(A sermon on Luke 16:1-13)
Finally, he did the right thing.
For the wrong reason, but Jesus doesn’t seem to care about that. In this parable, the master or “lord” commends his dishonest manager because he acts shrewdly. And we scratch our heads, because… ummmm… I thought honesty was a virtue? Well, what if the adverb “shrewdly” is beside the point? Yeah, yeah, the children of this world are more shrewd than the children of the light, but God can work with anything to show people we are loved. Maybe what’s worth commending is simply that the manager acted, instead of squandering what belonged to his master by doing nothing. This guy – finally, since the end was near – reached out to others. And shockingly, with his selfish actions, relieved them of some of their burdens too!
I am reminded of Joseph, Pharaoh’s right hand man, telling his brothers who had sold him into slavery in Egypt, “What you intended for evil, God used for good.” The exact wording of Genesis 45:5 reads, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Those are really generous words for people who exploited you. Apparently God can use even our worst actions. But how’s God going to work with nothing?
What does it take to get you to act? What is the turning point?
Let’s start where it is easiest: our own interests. Most often, like the guy in our parable, we are looking out for #1. When I was a junior in high school, already SO beyond ready to graduate and move on, the school launched a new “mentorship” program. A high school senior could get out of school at noon if she had a workplace in the community where she could volunteer and learn about a career path. They had me at “get out of school at noon.” When I had to choose a workplace for the mentorship, I said, “Fine, how about my church?” After a year of this mentorship, my pastor said, “I realize you’re not looking for a confirmation of a ‘call’ here, but if you were, I’m giving it to you. You have the gifts for ministry.”
There might, just might, be teenagers across the world who participated in the climate strikes in our capital and so many others yesterday, not just because they love the earth, but ALSO because it was fun to get out of school. Doesn’t matter. There is precedent for God using what little effort we have brought or our mixed intentions, to show love to the world. The shrewd manager wants to be welcomed into the homes of the people he has had power over, so he uses his very last opportunity to curry their favor. And it changes their lives.
What might be the turning point that gets us to finally act?
Someone Else’s Perspective: For some of us, a turning point is being struck by a perspective we could not see on our own. Maybe, the shrewd manager summoned his master’s debtors, then because he had recently had his own ego checked, he saw these other folks in a new way. Maybe his mind registered them as human beings like himself, slightly more than bodies to be exploited, now that his own superiority was uncertain. Once you see someone else as another full human like yourself – look out – you could start to act differently.
Seminary professor Barbara Rossing wrote in a commentary on this text that…
“Rich landlords and rulers in 1st century Roman-occupied Galilee were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. The rich man or “lord,” along with his steward or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants. We sometimes forget that charging interest on loans was forbidden in the Bible because it exploited the vulnerable poor. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our debts.” But when we encounter a debt collector who actually reduces poor people’s debts by 20% to 50% — namely, reducing their debts to what was probably the original amount borrowed, without hidden interest charges — our first instincts are to judge him.”
From his new position of vulnerability, a shrewd manager could start to admit that the entire system is corrupt. So, either he reduces the debts by what would have been his own “commission,” taking money out of his own pockets to purchase future hospitality. Or, he cheats his master, because he won’t miss it. Whereas these people being weighed down by generations of exploitation certainly need debt relief. Our instincts may be to jump to the conclusion that “being faithful with what is another’s” means being faithful to what belonged to the rich landlord, including the interest he was charging. But what if Jesus might be talking about being faithful to what rightfully belonged to the peasants who were being disinherited of their land?
Recognizing what is actually going on is a really good first step towards action. We have got to stop thinking that living a faithful life is just about making decisions in our personal lives that are morally upright. It may well be that the systems in which we have been “playing by the rules” are not just, and the most faithful action would be to use our power to dismantle the system instead of obediently playing our part.
If you are comfortable where you are, you can certainly find friends or news channels or “experts” of any kind who will tell you that the systems and institutions we are a part of are just fine the way they are. But if you listen to someone with a different perspective, you might just have to do something, instead of going along like nothing needs to change. Now, I don’t know any of you yet. But I can guess, hopefully, that you are motivated by relationships with your loved ones. Somebody loves you, and that makes you want to see, not just out of your own eyes/your own history, but also to glimpse what the word looks like to them. If you cannot think of anyone you have that kind of relationship with right now, that you want to see life through their experience, a faith community is where we should be about building such relationships.
Here’s a perspective that shook me up, from a sibling, a fellow Lutheran pastor, that I hope will be a turning point for many congregations in the ELCA. This Thursday I was at the St Paul book party for this new book: Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. Now, if that makes you uncomfortable, it should. It makes me uncomfortable. Because I love the Lutheran Church, yet look around. And step outside and look around the neighborhood. Instead of being concerned with how will we make sure we’re paying the custodian and secretary a fair wage (which, you know, is important) we cannot stop there and think the church is doing justice. There are layers and layers of actions that have been taken OR NOT TAKEN, words that have been said, policies that have been put in place – so long ago they are just part of the background we all forget to think about – and you know, today, that have embedded racism in some of the ways we do church. And although I may also be cringe-ing, I have to thank Pastor Lenny Duncan for telling the truth about this story we are living together. I am also afraid that the congregations that most need to read and discuss and struggle with a book like this will not touch it with a 10-foot pole. But the grace he offered in person was moving to me (I’m paraphrasing): “If you have never thought about race and the church or never considered ways our church has excluded people while keeping others in power, you get to start where you start. Nobody gets to look down on you because you haven’t had this conversation before or haven’t identified with others as your siblings in Christ deserving of dignity. You are here now. And you get to start where you are starting.” Voices like that of Pastor Lenny Duncan, can call us to account.
Sometimes in congregations that are shrewd managers, it takes a sense that “the end could be near if we don’t do something differently,” to get us to do something. And so, it is a bit self-serving that we try to reach out and bring in new members because the writing is on the wall. We are confronted with an ultimatum, so then we act. But we most certainly have to start by listening. Listening to other people’s stories and giving up what we could have extracted from them, in order to be in some kind of relationship.
God can use that to do something new. To bury and raise up. To turn death into resurrection. Thanks be to God.