September 22, 2019

Pentecost 15C

The Unjust Steward

GOSPEL

Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, `What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?’ He replied, `A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, `Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And 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.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Luke 16:1-13

 

SERMON

Most sermons on this morning gospel, known as the parable of the unjust steward, begin with making the point that it is a strange and difficult text.  And it certainly is. It doesn’t seem to make much sense. In it, a dishonest employee is commended by his boss. That is not how we want the world to be.   That’s not what we want to teach our kids. That is not what we want or expect Jesus to say or encourage. So let’s begin somewhere else.

“Give me an accounting of your management,” the master said to his manager.  Now, we’ve all heard those words, in one form or another, sometime in our life.  Probably an accounting has been asked or even demanded of us many times.

+ Were you ever invited to an IRS audit?  I was. 

+ Did you ever get called to the principal’s office?  During my seminary years I was frequently called to the rector’s office.

+ Or maybe it was your therapist and he or she said, “So tell me about your life.  What is going on?”

+ Did your boss ever summon you to his or her office?

+ Or you come home and your spouse utters those four dreaded words, “We need to talk.”

+  And each Sunday we come to that place in the liturgy when the priest says, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.”

In all such situations, an accounting of our management is being demanded of us.  It’s not easy. Giving an accounting can be an uncomfortable and even a fearful experience. We review our words and actions and wonder, “What have I done?  What have I left undone?  What will happen to me as a result of my accounting?”

No one likes to give an accounting.  We’re pretty private about our books, so to speak.  Not only do we not want others to see the balance. Sometimes we do not want to see the balance.  We do not want to face and deal with that reality. But that is what this accounting asks of us.

The accounting demanded of this manager, just like the ones demanded of us, is really an accounting of his life.  It asks us to open the books of our life and examine and audit what we are doing with our life and whom we are serving.  It raises important questions.  

What are we doing with the resources, assets and gifts entrusted to us?  Think about all we have: time, money, relationships, love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, talents and abilities, questions and curiosities.  

What if we were to give an accounting of these?  What would our books look like? What would they reveal about us?  Where, how, in what ways, on whom are we spending and investing these assets?  Are we the only beneficiaries? Are our families the only beneficiaries? Are our friends the only beneficiaries? 

These are not just to be answered personally.  There is also a communal accounting of our management to be given.  What would it look like for this nation to give and honest and truthful accounting of its management?  What would do the books and balances say about our national life? The books would record that we are: abusing the stranger; refusing to make affordable health care available to all; renewing a reliance on fossil fuel to the death of the environment; allowing our schools, houses of worship and recreational and work environment to become increasingly unsafe; making space in the public square for the expression of fascism and racism. 

In each instance we are trying to serve two masters.  Jesus says that we simply cannot serve God and the interests of money.  It just does not work.

Today’s gospel calls us to account for our management of all that we are and all that we have.  The demand for an accounting often sounds like someone is in trouble. That is how the parable begins.  The manager has been charged with squandering his master’s property. He is going to be fired. He will loose his job, income, reputation and status.  A part of him is dying. At some level he will loose his life, as he now knows it.

Whether we’ve lived it, heard it from a friend or colleague, or read it in the news, it’s a familiar story.  Somebody has been bad. They have been caught with their hands in the till. They are going to get what they deserve.  That’s how it works. That how we expect it to work.

But that is not how the kingdom of God works and parables rarely meet our expectations.  So we ought not be too quick to come to a final or definitive interpretation of this parable.  We cannot quickly declare who, if anyone in particular, each character represents: God, Jesus, or us. The parable offers ambiguity and tension not a neat resolution, and does that not feel a lot like real life?

Maybe this story in general and the manager in particular is simply a picture of that ambiguity and tension.  It is a picture that looks very familiar to most of us, a picture of the tension and ambiguity of own lives, struggles and decisions.  There is even some ambiguity in labeling the man the “dishonest manager.” What does that mean?

Maybe the label “dishonest” isn’t what we think it is.  Maybe it is less a declaration about the man and more a description of his relationship to his master.

First, we have no details of what this man did or did not do to be charged with squandering and to be fined or whether the charges are even valid.

Second, while the word that is translated as dishonest can refer to a particular action or wrongdoing it can also mean the quality of unrighteousness.  In that sense the manager’s relationship with his manager is not right. It is broken, impaired, out of sync. 

Perhaps the manager has chosen self-interest, self-loyalty, and self-serving over interest in, loyalty to, and service of his master. That can happen quickly and easily to any of us.  This manager is then the face and image of Jesus’ words, “You cannot serve two masters.”

Since we do not know a lot about this guy or what he did maybe we can shift our focus a bit.  Instead of trying to audit his books maybe we ought to examine our own books.

Instead of being shocked that the manager is commended maybe we can see precedent, hope, a possibilities for our own commendation.  The accounting that should have been the manager’s ruin became the starting point for a new life, new relationships and a new home.

Grace was hiding in a demand for accounting, waiting to be discovered and claimed.  The accounting demanded of this manager was both an ending and a beginning. a death and a resurrection.

While the master may have wanted an audit of past numbers and transactions, the manager saw that his old life was empty, and even bankrupt.  New life would be seen only by looking forward. New life would only be found by being and doing differently.

The manager claimed for himself the grace hidden in his master’s demand for an accounting, and he was commended for doing so.  If the “dishonest manager” can be commended, why not me? Why not you?

Here’s a crazy idea.  What if the accounting asked of us is never complete, the books are never closed, and the bottom line is never tallied, until there is new life, until there is a commendation?  What if the accounting is not about finding wrongdoing but new life? What if it is about grace rather then punishment? That certainly changes our usual understanding of an accounting but isn’t that what parables are supposed to do?  They change the way we see and understand. If a parable makes sense, we have probably missed the point.

The accounting of our management isn’t about numbers, wrongdoing, or punishment but about helping us to see and orient our lives in a new direction.  It opens us to new possibilities. It points us to those ultimate realities and to our grasp of eternity.

“Give me an accounting of your management,” What are you doing with your life?  Who are you serving?

 

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna

September 22, 2019