The gamble (Sept. 22, 2013)

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper C 20 / Lectionary 25
September 22, 2013

The texts for the sermon

Luke 16:1-13:  Then 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. 2So 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.’ 3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then 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.’ 8And 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. 9And 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.

10“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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No 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.”

The First reading (Amos 8:4-7) and Psalm (Psalm 113) are quoted to in the body of the sermon.

The Prayer of the Day:

Almighty God, you have shown yourself the defender of the poor and protector of the weak.  Come to the aid of those in need, and reveal to all the folly of putting our hope and trust in wealth.  Grant us wisdom in dealing with our possessions that we may receive from your hand life’s true riches; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. (Amos 8:4-7)

Challenging Words

The words of the prophets are tough, even brutal.  And what Jesus has to say about our possessions is no less challenging.  Again and again the prophets raked the people of Judah and Israel over the coals for their abandonment of God’s vision for their life together.  We hear Amos today attacking the hunger for wealth that resents the interruption in business caused by the Sabbath and ignores the Biblical commands not to squeeze every penny, but to leave the gleanings for those in need.  This is the reference to selling the sweepings of the wheat: there are people desperate enough to pick grains of wheat out of the cracks in the pavement at the end of the market day, but sellers sweep carefully to make sure they have made every last penny.  It’s not just the attitude of miserliness and greed, the surrender to covetousness, that offends God; it is the rejection of God’s vision that the community of Israel would not be divided into rich and poor, masters and servants.

The people of God were to be a people of compassion.  When Paul writes to the Corinthians that “God loves a generous giver,” he is not trying to guilt his people into making an offering, he is reminding them of the obvious: God is a generous giver, and for us to live otherwise is to deny the one whose name we bear.

The character of God

We hear about the character of God in the psalm this morning:

Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high,
who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.  (Psalm 113:5-9)

It is God’s essential character not to stand with the powerful but to stand with the weak.  It is God’s essential character to regard all people equally, princes and the poor.  James lashes into the Christian community for treating the rich person with fawning attention and sending the poor man to the margins.  God chooses the younger son, Jacob, over his elder brother, Esau.  God chooses the youngest son, David, over his seven brothers.  “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not,” writes Paul, “to bring to nothing things that are.” And when the coming birth of Jesus is announced to Mary she sings her great song: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden… He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has cast the mighty down from their thrones and lifted up those of low degree.”

We are so tempted by religions of power.  We are so tempted by ideas and images of conquest and victory and triumph.  Our greatest icon is the Superbowl.  I love football, and I want our team to win, but we don’t kneel before conquest; we kneel before the cross.

The Roman Empire was the epitome of conquest.  The games in the arena, the battles of the gladiators, the torture of the enemies of the state upon the cross, the feeding of Christians to the lions – these all exalted the power of Rome.  They all exalted victory.  They worshipped gods of glory.

We call God a god of power and might, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Exodus and of Jesus – his power and might are shown chiefly in mercy, in compassion, in faithfulness, in suffering.  Our central defining image is not a sword, but the cross upon which slaves were impaled.  There, we say, the eternal truth of the universe is made most visible.

God is a god of grace and compassion.  God is a god who sets free those in bondage.  When we declare that God forgives, we are saying that he frees us from our debt to God.  He opens the prison doors.  He declares us free.  “He lifts the poor from the dust.”  He lifts us all from the dust – including the dust of the grave.

The need to live in harmony with the character of God

And if God is a god who lifts us from the dust, we cannot be people who trample others into the dust.  If God is a god who gives generously, we need to practice generosity.  If God is a god who forgives, we need to practice forgiveness.  If God is a god who welcomes the stranger, we need to welcome the stranger.  If God is a god who gives life, we need to be life-givers.

The steward in our parable this morning isn’t shrewd; he is wise.  He understands that his master is a good man, and banks his whole life on that goodness.  I want to say that again: The steward in our parable this morning isn’t shrewd; he is wise.  He understands that his master is a good man, and banks his whole life on that goodness.  So let’s walk through this parable carefully, so you can see how dramatic this story is and why it challenges us to be wise – and to bank our lives on the goodness of God.

A good man

The parable starts out:

There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.  2So 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.’

What Jesus’ audience would have understood from this brief introduction was that the rich man was a good man, a man of honor.  If charges had been brought by some underling, then the master would have begun an investigation.  But there is no investigation, here.  The only investigation is the question, “What is this I hear?” which is a standard trick to get someone to implicate himself.  When a child has done something wrong and is hiding that secret and you ask this question, this child assumes the secret is out and begins to make excuses or to cast the blame on somebody else – and in the process he or she reveals the truth of the allegation.  But the man is smart; he remains silent.  And from there the master moves immediately to dismissal: “Turn over the books.  You’re done.”

The fact that there is no investigation means that the master has been warned not by underlings for whom envy and rivalry may have been at play; he is being warned by people of his own station in life.  His neighbors and friends have warned him not to trust this servant.  If the master were not a good man, there would be no point in warning him that his servant was acting corruptly.  If he, himself, were dishonorable, no neighbors would come to his aid.  But his good reputation is at stake.  And since he is a good man, his neighbors and friends warn him.

So the set up to the story is a good man, who is wealthy because of his agricultural lands, who hears from other landowners that his chief steward is not to be trusted.

A scattered people

The message the landowner receives is that this servant is squandering the his property.  The word ‘squander’ is the same word that’s used in the previous story in Luke’s gospel about the prodigal son.  The son took his inheritance and ‘squandered’ it.  This word translated ‘squandered’ means ‘to scatter.’  The reason that word matters to our hearing of the text is that God’s people have been scattered – and the work of God in Christ Jesus is to gather back the wounded and the outcast, the tax collectors and “sinners,” to bring back those who have been scattered – a work for which Jesus has been criticized.  The Pharisees, the religious and political leaders of Judah, are scattering God’s possessions, driving people away from God rather than gathering the world to God.

So from these opening lines we know that the master is good and that the servant has been scattering the master’s possessions.  And we know that in the background of the story is a good God and a religious community that has been scattering rather than gathering God’s people.

The servant’s choice

The servant is fired on the spot and sent to get the books.  Then we get to hear this little speech of the servant: “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.”  He sizes up his situation and decides on a course of action.  He’s going to call in the master’s debtors and rewrite their contracts.

These are tenant farmers who are obligated to provide the landowner with a certain amount at the end of the harvest.  He calls them in one by one so they don’t talk to each other.  Because he calls them in when its not harvest time, the tenant farmers assume that the master’s agent has some important message for them from the master.  They don’t know yet that the estate manager has been fired.  If they had known, they would never come.

He calls them in and tells them to sit down and rewrite their contracts.  This reflects great generosity on the part of the landowner.  50 jugs of oil is worth 500 hundred denarii.  It’s more than a year’s wages.  The community is ecstatic and celebrates this great generosity on the part of the master.

The gamble

Now, understand, that nothing this estate manager does after he has been dismissed by the master has any binding force.  The master is not legally or morally obligated to honor these new contracts.  But now he is trapped.  If he voids these false contracts, he will be resented by all these people who are now celebrating his generosity.  This is why it matters we understand from the beginning that the landowner is a good man.  The steward is banking his future on the master’s goodness.  He is counting on the master not to overturn these contracts.

When everything is revealed, the community won’t trust the steward, he’s a crook, but they will be grateful.  And they will reciprocate.  This is why the master commends his servant.  He was clever.  But more than clever, he was wise.  He understood the moment in which he lived and the need to take decisive action.  And he understood the master’s goodness and gambled everything on that mercy.

The need to choose wisely

As we stand in the presence of Jesus, as we face the dawning reign of God, we need to understand the moment, we need to choose wisely, we need to act decisively, and build our lives on the character of God.

“The children of this age,” says Jesus, “are wiser in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” The poor, the outcasts, the sinners – they all understand what’s happening in Jesus and have come and followed him.  But the “children of light,” the religious people, aren’t wise enough to recognize what’s happening.

We say God is generous, but we aren’t generous.  We say God is forgiving, but we aren’t forgiving.  We say God is merciful, but we aren’t merciful.  We say God welcomes the alien but we don’t welcome the outsider.  We say God loves his enemies, but we don’t love our enemies.  The “children of light” aren’t wise enough to recognize the moment that is upon us.

“Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” says Jesus, “so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  Make friends for yourself in heaven by the way you use your money on earth.  Remember Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham; you want him to welcome you on that day when your money no longer means anything.

The character of wealth

Then comes one of the more troubling declarations.  It begins with the obvious statement “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.”  (And notice the implication that money is a little thing.)  And then Jesus says:

 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

Dishonest wealth doesn’t mean wealth gained dishonestly.  The word translated dishonest is actually “unrighteous” and the word translated ‘wealth’ is ‘mammon.’  Mammon is a transliteration of a Greek word created from an Aramaic word for wealth and possessions.

It is unrighteous, not because it is gained immorally or illegally, but because it is part of this fallen world.  Money wasn’t needed in the Garden of Eden and it won’t be needed in heaven, but it is a fact of life, a kind of necessary evil, so to speak.

The word mammon seems to come from the Aramaic root “to trust.”  Mammon is the wealth and possessions in which we put our trust.  And if our trust is in our material possessions rather than in God, then for that reason, too, it is unrighteous or unfaithful.

This is the character of wealth.  It has the power to twist and distort relationships.  It has the power to twist and distort the human heart.  There are scientific studies that show how it twists our perceptions.  And greed and covetousness cause all manner of sorrows to the human community.

Choosing wisely

So how do you keep money from corrupting us?  How do we keep possessions from leading us away from God?  We practice giving it away.  We practice generosity.  We practice using it to manifest the grace and love of God.

We recognize that it belongs to God and that we are but stewards of it.  We are stewards, managers of God’s gracious gifts – and the measure of life is not how much we accumulate, but how much we give … for God is a generous giver.

So then comes this troubling phrase: “if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”

What do we have that belongs to another?  Remember the question about the coin: “Whose image is on it?”  Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.  You bear the image of God.  You belong to another.  Your life, in all its many dimensions, your skills and talents and possessions and time – it belongs to God.  If you have not been faithful with this life, who will give you the life to come?

And so we come to the familiar text that as a slave cannot serve two masters, neither can we serve God and mammon.

The servant in our parable recognized the gravity of his situation and the need to act decisively.  He banked his whole life on the generosity and goodness of his master.  And so should we.

Amen.

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