
Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here.
Sermon available as a PDF by clicking here.

(Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures)

The Sermon
Happy are they who dwell in your house, [O Lord]! they will always be praising you.
(Psalm 84:3)

My Cousin, Peggy
On my first Sunday here at St. John’s, I came alone because Rebekah and the kids were visiting relatives in Texas. One day, while they were there, the family was gathered around the table. And, while they were eating, one of our cousins, Peggy, told this story.
      Earlier that year, a woman had come to her front door asking for money. Her daughter and grand-daughter had been in an auto accident, and the granddaughter was in the hospital. She needed some money for gas so that she could visit her. Peggy gave her fifty dollars for gas and food.
      A few weeks later, Peggy heard through the grape vine that this woman had gone throughout their neighborhood with this same story, and she had gotten money from a number of people. It seemed pretty clear, then, that this woman had not been telling Peggy the truth, and a member of the family chastised Peggy for being so gullible.
      Now I am sure that each one of us has either heard a story like this or experienced it firsthand. But that’s not the end of this story.
      It so happened that a month or so later this same woman reappeared at Peggy’s doorstep. Her granddaughter had passed away, and she needed money to make it to the funeral. Despite knowing that the woman’s story was most assuredly false, Peggy gave this woman another fifty dollars.
      Upon hearing this last bit, the atmosphere around the dinner table became quite animated. Peggy was asked, “Why did you give her more money?” Some said that she had been taken for a ride, that she had allowed this woman to take advantage of her. Still others expressed what they would have done differently had they been faced with the same situation.
      I wonder, had Jesus been at that table listening to Peggy’s story, what response would he have made? Would he have approved, or would he have questioned Peggy’s sanity? I wonder if today’s gospel can shed any light on this?

The Problem
Today, Jesus tells a very unusual parable, a parable about a most unscrupulous steward. The steward in question is in the process of losing his job because word has reached his master that he has been mismanaging his master’s affairs. The master gives his steward notice, but before the steward is released from his duties, he summons his masters debtors. One by one he has them sit down and rewrite their promissory notes. In some cases, their debts are twenty percent less, and in others, the debt has been cut in half. In this way, this shady steward endears himself to his master’s debtors, thus securing his future. But here is the subversive twist, instead of being furious with the steward, as one might have expected, the master actually praises the steward for his shrewdness. How very strange. But it gets stranger still. Jesus himself commends the actions of the dishonest steward to his disciples. “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” (Luke 16:9). What in the world are we to make of all this? What’s Jesus playing at? Are we really suppose to emulate the actions of this dishonest steward?

Jesus as the Dishonest Steward
The key to understanding this parable lies in the fact that Jesus is the steward. Yes, Jesus is the dishonest steward. How do we get there? You may recall an incident that occurred earlier in the gospel. Jesus is teaching a large crowd at his home in Capernaum, when four men lower a paralyzed man through the roof in hopes that Jesus will heal him. When Jesus sees the determination of these four faithful friends, he says to the paralytic, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:20). Upon hearing this, the scribes and Pharisees begin grumbling, “Who is this who is speaking [such] blasphemies? Who can forgiven sins, but God alone?” (Luke 5:21).
      So, what’s their problem? Don’t they believe in a loving, forgiving God? Actually, they do. They just don’t believe in Jesus. After all, sins are debts owed to God. So, who is Jesus to step in and cancel a debt that only God has the right to cancel? Who does this guy think he is? Jesus responds to their grumblings by claiming that he has been given authority by God to forgive sins on earth. He then heals the paralytic to substantiate his claim. In other words, through his words and actions, Jesus is claiming that he has been given authority over all of God’s affairs. Jesus is God’s steward.
But the scribes and the Pharisees aren’t having any of it. Jesus may have healed the paralytic, but that just proves he is in league with the devil. If Jesus is a prophet, they reason, he must be a false prophet. If he is a steward, then he is a dishonest one.
     This leads us back to the parable in today’s reading.

