Sunday, September 19, 2010

Seventeenth after Pentecost, 2010

Sermon by the Rev. Philip Wainwright
at St. Andrew's Church, 9 a.m. & 11 a.m.

The Dishonest Agent
Luke 16.1­13

The parable we just heard is one of the most discussed, most argued about, of all Jesus's parables. There are actually whole books about nothing but that one parable! The reason, of course, is v 9, where Jesus says '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.' Is Jesus really telling us we can buy our way into heaven?

This passage is better known as the Parable of the Unjust Steward, although Dishonest Manager is accurate enough, and the man in this parable is definitely top-level management; he has complete control over the finances of the business. And when one day the chairman of the board decides to inspect the books, he apparently finds lots of irregularities, because he immediately fires the guy who's been managing the business. And it looks like the manager really had been up to no good, because when the audit begins he doesn't say, ‘I'm innocent, I have nothing to fear,' he says, ‘Oh oh, the game's up, how do I get out of this one, how will I ever get another job?' But he's up to the challenge: before the inspection is complete and while he still has his job, he goes to all the big customers who have a bill outstanding and says, ‘Hey, I'm going to do you a good turn. Pay half the bill, and I'll give you a receipt, an official, stand-up-in-court receipt for the full amount. And then just remember that you owe me one.'

So after he was fired he had lots of people who owed him favours, and presumably he was able to turn that to his own use either by getting a job with one of them or a chunk of cash from one of them—we don't know the details, only that when he was in trouble for bad business dealings he saved himself by even worse business dealing.

And Jesus, speaking to the disciples in vv 8 and 9, says ‘that guy was smart! You should be like him!' Jesus says that even the chairman of the board had to admit that the dishonest manager had acted shrewdly, and then Jesus goes on to say 'the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light'. And then adds the shocker, '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.'

The first rule for understanding any Bible passage, of course, is to put it in context. And the context here, I'd like to suggest, is not the verses about money that come after this parable, but another parable that Jesus told immediately before this one, the parable of the prodigal son. If you look at these two parables in your Bible, you'll see that they go together. Jesus finishes the parable of the prodigal son in one verse, and the next verse is v 1 of today's reading.

Even if it's Luke rather than Jesus who puts the two parables back to back, it's because he sees a connection between them, and the connection is pretty clear when you look at them together. The rich man in the parable we heard was squandering the owner's property, v 1 says, and the same word is used in the parable of the prodigal son, who squanders his own property. Both parables use the image of squanderers of money to illustrate the mess mankind is in, and the way out that God provides for us.

We'll see the importance of this connection when we understand what Jesus really means by telling us to use money to secure our place in heaven, so let's press on and think a bit more about v 8: 'The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.' The chairman of the board has to admit that the manager had done a smart thing, even though we can be sure he wasn't pleased about it.

People whose concern is only for the things of this world are always in competition with each other for the things of this world, and they know a good move when they see one, even if it takes money out of their own pocket. I don't know if you've ever been the victim of a con trick; I have, and my own experience was that while it certainly made me mad to have lost the money, what was worse was that I fell for it, I was outsmarted, and I couldn't help admitting that the person who conned me was smarter than I was in that particular transaction. Jesus is accurately describing one of the things that the owner of the business had to be feeling—although only one. That's why He comments, 'the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.'

This comment makes clear the comparison being made in the parable. It's comparing the way worldly people deal with worldly things to the way godly people deal with godly things—the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the children of the light in dealing with their own kind. The parable is not about whether people whose concern is spiritual recognise the shrewdness of those whose concern is with the things of this world, but whether Jesus's disciples, to whom Jesus is telling this parable, can recognise good spiritual dealings the way worldly people recognise good worldly dealings. And Jesus is thinking about that because He has just told them the parable about the prodigal son, and remember how that ends: the good son, the one who always obeyed his father, who never ran away and squandered his inheritance, is mad at his father for welcoming the scoundrel home. He could not see that his father had behaved 'shrewdly' towards the scoundrel, because he had done what would bring the lost son back into the family. The younger son is clearly a sinner in need of forgiveness, and the father is clearly God, the prodigal forgiver.

The question that parable ends with is whether or not the older son, who clearly does not think he is a sinner, who thinks of himself as the righteous one, can see what a good thing the father has done, even though there's a sense in which the older son is the victim of it—the younger son has spent all his own inheritance, and now he's getting a share of what will one day be the older son's inheritance, even if it's only the cost of the fatted calf banquet the old man is throwing! And if he's home for good it's not going to stop there, you can bet! Can this self-righteous person ever get to the point of saying, the sinner did the right thing in returning to the Father, and the Father did the right thing in admitting him back into the family and celebrating his return? If not, what is now the spiritual condition of the older son?

The parable of the unjust steward ends there in v 9. It's not about money, but it uses a story about money to make a point about something else. What follows this parable, starting in v 10, 'Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much,' is about money, because the stories about money in this pair of parables have naturally led Luke on to think about the things Jesus did say about money, and that's the theme of the next three chapters of Luke, as you'll hear over the next few Sundays.

Neither the parable of the prodigal son nor the parable about the unjust steward is about money. All Jesus's parables are about the relationship between man and God, no matter what image they use. In these parables Jesus is using the image of money, but that image stands for the way the children of light deal with each other, the way one Christian regards another, or the way a Christian regards a potential Christian, another person for whom Christ died but who hasn't turned to Christ yet. And Jesus's comment in v 9 is still using money as an image for that. He is still speaking in the language of the parable. So He is not saying, use your money to make friends who will be able to get you into heaven. He is saying make sure your attitude to how God brings His lost children back into the light doesn't become a stumbling block. One of the things that comes to my mind as I read these two parables is the way that good people sometimes react to the fact that we don't earn God's blessings. We don't deserve to be welcomed back home, we don't deserve to avoid the consequences of our unrighteous management of our lives.

We're so often tempted to deny that we need God's grace, we prefer to claim it as our right because we are good people. We don't squander our inheritance, we don't squander the firm's money. Jesus says, the children of this world know better than that about themselves, how come you disciples, you pharisees, you priests and teachers of scripture, how come you can't see that you're in the same boat as the prodigal son and the unjust steward, you have the same need for a God prodigal with His forgiveness?

The parable of the prodigal son ends with the older son, the righteous one, outside the family home, refusing to go in because the younger son is there. Now the older son too has run away from home. He needs to be forgiven and welcomed home, but he can't see it. He is not as shrewd about his spiritual security as the younger son became about his, or as the unjust steward was about his earthly security. The older son needs to learn from the younger son, just as the chairman of the board learned something from that manager. Jesus is not telling us we can buy our salvation, He is using the terms of the parable to remind us that righteous people who are still hanging on to the belief that their righteousness is what God likes about them, and that they—we—deserve God's favour. We don't.

We are so often like the younger son, like the dishonest manager, looking for a short cut to heaven, when there is in fact only one way: to pray from the heart the words we will say together in a few moments, We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us. That's the only way we will be welcomed into our heavenly homes. Let's not wait outside. Let's be spiritually shrewd, and recognise the truth about who we are, about our continuing need for forgiveness, and of our heavenly father's never-ending willingness to forgive those who see their need of it.

No comments: