September 16, 2016
“No Strings Attached”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
16 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. 2 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.’ 3 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. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 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.’ 8 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. 9 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. 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. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 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.”
It is my first Sunday back in the pulpit after sabbatical and the Revised Common Lectionary serves up my least favorite parable of all time. And I’m not alone in this. Author and theologian Phyllis Tickle calls it “the most difficult parable of them all.” David Lose, the president of Lutheran Theological Seminary and one of my favorite modern biblical commentators, calls it “The most confusing parable.”
David Lose explains that if we feel confused by this parable we are not alone, it appears that Luke, when he was writing this biography of Jesus, wasn’t really sure what to do with this story. Really, what do we make of this parable?
Let’s begin by looking at the location of this story because I think that will be a big help to us, and if you’ve got your Bible open you can see what I’m talking about.
At the beginning of chapter 15 of Luke’s account of Jesus’ life, Jesus is doing things that anger the religious elite, things that were considered unclean, socially and religiously unacceptable, namely, that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors.
And the heart of their criticism is that Jesus welcomes them and sits at the same table with them, dips his fingers into the same olive oil, and thinks they are worth having a relationship with.
And while that didn’t sit right with the religious leadership, Jesus then tells a couple stories to explain why this behavior is completely in line with God’s kingdom, with what God wants to see happen in the world.
So Jesus tells them about the poor agribusiness choice of leaving the rest of the flock unprotected to seek after one lost lamb, and then rejoicing with a lavish party.
And Jesus tells them about a woman who works so hard to recover a lost coin and when she succeeds, she shares her joy with her neighbors.
And Jesus begins a longer story, saying, “There was a man who had two sons.”
We usually call this story the parable of the Prodigal son. But the story is not really about the youngest son who leaves.
The story from the beginning is about the father: “There was a man who had two sons . . . ”
A parable is different from a fairy tale or a fable, because parables are meant to disrupt what we believe rather than confirm what we believe.
If a parable leaves us with a strange feeling of disorientation, then it is has done its work well.
The parable of the son who leaves and the father who longs for him to return is truly a parable because we believe that the father is ridiculous for running out, undignified, to embrace his son, before the son says even a word about being sorry, and puts on him all the signs of honor – a ring, a cloak, sandals.
This is not what we would have done – and the father’s actions are disarming.
But this is Jesus’ way of telling us about who God is.
Immediately following the end of this parable, we find another parable and it begins almost the exact same way, which I think is meant to be a sign for us of how we need to understand it.
Jesus tells his disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager . . . “
Now I want to jump ahead quickly and look at what comes after the parable, and it is Jesus talking to the Pharisees who, we are told by Luke, are lovers of money.
And the next parable to come is about a poor man, Lazarus, and a rich man, and the rich man is punished for the way he used his wealth.
The parable we have today sits like a bridge between Jesus’ stories about how God’s kingdom works, and Jesus’ stories about the dangers of the love of money.
So what do we do with the parable in the middle?
Many commentators think that this parable is about money.
However, if it is, it is very confusing and what is the point?
Defraud your employer and be rewarded, win friends with money, be faithful with dishonest wealth (what does that even mean?)?
There are two different kinds of parables: kingdom parables which tell us what God is like and what God is doing, and wisdom parables which paint a picture for us of what our lives should look like.
I wonder if we get stuck on this story because we want to read it like a wisdom parable, when instead it is a kingdom parable.
It begins, “There was a rich man who had a manager . . . “ so from the start we know that the story is not really about the dishonest manager, but his master and so it is the master that we will want to watch closely.
The wealthy master hears from a credible source that his manager is stealing from him.
Let us for a moment take up the Jesuit practice of prayerfully and imaginatively placing ourselves into the story in the shoes of the dishonest manager. He is summoned to his boss. Maybe he has no idea why but this job is all he has in the world. He is hoping that something good is coming his way.
His boss says without warning, “You are fired, turn in your accounting books immediately.”
Words catch in the man’s throat, his stomach feels sick, he feels like he can barely breath . . . this is all I have, my whole life is in this job, and without it I have nothing, and I am too old to do manual labor and I cannot bear to beg in the streets.
I can tell by the look on my boss’s face that there is no hope of me talking him out of it. He has already judged me guilty. I need some allies quickly and the only thing I have leverage over are the debts owed to me and my master.
So I will summon all those tradespeople and reduce their bills.
And he thinks to himself, if my boss has already decided I’m a thief and a liar, this additional dishonesty won’t change a thing.
And so the man returns, still feeling a little sick, and lays the accounting books before the boss, knowing full well what he will see on the last page of the ledger, and bracing himself.