The Parables of Jesus
At times, Jesus’ parables are treated much like Aesop’s fables, as though they were designed to teach morals, which they rarely do. Of course, that is why we have so much trouble with today’s parable, because the moral of the story seems to be: Secure your future by whatever means possible. And that doesn’t sound particularly Christian; it certainly doesn’t sound very much like Jesus.
     At other times, we treat Jesus’ parables as though they were mere illustrations, as though they were stories designed to make difficult concepts easy to understand. In actual fact, the opposite is much closer to the truth. Jesus’ parables often cloak truths about God’s kingdom, truths that are easy to understand, but difficult to accept. This explains why Jesus so often responds to his critics with a parable. By concealing the message of the kingdom inside a presumably innocuous story, Jesus is able to smuggle the truth of the gospel past his opponents’ defenses, giving the gospel a better chance to take root in the hearts and minds of his critics, and thereby increasing the likelihood of repentance and faith. As biblical scholar N. T. Wright once observed, “If you want to change someone’s mind, (look up) don’t argue with them, tell them a story.”

The Parable of The Dishonest Steward
And that is exactly what Jesus is doing today. The scribes and Pharisees are grumbling again. Tax collectors and sinners are flocking to Jesus. In the words of singer and songwriter Rich Mullins, “the whores all love him, and the drunks propose a toast.” And Jesus just accepts it. He welcomes these people as though he makes no distinction between the sacred and the profane, between what is proper and what is not. Once again, Jesus is mismanaging God’s affairs; he claims to be a prophet, but he is merely squandering God’s love and forgiveness by lavishing it upon all manner of sinners. In the minds of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus is a prodigal, shamefully wasting the things of God on those who are not even trying to follow God.
      And so, to open their hearts and minds to what God is doing through him, Jesus offers this parable; and what a masterful parable it is. Why? Because Jesus incorporates his opponents’ criticisms into the parable itself. His critics believe him to be squandering God’s blessings, and so he makes the central character a steward who is accused of squandering his master’s property. The actions of this dishonest steward match those of Jesus. When the steward reduces the bills of his master’s creditors, we are to recall Jesus’ practice of canceling debts of sin. When the master praises this crafty steward, we are to hear the voice of God at the Transfiguration, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen, Listen to him!” (Luke 9:35).
      In effect, Jesus is saying to his opponents, “You may think that I am a prodigal, wasting God’s blessings, and so I am, but know this, when I am done here, my Father will welcome me back home. You may think that I am a dishonest steward, squandering God’s love and forgiveness, and so I am, but when all is said and done, my heavenly Master will vindicate me. You scribes and Pharisees are so consumed with self-righteous anger, that you are missing what God is doing to rescue and transform this world—to draw all people to himself and to reconcile all human beings to one another. You seem to think that love and forgiveness are limited goods, but not in God’s economy. There is more than enough of God’s love, and forgiveness, and acceptance to go around.”

Making Friends the Dishonest Way
But Jesus does not stop there; he goes one step further. He doesn’t just defend himself against his opponents, he gives his disciples a directive. When the parable is finished, he turns to his followers—to us, and he says to us, “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” (Luke 16:9). If Jesus is a dishonest steward, then it stands to reason that his disciples, who are called to follow in his footsteps, are also dishonest stewards. So what might it mean for us to “mismanage” the things of God in the way that Jesus did?

Peggy’s Story
I think the story of my cousin Peggy is one such example. Peggy knew the woman’s story wasn’t true, yet she gave her money anyway. And in that small act, Peggy manifested the love of God in a concrete, practical way. Peggy did what she felt called to do as a Christian; after all, didn’t Jesus once say, “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again” (Luke 6:30). You see, the love of God is not something that attempts to ascertain worthiness before it acts, because the love of God is not a payment for good behavior, but a gift. The love of God only seeks to determine whether someone has a need, and most assuredly, the woman at Peggy’s door was in need. She may not have actually needed gas money, but she was in need, else she would not have been scouring the neighborhood telling stories to score some cash.
     And who knows what effect Peggy’s concrete expression of God’s love has had or will have on this woman’s life. Perhaps, when Peggy gets to heaven, she will go door to door greeting people. And perhaps one day, when she knocks, the door will open, and she will come face to face with this woman. Perhaps, this woman will invite her in, and over a cup of coffee, tell a new story, the story of how she was found by the love of Christ and how Peggy’s gifts played a role in her salvation and transformation.
And so 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” (Luke 16:9).

