Life — and Some Parables — are Messy

23
Sep

A sermon preached on September 22nd, 2019 based upon Luke 16:1-13 entitled  “Life – and Some Parables – are Messy.”

Life is messy.  As Christians we are called on a journey to grow in faith, hope and especially love, but the journey inevitably includes many stumblings – many times of getting lost in the dark. 

Scripture is an important resource on this journey, particularly as it gives us an opportunity to contemplate the great shining star that guides our journey, and that is Jesus.  In the end, we want to be more like Jesus. 

But Scripture can be hard to grasp.  Those of you who have been a part of our church longer than two years remember Lois Kelshaw who had embodied the Spirit of Christ in the loving hospitality she extended to all.  In Bible studies there was a common refrain we would hear from Lois when we encountered a particularly perplexing passage:  “This is why I don’t like reading the Bible!  It’s just so hard to understand!”

This morning we have one of those passages that would have evoked such a lament from Lois – one of Jesus’ parables that might well be his most confusing.  Commentators acknowledge the parable’s perplexing nature, and when they attempt an interpretation they often disagree. 

So the first thing to be said about the passage we are about to hear is that it compels from us humility from us.  Perhaps there is comfort in the end the passage acknowledges the messiness of life with which we all must grapple.

I want to take it verse by verse, making comments as we go, recognizing up front that a) I may well be off the mark in certain places, and b) we are all in different places in our spiritual journeys so that what one person needs to hear at a given moment may not be what somebody else needs.  So we ask the Holy Spirit to be present to allow each of us to hear what God has to say to us. 

Our passage begins the 16th chapter of Luke’s Gospel – a chapter in which the unifying theme seems to be the use of money.

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. 

There are two things I would point out here. 

Jesus begins his passage saying, “There was a rich man.”  More than any other Gospel, wealth is presented as dangerous to the soul.  Luke is the Gospel with the “bigger barns” guy who at a critical juncture in his life decides to focus his energies on  building more wealth rather than helping poor folks in his community.

And at the end of this chapter Jesus will tell another parable that begins “There was a rich man”, in this case the rich guy who spent a life time ignoring a poor guy named Lazarus who sat at his door step.  In both of those stories we find a warning that there will be a judgment to be faced in death regarding how we related to our money in relation to the needs of other people.

This morning’s story carries forward this theme of accountability, but in this case, it’s not the Rich man but the manager working for the Rich man who seems to be on the hot seat.  Apparently, he’s been “squandering” the Rich man’s money. 

Now the word “squandering” occurs only one other place in the Bible and interestingly it is the familiar story that immediately preceded our reading, the one in which the prodigal son “squanders” his father’s inheritance in riotous living.  Interesting.

So (the master) summoned (the manager) 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.’ 

The manager is facing the great accounting regarding the manner in which he has been living his life.   

Nobody gets off scot free.  How we live our lives matters.  All that we have in life – including life itself – has been given to us by God.  The question hangs over all of us:  What are we doing with what we’ve been given matters.  

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. 

With his employment coming to an end, the manager makes a clear, cold assessment of the crisis point he has reached in life.  About to lose his job, he recognizes he’s incapable of physical labor, and he’s horrified by the notion of begging. He comes up with an idea:

I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 

The manager comes up with a plan to ingratiate himself to people, so that when he loses the house in which the rich man has been providing him to, there will be people who will welcome him 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.’ 

For the moment, the manager is still in possession of the ledger sheet with which he has tracked his master’s accounts.  He goes to the clients who owe the master goods, and significantly marks down the level of their debt.  It’s dishonest for the manager to do this but the clients benefit and they are grateful.

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;

This is the end of the actual parable part of our reading, and it’s downright perplexing! The master who is firing the manager finds out about how the manager has essentially ripping him off at the end of his employment –  erasing a certain measure of the debts owed him – and… the rich man praises the manager because of the “shrewdness” he demonstrated.    Almost like, “I gotta say, you outfoxed me.  Well played.”  That’s weird.

Another big theme in Luke’s Gospel is forgiveness, including specifically the forgiveness of debts.  As is often the case today, there was in Ancient Israel established practices that enabled the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer, and it had to do with predatory lending and the accumulation of more and more debt.  Poor farmers working land that had belonging to their families for generations would become deeply indebted to rich and powerful people.  Eventually they would lose the land itself becoming tenants on what was now the rich man’s land.    

The Torah had a law that declared that every fiftieth year – known as the “Year of Jubilee” – all land would return to the original families.   The law was designed to break the pattern of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and landless, but not surprisingly, the Law wasn’t followed through on.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry in Nazareth quoting a passage from Isaiah that speaks of “released of captives” and “proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord” – and allusion to  the “Year of Jubilee.” 

As you can imagine, certain rich and powerful people would be threatened by such an idea and want to squash the one who suggested it.