This rich man could have him thrown in jail, or maybe even worse – the manager is hoping just to be dismissed quietly.
This is the moment we see in the beautiful drawing by Burnand on the cover of the bulletin. The moment of waiting for a decision, a response.
And here is where we keep our eyes on the rich man who could choose to be cruel, self-righteous, punishing, but in the remarkable, unsettling, unfair twist of the parable, the cheat, the liar is loved and commended.
This is the moment when we see that the story was about God all along. It turns out that God has little do with what is fair and giving us what we deserve. God’s kingdom is not about keeping proper ledgers and exact accounting so that everyone gets what they deserve. It’s about God forgiving our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
Speaking personally, the trouble I have had with reading and understanding this parable, and I’ll extend that to a lot of the Bible, is that I walk up to the Bible ego-first. I want to know what the Bible wants me to do. I want to find myself in the story.
Where are the answers to my questions, O great book of answers? What does this poem, or letter, or story, or bit of history, have to do with me and my life?
The Bible, first and foremost, shows us what God is doing, reveals to us who God is by how God relates to us. Jesus is God’s living letter to us all about himself.
Of course, we will find ourselves in the story too, but that is because we belong to God.
Approaching this parable ego-first makes it very difficult to figure out what it is all about. This is how we should act? We should be dishonest and be rewarded? We should buy our friendships?
What we see in the parable feels unfair, it is all wrong (we want to say to Jesus, “No, you’ve got the punchline all wrong”). The manager was a lair and cheater and a betrayer.
But, then again, so are we. The parable is about us after all.
While I was on sabbatical I listened to this wonderful podcast, Invisibilia (mostly while I was pulling weeds) which is all about the invisible forces that move and shape us.
One episode that has really stuck with me was about the psychological concept of non-complimentary behavior.
What we all do for the most part is we tend to match other people’s behavior. When someone insults us, we fire back. When our spouse is short with us, we respond in kind. When we think a friend is ignoring us, we do the same. Every act of aggression is met with more aggression.
And when a customer service person on the phone is funny and friendly and apologizes genuinely for keeping us on hold, we tend to say, “Oh that’s ok!”
When someone smiles and waves at us in a passing car, we do the same back (even if we have no idea who they are).
To do the opposite of that, which is non-complimentary behavior, is much, much harder. To be kind and calm and gracious when someone else is irate and getting louder and aggressive. To be hurt physically or emotionally and not to do the same back. Much harder.
The podcast episode begins with a true story about some friends in a backyard enjoying good wine and good company. Suddenly a man with a gun walks into their midst and demands money. But no one has any. The man becomes more and more irate and the dinner party guests begin to realize that this will end very badly. One of the guests says to the man, “We are having a party and celebrating. Why don’t you have a glass of wine with us?” And immediately everything changes. The man tastes the wine, and it is good so he has a glass, and then he gets some cheese and puts the gun away. Finally he says, “I think I’m in the wrong place.” And he asks for a hug and leaves with his glass of wine in hand.
We listen as Jesus tells his followers if they are hit in the face, they should not respond in kind, and in fact should do just the opposite – they should turn the other cheek towards the person who hits them.
This is just so different from what we want to do. Not responding with violence, hatred, and revenge implies a profoundly different shape of our whole way of being.
Jesus says to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
As he rode into Jerusalem, the crowds wave their leaves and branches at their hoped-for conquering hero, who would crush Israel’s enemies and establish God’s kingdom. They are sorely disappointed.
What if Judas turns Jesus in to the religious authorities, not because he wanted to money perhaps, but maybe out of misplaced loyalty. He thought if soldiers came at Jesus with swords, if they drew blood, perhaps Jesus would finally step up and fight back.
But this is not God’s story.
The entire arc of God’s story found in the Bible is the ultimate act of non-complimentary behavior. When the people God loved were the transgressors, the ones who caused pain and separation, God chose love and vulnerability and self-sacrifice in Jesus Christ. On the cross Christ is the model of non-complimentary behavior, for he was wounded and chose not to wound back. And in that, he is our model of a God-shaped life.
So we sit across the table from God.
And we know we have told lies and we’ve done all kinds of mental gymnastics to convince ourselves we’ve done nothing wrong.
And we know we shared gossip when we promised secrecy.
And we know we have said things that we knew would hurt someone, and we said them anyway.
We’ve taken, and taken and taken.
We’ve been stingy with love and money and grace.
We’ve even cheated when we thought no one was watching.
We sit across the table from God and expect punishment, but find that God does not act at all the way we expect.
And this changes us, friends. This changes us.
So that we react differently –we take the grace we have received that we didn’t expect, and we send it out into the world that doesn’t expect it either. Amen.