Monday, September 19, 2022

How To Make Friends In Heaven

September 18, 2022 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 22:25.

Are you a Christian or an Arkansan? An Episcopalian or an American? Do you pledge allegiance to the flag or to God? I hope the answer can be both. Usually, we are able to hold onto both parts of our identity as citizens of this country and children of God’s kingdom without experiencing much conflict between them. One aspect informs the other. We can be both. Just as I am a priest and a husband, a father and a son, an uncle and a sibling, we all experience dual identities that we hold together without even thinking about it—until we have to. Do I cheer for Arkansas or Alabama? Usually, it’s both, but, once a year, I have to choose. Once a year, I must decide where my true allegiance lies.

Today’s gospel lesson is hard to hear in any age, but I think that understanding and applying the parable of the dishonest manager to life in the twenty-first century is even harder than it was back when Jesus first said these words. “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.” In the strange story that follows, Jesus describes a manager who cuts backroom deals with his master’s debtors in order to curry favor with them so that they will take care of him after he is fired. In the end, the owner actually praises the dishonest employee for his shrewdness, and then Jesus offers an even more astounding summary by encouraging his followers to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that, when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” What does any of that mean?

Before I try to pull apart the parable and make sense of it, let me remind you that this passage comes right on the heels of three other parables—those of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two lost sons, also known as the parable of the prodigal son. If you can’t remember the details of those parables, don’t worry. Suffice it to say that Jesus wanted his audience of religious leaders to understand why he always ate with tax collectors and sinners, so he told them three parables of lostness. God is the one who seeks after and finds those who have gone astray. God is the one who always welcomes the lost back into the fold. But, at the beginning of this parable, the audience changes. Instead of speaking to the scribes and the Pharisees, who didn’t like the fact that Jesus’ ministry was a model of this seeking out the lost, Jesus tells this story to his disciples—his followers—as if to remind us what it means to belong to the one who has come and found us.

So what is life as one of Jesus’ disciples supposed to look like—like a dishonest manager, quickly and quietly telling his master’s debtors to cancel large portions of what they owe in order to benefit from that malfeasance down the road? Well, sort of. This isn’t a parable that is supposed to teach us how to run a business or how to cheat and get ahead. But it is supposed to teach us that we should approach our place in God’s kingdom with the same focus, intensity, and urgency that someone who belongs fully to the ways of the world would approach the news that they were about to lose their job. But making sense of this parable requires us to separate the dishonest wealth, which is the currency of this world, from the shrewdness of the manager, which has a place both in this world and in the kingdom to which we belong.

Let’s look more closely at the story Jesus tells. The owner of a large agricultural business has heard that his chief manager is squandering his property. As soon as the manager learns that he must turn in his books and that he will lose his job, he hatches a plan. He tells one of his master’s debtors to change his bill from 100 baths of oil to 50 and another to change what he owes from 100 kors of wheat and make it 80. Those weren’t small amounts but hundreds of gallons and hundreds of bushels, worth tens of thousands of dollars in today’s money. And, because he was his master’s legal agent, those decisions were final. The manager’s dishonesty would surely be discovered, but there was no way for the owner to get his money back.

Part of what makes this parable so hard to understand is how Jesus seems to celebrate that deception. Plenty of scholars have tried to relieve that awkwardness by suggesting that the manager was simply foregoing his commission or eliminating the interest and, thus, making his master look better, but the debts that were cancelled were too large to be an interest charge or a commission. But, if we look carefully at the text, we see that Jesus isn’t actually praising the man’s dishonesty. The owner in the parable commends his manager’s shrewdness, and Jesus likewise encourages his followers to be shrewd as they deal with the dishonest wealth of this world, but the deception isn’t what’s celebrated here. The thing that is being held up for us to emulate is shrewdness—the ability to use the resources at hand to accomplish our goals. The question for us is whose goals are we trying to accomplish with the resources we have been given.

The children of this age, Jesus explains, know exactly how to get what they want with what they have. They know how to use money to manipulate a situation. They know how to make sure that, when the bill comes due, they aren’t standing there emptyhanded. And the tax collectors and sinners who were Jesus’ disciples would have been very familiar with that way of life. They all knew what it meant to belong to this world and to be good at it. It came naturally.

But the children of light—the ones who belong not to this age but to the kingdom of God—aren’t very good at using what resources they have to attain what God envisions for the world. And we aren’t good at it because using the currency of dishonest wealth to achieve godly results doesn’t come naturally at all. Shrewdness and sainthood don’t usually go together, but Jesus wants us to realize that, in fact, they do. For those of us who belong to God and God’s reign, we must—like the manager—use anything and everything at our disposal to accomplish our true purpose, and, because our true home is not in this world but in the world to come, our true purpose can only be to serve God.

We cannot serve God and wealth. We have to choose. Will we try to make enough room for God amidst our financial priorities, or will we trust that there is enough room for us and our flourishing in the kingdom of God to which we must devote all our wealth? If we belong to God—to the one who seeks us out and finds us—all our riches, our relationships, our positions, our power—everything we have in this life must be devoted to God as clearly and cleverly as the manager, who used his position to secure a comfortable place for himself when he was dismissed from his management. 

Because we belong to God, we are not waiting for someone to welcome us into an earthly home. We wait for God to welcome us into the eternal habitations. In this life, our wealth—the inherently dishonest currency of this world—is an opportunity to make friends for ourselves among those whom we know to be seated at God’s table—the poor, the outcast, and the disenfranchised. They are the ones who can welcome us into the eternal homes. So, when you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends, your relatives, or your rich neighbors in case they may invite you in return, and then you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid [when they welcome you] at the resurrection of the righteous.

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