Stories of Forgiveness
But giving money to those who don’t deserve it is not the only way in which we, as followers of Christ, can act as dishonest stewards. Being extravagant with money is not the only way we are able to squander God’s blessings, being extravagant with forgiveness also counts. This week I read a online story about a mother, Mary Johnson, who forgave the man who shot and killed her one-and-only twenty-year-old son at a party in 1993. On the day when her son’s killer, Ohsea Israel, was sentenced, Mary told him that she forgave him. She says, “At the time, I really didn’t know what forgiveness was.” It took her years of turmoil and prayer for those words to really feel true. Eventually, she visited Ohsea in prison, and during a two-hour conversation, she embraced her son’s killer. Afterward, she became hysterical. Doubled-over in shock, Mary kept repeating the phrase, “I just hugged the man that murdered my son. I just hugged the man that murdered my son.” But in those moments, she felt something leave her. All the hatred, bitterness, and animosity that she had felt for years was suddenly gone. 
     You know, when I hear people on the news, after some tragedy, publically declaring that they have forgiven the perpetrator of some heinous crime, one of the thoughts that often goes through my head is, “That’s a person who cannot cope with reality. There is some real dysfunction going on there.” This is especially true when the perpetrator has not exhibited any remorse. But of course, I am reminded that forgiveness is not a wage, but a gift; forgiveness is a gift that sets people free, not something earned through repentance. In fact, I would suggest that most of the time, genuine remorse and repentance is only possible as a response to forgiveness. Extravagant, wasteful, and indiscriminant forgiveness transforms all parties involved; victim and perpetrator alike.
     In March of 2010, Mary Johnson threw a homecoming party for Oshea following his release from prison. Mary calls Oshea her spiritual son, and he refers to her as his second mom. And they have lived next door to one another for over two years now. And I expect that he invites her over on occasion. As Jesus said, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:9).

You Have Permission to Be Generous in the Name of God
In all of this talk about squandering the things of God, what I hope you have heard is that you have permission to be generous. If you love lavishly, if you forgive indiscriminately, if you give generously to those that the world and even some Christians regard as undeserving, you will find that people will question you and even berate you. But know this, our God is a prodigal Father, and our Lord is a dishonest steward. So when you go forth from this place into that world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, you have God’s permission—you have God’s authority, power, and grace—to love without limits and to serve without boundaries. 

The Scriptures
Year C • Proper 20
Amos 8:4–7
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
         and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, “When will the new moon be over
         so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
         so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
         and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
         and the needy for a pair of sandals,
         and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

Psalm 113  (BCP 756)
    1      Hallelujah!
            Give praise, you servants of the LORD; *
                     praise the Name of the LORD.
    2      Let the Name of the LORD be blessed, *
                     from this time forth for evermore.
    3      From the rising of the sun to its going down *
                     let the Name of the LORD be praised.
    4      The LORD is high above all nations, *
                     and his glory above the heavens.
    5      Who is like the LORD our God, who sits enthroned on high *
                     but stoops to behold the heavens and the earth?
    6      He takes up the weak out of the dust *
                     and lifts up the poor from the ashes.
    7      He sets them with the princes, *
                     with the princes of his people.
    8      He makes the woman of a childless house *
                     to be a joyful mother of children.

1 Timothy 2:1–7
First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For
there is one God;
            there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
            who gave himself a ransom for all
—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Luke 16:1–13
Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 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.’ Then the manager said 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?’ He replied, `A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, `Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for 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.
     “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.”

First Sermon at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

Delivered on Sunday, September 22nd, a.d. 2013

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