Sunday, September 22, 2013

Eighteenth after Pentecost

Luke 16: 1-13 (Proper 20C2)

Grace and peace this morning, as we will enter Fall today with the autumnal equinox at precisely 4:44 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time.  Summer then officially in the rearview mirror—though of course we will continue to hope that our Pittsburgh Pirates, the Boys of Summer, may extend the season for a few weeks more!  Holding breath for the last week of the season, anyway . . . .

The Parable of the Unjust Steward at the beginning of Luke 16 seems like something of a puzzle.  What Jesus is getting at.  This estate manager is fired for poor performance, incompetence, perhaps corruption.  “Wasting” the employer’s assets.  And I guess it was not the custom to have a security escort for a terminated employee, because following his dismissal the fired manager goes back to his desk, powers-up the computer and begins to contact the accounts-payable departments of his boss’s customers –to close agreements quickly with them to settle outstanding invoices at pennies on the dollar.  Thinking maybe he can curry some favor down the road for his next job or maybe earn a few kickbacks.  This part of the story not completely clear.  But in any event somehow the employer catches wind of this and bursts in.  And then, when he sees what is happening, he does something astonishing.  He doesn't call the cops or toss the fired guy out on his ear.  Instead, and nobody sees this coming, he commends him, rehires him on the spot.  Seems very impressed with his creativity and initiative, even if it comes at cost to the company.  Gives him a raise and a promotion.   

Again, a puzzling story parable.  And even more puzzling when Jesus turns to his followers and says:  "take a lesson.”  I mean, what?    Just really a strange way to get to the moral of the story, if that’s what it is.  “You can’t serve God and Mammon.”   Not really sure how to get there from here.

But if we back out for a minute and take a look at the context of this parable,  partly remembering some of the gospel readings we've heard the past few Sundays,  a whole series of parables from Jesus in the context of a scene that began back in Luke 14 when Jesus has gone to have a meal with a leader of the local religious community.  The curious crowds assemble to see this unlikely meeting, controversial rabbi from the countryside meets establishment official, and including one person who is presented to Jesus with a disease.  And when as so often happens a challenge: the question of the authority by which Jesus will perform these healings, especially on a Sabbath day, when both the scriptures and long tradition have sharply limited the possible activities of observant Jews. 

Then these parables, as we picture Jesus speaking to the host of the dinner party, to his disciples, to the crowds out in front of the house. They are stories about what I would call the extravagant disregard of common sense.  Remembering a few of these parables from the few weeks.  A rich man is offended because so many of his neighbors have declined the invitation to his son’s wedding reception, so he tells his servants to go out into the streets and fill the hall with the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame.  Anyone they can find.  And if they don’t want to come, he says, “compel them.”  Or a shepherd is in the wilderness with his flock, a hundred sheep, probably representing all of his property, everything he has.  And he notices that one of the lambs is missing.  And he jumps up and leaves the whole flock, without any safeguard, open to the dangers of the wilderness, thieves, predators, just walks away from them, and won’t return until he’s found the one that was lost.  Again, the extravagant disregard of common sense.

Our lectionary calendar has a gap and skips the parable in this series that is probably the most famous of all the Parables of Jesus.   In Luke 15, right before he tells this morning’s Parable of the Unjust Steward, Jesus tells the story we call the Prodigal Son.  Which we know pretty well, of course.  The younger son of the wealthy man who disrespectfully asks his father for his inheritance.  “I’m tired of waiting for you to die.  Give it to me now.”  And then who takes off to squander the father’s legacy in a whirlwind of wine, women, and song.  Dead broke and unable to support himself he returns to the family estate, rehearsing all the way home his apology and request to be taken in as a hired hand.  Then the big turn.  How the father from his front door sees the son approaching, runs out at top speed from the house down the road, embraces the son, and before even the son can utter the first words of his apology and request calls to the servants to have him dressed in a festive garment and announces a banquet to be held in the his honor.

A great story.  But again, extravagant disregard of common sense.  In favor of something else.

 Guests who have never even met the host, who have no idea which fork to use then the first course is served, who have shuffled in the front door not dressed for the occasion, and without a suitable gift. The lamb that according to the shepherd’s insurance agent anyway should have been left to its own devices, sad as that certainly would be.  The son who by any authority of good parenting needs to be held accountable for his actions.  The Unjust Steward who deserves to be thrown out into the road or even to be escorted away in handcuffs.

Of course, from the other point of view—for the Guests, Lamb, Son, Steward--things just turn out way better than they ever could have hoped.  Way better. To put ourselves in their shoes for a minute this morning.  Their lives as they had known them before were headed in a bad direction. But then for reasons that go beyond any rational explanation, things get better.  And not just a little better.  Beyond anything they could ever have imagined, beyond anything that they or anyone else would ever say they deserved.

And so for us.  I’m going to spend more time thinking about “you can’t serve God and Mammon” in this context.  I think there is a bridge there, but we can try to build it when Luke 16 comes around again in Proper 20, Year C, in the Fall of 2016.  But in the meantime a nice definition from mid-20th Century Church of Ireland Bishop and theologian Richard Hanson.   “Grace means the free, unmerited, unexpected love of God, and all the benefits, delights, and comforts which flow from it.  It means that while we were sinners and enemies we have been treated as sons and heirs.”  

A twist in the question Rabbi Kushner asked in his book I guess 30 years or so ago.  He asked, “why do bad things happen to good people?”  But to be honest that question isn't all that relevant for us.  More interesting: Why do good things happen to bad people?  To look into the mirror with honesty is to know pretty much deep down that this is the only question that would apply in any meaningful way to us. 

To catch a glimpse of that when we hear this Parable of the Unjust Steward, first and when we would in a moment of insight see ourselves in his place.  Caught red-handed.  Defenseless.  Guilty as charged.  Without a leg to stand on.  Which is of course the situation for us as we come to communion this morning, that this is the Parable of the Cross.  We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.  We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.  The story of our lives.   And yet, here it is.  We reach forward with open hands to receive it.  This extravagant gift.  Undeserved.  Without any rhyme or reason except the rhyme and reason of his love.  While we were yet sinners and enemies, he died for us. 

Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

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