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s192g98 Somerton Park Sunday 25 20/9/98

"make friends for yourselves ..." Luke 16.9

This is a wonderful parable and the ultimate story to demonstrate how little God is interested in moral perfection and how great God is interested in our relationships with the neighbours about us.

I note that "charges were brought to .." the rich man that the manager was "squandering his property .." The rich man obviously cares little about his property, for he commends the man for squandering his goods even more after he is challenged. It begs the question, who are these anonymous people who bring these charges and why initially are they believed?

Putting these words in context - they follow immediately after the parable of the prodigal son, more aptly named the parable of the prodigal father. Precisely the same phrase is used in both parables: "squandered" his property (15.13,16.1) The end of that parable gives us the picture of the elder son complaining to the father of the younger son who: "devoured your property with prostitutes". These parables are put together and we are bidden to see their similarities and their differences.

The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son / father are a trilogy, put one after another, and all spoken in response to the grumbling of the religious authorities - grumbling that Jesus sat down and ate with sinners. (15.2) And at the end of the words of todays gospel passage we are told: "The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him." (Luke 16:14).

So the person who is charged with squandering the property is clearly Jesus, and those who are bringing the charges are the religious authorities, who want Jesus not to squander God's property on the riffraff.

Professor Norman, Canon Treasurer of York Minster, wrote a feature article for the "Church Times" in England around about the time of the anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, criticising the outpouring of grief. It was an article full of vitriol, and I wonder what happened to the conception that one shouldn't speak evil of the dead. He concluded his remarks by saying: "Diana's lifestyle while she was in the world was not exactly like that of most saints; and the public's sense of her sanctity saw no connection between the existence of God and a structure of religious ideas. It was, instead, the symbolical sanctification of humanity itself, the confirmation of today's welfare culture, the tragic embodiment of today's dogma that caring for people is much more important than the exacting demands of authentic religion."

I do not know what religion the Reverend Canon is talking about and he is welcome to his exacting God. But let me say that I far prefer the prodigal God of this parable - despite the ambiguities and uncertainties that surround him / her.

We were told at the Diocesan Synod of the Jubilee 2000 project and other such schemes to try to bring some relief to the very poor and highly indebted countries of this world. I could not envisage a more appropriate gospel reading to illustrate the appropriateness of these proposals.

However I want to go back and ask why the rich man initially sides with those who charge the manager with squandering his property. And why then the change of heart when the manager doesn't repent, or say sorry, but goes and squanders the rich man's property even more! I mean that if the rich man was interested in keeping his goods to himself, I would have thought that the more appropriate response for the manager to make would be to say sorry and assure the boss that he would never do it again, or go out and "strong arm" the creditors to pay up in full and pay up NOW.

If it is the religious authorities that do bring these charges against Jesus, God clearly listens to the religious authorities, at least initially.

I suppose that there are acceptable ways of squandering God's property and less acceptable ways of squandering God's property. Squandering God's property on others, as the manager did, obviously is an acceptable way of squandering God's property. Squandering God's property only on oneself to the detriment of others is a less acceptable way of squandering God's property.

God initially listens to the religious authorities, and God allows wool to be pulled over the divine gaze. God doesn't mind having the wool pulled over his / her eyes if other people's debts are reduced or eliminated. That is what God expects of the religious authorities - but sadly that expectation is not always fulfilled.

This says another powerful thing about God - God is not the omnipresent all seeing headmaster waiting to dish out 50 "of the best" for anyone who is "caught stepping out of line". There are so many things that we think occupy God's concern - things like correct doctrine, the survival of the Church, moral purity .. I mean the list is endless. The only thing that God is actually interested in, is how we get on with others, and if we can help others live lives free of the burden of debt or sin.

The dishonest manager is commended for acting shrewdly, and again this speaks volumes against how St Paul is often portrayed as teaching salvation by faith alone. If our faith is in a "penny-pinching" God then we will not be saved by our faith - let alone anyone else. If our faith is in a prodigal God, then we and all people are indeed much more likely to be saved.

So liberality is faithfulness, elitism of any sort is dishonest - religious elitism or any other sort. Any form of wealth is dishonest in the sense that all wealth is a gift to be shared not hoarded to oneself. Wealth is not dishonest of itself - but the conception that something belongs to me by divine right is never true. "This is mine" is a dishonest statement, because everything exists to be shared.

So the "promised land" is bequeathed to the people of God to be shared. The blessing of Christians is not to form a little enclave of purity, but to be shared. If we share the little we have we will be repaid many times over, if we don't, we will keep the little we have been given.

The rich man sees good in the shrewdness of the manager - what an astonishing thing! Traditionally the Church has bidden us commend only those who have first repented of their sins, then amended their lives and finally believed in the good news. God can spot good even when often we don't. I believe that is how we are bidden to share our wealth, by seeing good in others, as God has seen some good in us.

I want to conclude by repeating the words of the wonderful passage of the summoning of the masters 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.'" (Luke 16:5-7). This is, of course, what has happened to us, and to all, on the Cross. Jesus on the Cross says to us: How much do you owe God? Sit down and write: None! That seems to me good news!


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