September 22, 2019 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20C
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here.
Do you think Jesus meant it? Do you really think that he meant that his followers should make friends by means of unrighteous wealth so that, when it’s all gone, they will receive us into the eternal homes? Do you think that what it means to be faithful to God is to lie, cheat, and steal until we fix for ourselves a place in heaven? Yeah, I don’t think so either.
This is a tricky parable—maybe the trickiest of them all. Lots of people have spilt lots of ink trying to explain away the most difficult parts in order to leave us with something that makes sense. Some of the debate is over where the parable actually ends. Our translation, like most others, suggests that the parable concludes when the master commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. That means that the challenging explanations about the children of light and the making of friends through dishonest means that follow belong to Jesus. But others think that it’s the master who encourages the manager to make friends through dishonest wealth, and, because the Greek manuscripts don’t come with punctuation marks, it can be difficult to tell when one person stops speaking.
Others argue that, while the manager may have been dishonest in his initial work, the act of telling the debtors to alter their bills in favor of a smaller payment wasn’t dishonest but a sign that the manager was willing to give up his commission in exchange for preferential treatment later on. Still others think that the manager was eliminating not his own commission but the interest that his master was charging—interest that was prohibited under Jewish law. In this interpretation, the manager would have been helping his master appear honorable, and, even if the master wouldn’t have been happy about forgoing his interest, he couldn’t very well punish his manager for doing the right thing. But I don’t buy any of that either.
Jesus isn’t revered because his teachings were easy. We don’t repeat his words in every generation because they sound like good advice. Turn the other cheek, love your enemy, hate your family, take up your cross, lose your life—most of the time, we celebrate the things that Jesus said that don’t make sense to us, and I think this parable fits right along with the rest. It’s a story about urgency and how Jesus’ followers are supposed to behave in light of that urgency.
The key word for me comes right at the beginning of the story, when Jesus tells us that the rich man’s manager had been squandering his property. Squandering is an interesting word. Not skimming of the top. Not making bad financial decisions. But squandering. Literally, it means to scatter recklessly. It’s the same word Luke uses in chapter 15 to describe the behavior of the prodigal son—the one who travelled to a distant land with his inheritance and squandered it in dissolute living. The manager’s job was to use his master’s resources wisely—to manage his affairs in a way that would benefit his master—but he wasted the opportunity and wasted the resources that were entrusted to him. It is as if the manager never expected his boss to ask about how things were going, and, when his boss finally asked for an accounting of his management, the employee knew that he was in trouble.
Quickly, the manager sat down and considered his options: “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am too ashamed to beg. Here’s what I will do. In order to earn favor with my master’s debtors, I will slash their debts so that, when I’ve been fired, they will owe me a favor and give me a job.” That’s dishonest. It’s cheating. It’s further betraying the trust of his master. But it was smart, and even the master recognized how smart it was. Jesus tells us that the owner commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness—for his cunning, his wisdom, his prudence.
It’s not supposed to make sense—at least not in earthly terms. Parables are designed to convey an unexpected or other-worldly truth, and those truths usually leave us challenged if not confused. Notice that the owner didn’t celebrate his employee’s dishonesty. He commended him for his shrewdness. The word translated for us as shrewdness implies that, for the first time, the manager paid attention to that visceral sense within himself and acted as if his decisions mattered—as if the way he used the resources entrusted to him could make a difference. And it was the urgency of the situation—the threat of being fired and ending up destitute—that clarified for the manager what he was supposed to be doing all along.
Isn’t that what Jesus is trying to teach all of us—that the lives we live, the relationships we value, the time we have, the talents we have been given, and the treasure that has been entrusted to us must all be devoted to the coming reign of God because the transformation of the world that God is enacting through Jesus Christ is a matter of utmost urgency? You don’t have to live in fear that the second-coming of Jesus Christ is imminent in order to appreciate that now is the time for us to act in order that God’s reign might fully come. Just ask the men and women and children who eat at Community Meals each week. Just ask the undocumented immigrants who hug and kiss their children goodbye in the mornings because they know that a knock could come at their door at any time. Just ask the spouses and children who drop off their loved ones at Caring Friends because a few hours of rest is the only thing that makes it possible for them to keep those who are struggling with dementia at home. None of those people has the luxury of sitting around and squandering the resources that have been given to them. And, if we are going to be followers of Jesus, then we don’t have that luxury either.
You know who else understands that sense of urgency? The children of this world do. Seventeen years ago, when I worked as a paralegal, I had to keep track of every minute of my day because our firm billed clients $90 an hour for my time. If it took me six minutes to go to the bathroom, the firm was out $9. Every minute of my day mattered. That’s how the world works. Insurance companies and doctors. State legislatures and teachers. Online retailers and warehouse workers. The economies of this world know how precious every moment, every dollar, every keystroke is. The children of this world know how to use the resources at their disposal to accomplish their purposes with blinding efficiency and greed-fueled urgency. What would happen if the children of light did the same?
You have been given so much. You have so many resources at your disposal. If you recognized that the time was urgent, that the reign of God was right around the corner, that the transformation of this world into the world that God dreams it could be was imminent, wouldn’t you do something about it? Wouldn’t you do anything and everything to make that happen? Wouldn’t you even give up all that you have in order to make that reality true?