s192g01 Sunday 25 23/9/01
"make friends for yourselves ..." Luke 16.9 (a considerably expanded sermon from three years ago)
This is a wonderful parable and the ultimate story to demonstrate how little God is interested in moral perfection and how much God is interested in our relationships with the neighbours about us. But it is interesting how the parable sits rather uncomfortably. We are not exactly certain why the dishonest steward is being commended.
And what a change of tone from the words of Jesus in the gospel of a couple of weeks ago, when we seem to be told to hate the members of our families ....
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 today's 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 those they considered the "riffraff".
We have been recently reminded about 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. Sadly, quite some time has past since the Jubilee 2000 was conceived and advertised, and some debt has been reduced, but there still seems delays and people are still dying through lack of the basic necessities of life.
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 at all 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 to assure the boss that he would never do it again, and 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. God is indeed interested in how blessings are used ...
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 considerably less acceptable way of squandering God's property. The religious authorities wanted Jesus to demur to them and were piqued that Jesus actually associated with others.
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 God's eyes if other people's debts are reduced or eliminated. That is what God expects of the religious authorities - but sadly that expectation was not then and is not now 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 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 with all others not hoarded to oneself or amongst one's "cronies". 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 with others who also didn't do anything to deserve Jesus dying and rising again for them. 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.
And the parable implies that the dishonest steward actually has a better idea about what the true intentions of the master are, in comparison to those who initially brought the charges against him. So by implication, it can be that those outside the community of faith, who get on with sharing what they have with the needy who have a clearer idea of God's priorities, than people in the Church who can be very discriminating in just towards whom they extend their charity.
One only has to think of the vast number of people who, though professing no particular faith, work for all sorts of charitable organisations, simply because there are people without the bare necessities of life who need a helping hand. Here we find in this parable God's "well done" to them.
And I want to draw our attention to the fact that it is the master's property that was being squandered, not the property belonging to the dishonest steward. The person is not criticised for his lack of prudence in his own business dealings. Now, I suppose we can piously say, well everything's a gift from God, and we are bidden to share every blessing that we have received, and I suppose that that's fair enough. The oil and the wheat do point to the basic necessities of life which we are bidden to share. But I wonder if we ought not to see in these, things that specifically come from God. I suppose in times past I might have immediately lighted on "forgiveness" as a specifically God given blessing. But as I think about it, the people who were anointed with oil in the Old Testament were the priest and the king. I was struck, as I looked up references to anointing in the Bible, the one that jumped out was Exodus 29.1,2: "Now this is what you shall do to them to consecrate ... priests. Take ... unleavened bread, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers spread with oil. You shall make them of choice wheat flour." The hundred jugs of oil and the hundred containers of wheat are all about giving others the wherewithal to be priests and kings, not suitably compliant and humble disciples.
And the shear quantity of oil and wheat mean that those who receive it are also able to share with others.
And again, this is precisely what Jesus did as he sat down and ate with sinners, he honoured them. This is precisely why the religious authorities killed Jesus, because he honoured others, when they expected him only to honour them.
And returning to Jesus' words about hating the members of our families, we are called to hate the fact that someone has become "ours". We are to honour those who are not "ours", this is the breadth of squandering that God expects of 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 and to all people: How much do you owe God? Sit down and write: None!
That seems to me to be good news for everyone and something which should mean we are friends with everyone.
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