Some commentators suggest though that the reason the rich man in this case is pleased by the manager’s actions is that to his surprise he suddenly becomes a very popular man in town.  The manager was acting as the rich man’s agent, and so those who had had their debt load reduced suddenly feel gratitude towards the rich man.

In other words, the shrewdness of the manager has actually created what we might call a “win/win” situation.  The people who have their debt load lowered are happy.  The manager and the Rich Man find themselves as the recipient of a level of communal good will to which they weren’t accustomed. 

Perhaps the parable suggests that in the Kingdom of God, there doesn’t have to be winners and losers – we can all win.

I heard this story once about a man driving a truck for an ice cream company who got stuck on a hot summer day in one of those traffic jams where cars don’t move at all. 

The roadway was full of hot and cranky people, and perhaps the worst were parents with kids in their cars.  On a whim the truck driver opened up his truck and started going from car to car handing out free ice cream, lifting everybody’s spirits

When the man’s boss heard how he had given away his ice cream for free he wasn’t pleased.  He planned on firing the truck driver,  but then the grateful phone calls started coming in from parents, and a local news station picked up the story. The boss realized he had stumbled into a PR coup thanks to the man’s gracious actions, and suddenly the truck driver went from the “about to be fired list” to the “time for a promotion list.”

What follows in our reading are a variety of sayings from Jesus that he apparently said on different occasions.  It’s as though the Gospel writer — confused himself about what this parable means — starts throwing various the sayings up against the way to see which might stick in shedding some light on the parable.  

for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 

I think it is safe to say from that Jesus wouldn’t praise lying and thievery.  But we need the shrewdness of this guy as we seek to shine God’s light – the recognition that acts of graciousness can at times be highly effective in opening closed hearts.   

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. 

Methodists have traditionally been opposed to gambling, a conviction that can seem to many as archaic.  But one out of ten people are predisposed to a gambling addiction, which if activated can ruin lives – not just of individuals but also of families. 

Lottery tickets and such tend to appeal particularly to the poor, leading them to “squander”  their money on the dream of hitting it big. 

Promoting gambling reinforces the great lie that says that money is the secret to happiness.  Get yourself a bunch of money and you’ll get happiness. 

I heard about a study once that compared the experiences of people who had won big in the lottery to the experience of people of had suffered a terrible accident that left them paralyzed from the waist down.  As you would expect, at the outset the lottery winners were overjoyed and the paraplegics were full of despair.  But the surprising thing was that a year or two down the road, the self-perception of their lives had shifted in the opposite directions. 

The lottery winners had gotten the very thing they had spent most of their lives thinking would finally make them happy, and over time they discovered it wasn’t the secret to happiness after all. It left them feeling hollow, empty.  Their relationships had deteriorated.  People often seemed to be looking at them only as bags of money.

The tendency with the paraplegics was to move in the opposite direction.  It took a long time, but the tendency was for them to eventually emerge from the darkness of their initial grief and bitterness.  The truth of the serenity prayer became clearer:  They came to accept the new “normal” of their lives – that which they couldn’t change – and began to focus their energies on what they could change – learning new ways to adapt.  A greater clarity arose for them about what matters in life and what doesn’t.  The significance of human kindness – both the opportunity to receive it, and the ability to give it — became more evident. 

“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? 

Perhaps Jesus is talking to church leaders here.  If we aren’t good stewards of the money people give to support the work of the church, why should people trust what we have to say about true riches?  The fact that God really does love us?  That we are have infinite value in the eyes of God.  That in the end, love is all that really matters.  That without love, our souls die.

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.”

Money is a tool for doing good, not an idol to worship.  The lottery winners who managed to beat the trend of ending up miserable were those who came to discover that the real significance of their sudden wealth was that it gave them new opportunities to express love in this broken world. 

In conclusion, I want to go back to the striking occurrence of the word “squandering” that occurs in the first verse to describe the life the manager had been living – the same word that is used right before our reading to describe what the prodigal son did in the far country.  We are the prodigal son.  We are the manager who has squandered that of which he was called to be good stewards.

If what we claim as Christians is true — that love really is the one thing that really matters, the one thing that never ends — that love is treasure in heaven – then there will be moments in our lives when we look back at our lives and realize that in various ways we have “squandered” the gift of life God gave us.

God gives us this miracle and we spend a great many days feeling bored rather than grateful and full of wonder.  God gives us endless opportunities to express love, and we pass on by on the other side of the road like that other famous parable found in Luke’s Gospel.  Like the elder brother in the earlier parable, we close down our hearts to the opportunities God gives us to receive love.

In the end of both parables, however there is grace. 

The Father welcomes home the prodigal son.  The manager becomes an agent of grace to the rich man’s debtors, and then in the end to his surprise, becomes the object of the rich man’s favor.

Life is messy.  We lose our way.  Nonetheless, God’s grace is always present, waiting to lead us safely home.

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