Sermon for September 18th

First Reading Amos 8:4-7

Second Reading 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Gospel Reading Luke 16:1-13

Sermon “Jesus Said What?!?”

In C. H. Dodd’s book, “The Parables of the Kingdom”. He offers this definition of a parable, which certainly applies to the one we just read from Luke. It goes like this: “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought”.

“Active thought” is certainly going to be required as we consider this most puzzling of all of Jesus’ parables. I’ll not apologize for asking you to think along with me this morning either. The learning and understanding of scripture takes effort and time. We do ourselves a disservice if we are content to merely be Biblical catfish who swallow whatever tidbits drift by from time to time. Lots of preachers and commentators thoughts have gone very different ways with this one, so I’ll be brave enough to offer my own viewpoint as well.

Quite frankly, this parable offends many people. We find it disturbing that Jesus appears to find anything at all commendable in such a person as this rich man’s dishonest manager. Much less to hear that somehow the scoundrel “gets it” and we believers don’t! It’s especially troublesome that Jesus tells this parable specifically to his own disciples! Our immediate opinion of this steward is the same as his boss’: ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ In other words, you are about to be audited! Apparently, through either waste or fraud, or both, he had been a very poor manager and so SHOULD be fired we say.

The fellow seems as dishonest in trying to find a way out of his predicament as he likely was getting into it. We get to overhear him talking to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— [4] I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ And so … one by one, he calls in his bosses biggest debtors and has them alter the records to drastically reduce what they owed. I imagine he was indeed quite popular with them for his generosity with his boss’ money.

The other aspect that makes us uncomfortable is not only the rich master’s commendation of the manager’s “shrewdness”, but Jesus too. We expect him to be hopping mad – yet he isn’t. Instead he commends his steward’s shrewdness. Perhaps he just admired a fellow chiselers craft? Some have proposed more honorable possibilities: Notice that each bill is discounted a different amount, though as some commentators note, each discount was worth about the same amount of money – about 500 Denarii. Might this have been his commission? If so, he was making use of something valuable that he could not keep anyway, so that he could still benefit from it in the future in terms of good will and favors returned. Also, imagine the reaction of those clients. This sudden write down of their debts would have been a very welcome gift. It would have brought substantial gratitude and honor to both the rich man and his about to be fired steward as well. If he made a stink about it, his reputation would have suffered too. Perhaps the rich man’s reputation needed some rehabilitation -Perhaps his steward was very shrewd indeed!

We normally use that word “shrewd” to describe ethically questionable, if not down right illegal, self-serving behavior, just like it seems to here. What could such things possibly have to do with the children of the kingdom of God – indeed “People of the light” as Jesus says. Listen again to the later portion of this parable and some of the comments that follow it: Luke 16:8-9 NIV “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

It seems likely that this is a parable by contrast similar to the parable of the ‘Persistent Friend”, Luke recorded for us back in chapter 12. There, Jesus told of a man who went banging on his neighbors door in the middle of the night to get food for a late arriving guest. After much banging and pleading, he finally got what he needed. Now obviously, the point of the parable is not that we need to be persistent pests and irritate God to get what we need, but rather that if that neighbor will get up and give this rude, late night door beater what he needs, how much more will our loving and gracious God give us good things when we ask. Similarly, when Luke tells us of Jesus’ parable of the unjust Judge who only granted the poor widow justice because of her incessant pleas, in Chapter 18, He doesn’t mean to say that God doesn’t care – quite the opposite. It’s how much more will our loving and gracious God give us good things when we ask.

The stark contrast is intended to help make the point and I think that is the case with our current parable as well. I even think Jesus might have had a mischievous smile on his face when he told some of his parables. In this case it might well be that Jesus wants us to consider that if this very secular steward, whether he’s honest of not, knows how to use what was entrusted to him to serve a larger, longer range goal, then How much more should we believers know what to do with the riches that we have been untrusted with!

Jesus’ commendation of this crook seems strange, but it begins to make some sense if we understand the contrast. Now we can go a couple of different ways at this point. The obvious one from the last line of the reading is that the children of “this world” use their money more wisely than do God’s children: that is with respect to God’s purposes. Our use of our resources tells us a awful lot about our priorities and loyalties. Jesus had already told his disciples (Luke 12:34 NIV) “…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

We are truly stewards of God’s world – You know what a steward is? – one who has been given control over resources that are not their own. Like our questionable friend in the parable, each of us has been entrusted with our master’s riches – are we going to be found to be faithful? It matters a great deal to Jesus as he goes on to say: (Luke 16:10-13 NIV) [10] “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. [11] So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? [12] And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? [13] “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

If the dishonest steward was commended for using that which he had so shrewdly. How about us? He demonstrated radical mercy and forgiveness did he not? Perhaps Jesus would have us think along those lines? From a certain point of view, assuring another that God loves and forgives them bears a possible similarity to the parable now doesn’t it. We are stewards of such wonderful blessings – are we going to share them?

Or perhaps, we could be still more literal and acknowledge that we have skills and resources that could be implored for eternal benefits as sons and daughters – not mere stewards – but full heirs of the kingdom. Perhaps these are the little things that Jesus would have us pay attention to. Little things like worldly wealth – those things that we are faithfully told are temporary and passing away – yet important to be used well and wisely.

These things are minor compared to the wonders of God’s Grace, mercy, forgiveness and God’s everlasting love. They are small compared to the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit with us here on earth and the promise of eternity with our Savior in Heaven. They are vanishingly small compared to those things and yet…and yet… Jesus said “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” Little things matter too. Its our training ground it seems. Our reading from Amos today clearly that teaches how we treat each other matters to God.

The life of a disciple is one of faithful attention to things great and small. A kind word here – a moment of sharing there. A difficult situation redeemed with grace and forgiveness here and just an extra hug for a child there. We are given the keys and the treasures of the Kingdom of God. We are their stewards whether material or Spiritual.

One faithful who is with Nickels and dimes is one who can be trusted with a large account. But it is so easy to overlook and neglect the little things while sincerely believing that you are fully trustworthy in the larger ones. Most of life it seems consists of a series of small opportunities. As Fred Craddock says in his commentary on this passage: “Most of us will not christen a ship this week, write a book, win a war, be appointed to the President’s cabinet, dine with royalty, convert a nation or be burned at the stake as a martyr. More likely, your week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county officer, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story or feed the neighbors cat”. Its by the little stuff that our trust allegiance is known.

We find our sacred examples in strange places sometimes – for Jesus it was everyday life. Lets go and live for him, giving glory to God in all that we do – great and small.