Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Unscrupulous Manager

OK, I admit it, I'm like everyone else who, in sermon prep, looks at the Gospel reading today and shudders. But thanks to the help of William Barclay, Hugh Hollowell, and Chuck Graham, I think it turned out OK.

What do you think? Comments and constructive criticism is always welcome!

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: "Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?" ("Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?") "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

1 Timothy 2:1-7
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all-this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

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. 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.' 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me 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.' 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. 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.
"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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

And it is the Word of the Lord, even when it’s confusing and difficult to interpret or understand. I’ve heard several preachers say that this Sunday’s Gospel reading makes them wish they’d scheduled a guest preacher. I understand where they’re coming from: it was later than usual when I looked at the Lectionary this week, and I’d been distracted with a trip to Dallas that I’m making tomorrow, and, frankly, when I read it, and knew that the Gospel reading was the one I needed to address, my heart kind of sank. It’s a daunting passage, because Jesus appears to be commending the unjust manager, the man who, like so many on Wall Street who saw trouble looming a couple of years back, busied himself making sure that when he lost his job, he had a “golden parachute” to fall back on.

But it’s a fact that if we run from the parts of Scripture that are difficult to understand, and which seem hard to preach about or teach on, in the end we’ll run from all of Scripture, because there is no part of Scripture which is not intended to challenge us, educate us, make us grow and progress in our faith journey.

Among the things I am grateful for every week as I start to write the sermon are the scholars and commentators who have grappled with Scriptures throughout the years. One of those scholars and commentators is the late William Barclay, Church of Scotland minister and Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at the University of Glasgow. He is best known to American Christians as the author of the Daily Study Bible, a set of 17 commentaries on the New Testament.

It was Barclay’s work which helped to clarify this parable. You see, in Looking at this parable from the Gospel of Luke, Barclay saw four different lessons. Not the single simple lesson that most of the parables offer, but four unique points. Funny thing is, as I began putting the pieces together, I found that each point Barclay sees points back to a central theme… and each point speaks, in one way or another, to every area of the Christian life, and to every facet of our faith journey.

In verse 8 the lesson is that the children of this world are wiser than the children of light. I had a conversation this week with someone about political donations – they were expressing horror at how labor unions were donating millions to various political campaigns, and I pointed out that corporations did the same thing, though usually to the opposing political campaigns. Both seek to have their own agendas, their own self-interests, their own greed addressed through favorable legislation, tax breaks, and preferential treatment when bidding contracts.

We were both, from our perspectives, speaking about how the children of the world act. They are ingenious, careful to grease just the right wheel at just the right time. I mentioned earlier the Wall Street executives who feathered their nests just before the housing bubble burst and the sub-prime mortgage industry became a national crisis. They might well have been the dishonest manager in Jesus’ parable, acting shrewdly to protect their assets and distance themselves from harm when the time came.

What would it be like if the Christian was as eager and ingenious in his attempt to attain goodness as child of the world is in his attempt to attain money, comfort, and power?

In verse 9, Barclay sees the lesson as one that says material possessions should be used to cement the friendship. The point is, of course, meant personally, but if we carry over the thread from the last point, about Christians being as eager to attain goodness as Corporate and Organized America are to attain their agendas, can we not apply the point corporately? To all Christian churches, denominations, and believers?

Here’s what I mean: We live, right now, today, in a country where fully twenty percent of our fellow citizens live in poverty. Last year in this country, where one in three people are obese and we throw away something like forty percent of the food we buy, seventeen million children went to bed hungry. Imagine what would happen to this statistic if Christians as a body acted with the eagerness, single-mindedness, and ingenuity of Wall Street, or of the large corporations, or the massive labor unions, in addressing the injustice of hunger and poverty – not looking to whichever administration is in power in Washington for the cure, because we of all people should know the cure doesn’t lie there, but looking to ourselves and our Creator and Redeemer for the answers. We would at once become an unstoppable force for positive and permanent change!

There’s an environmentalist catchphrase that goes, “think globally, act locally.” Barclay says that the lesson of verses 10 and 11 is that a person's way of fulfilling a small task is the best proof of his or her fitness or unfitness for a larger task. If I had hoped that calling on the church to act as a body to address poverty and hunger would get individual Christians, like me, off the hook for acting on our own to attack issues like this, verses ten and eleven dash that hope on the rocks of reality. We can’t leave it to the folks at the Presbytery level or even the General Assembly level. When the Scriptures say to love our neighbor, they mean it actively and personally. We have to do the loving ourselves.

My friend Hugh Hollowell runs an organization called simply “Love Wins,” which ministers to the poor and homeless in Raleigh, North Carolina. I love Hugh, but I don’t like what he says on this subject, because it hits way too close to home for me. He says, “Loving your neighbor presupposes a relationship. It means knowing your neighbor is going through a divorce, that the lady who cleans your office has a mother that is dying, that the man at the end of the street holding a cardboard sign has been outside for three years now, and his name is Brian. In the story we call the Good Samaritan, it meant getting in the ditch to bind the man’s wounds yourself.”

He goes on, “When the average person in the pews can tell you the names of all the Judges on American Idol, or can name all the Glee cast members, but does not know a soul that makes 1/4th their income, I think it is fair to say we have lost our sense of mission as co-creators of the Kingdom of God.

“Jesus told us the poor would always be with us – but we don’t really want the poor among us – we want someone else to handle that.”

I don’t want that to be true. But I know that, of the seventeen million children that went to bed hungry last year, I am personally acquainted with exactly none. I know this, because if I had known a child who was hungry, I would do everything in my power to feed that child, and I know you would, too.

The idea of fulfilling small tasks in this context means that in order to see the great changes which must take place, we must act in small ways, individual ways. We must love our neighbor, and only then can we expect the rest of the Body to love and act in the same way.

Finally, William Barclay sees the fourth lesson, in verse 13, is that no slave can serve two masters, God and wealth. We know this, we’ve heard it all of our lives. Yet isn’t it easy to believe that what we have is ours, and that the only real way to measure success is by how big our bank account is, how expensive the stuff we own is? Isn’t it easy to get caught up in the race to earn, to buy, to own, to consume?

Another friend, Chuck Graham of Ciloa Ministries, puts it this way: “…I've found the more things change, the more they stay the same. So many [people] run after the things of this world, believing they will bring them happiness.

“They work hard—many hours each day—to get the object of their desire. They sacrifice—often family and friends—to reach a goal that only points them to another. They seek, they study, they plan, they worry—each in his and her own way—to gain fulfillment that is neither full nor filling. They are in such a hurry to have life, they don't notice they're actually missing it.”

Someone once said, “It's not having what you want, it's wanting what you have.” In the context of today’s reading, it’s wanting what you have, and understanding for what purpose we have it. A couple of weeks back, when we were discussing Paul’s letter to Philemon, I said that “no matter what name is on the bill of sale, whoever signs the deed, no matter which name is on the checking account, we really own none of it. It belongs to God, and we are merely caretakers.” We are managers, if I may use that word from today’s Gospel reading.

I’ve applied all of Barclay’s points to a single issue today, it’s true, but when you think of it, the lessons of this difficult parable apply across the board, in ways which affect society, which I’ve concentrated on today, but also in personal ways, and in ways which speak to our individual faith journeys: Be as eager and ingenious as the most savvy of businessmen in addressing whatever issue or need is before us; use the gifts and possessions God has given us to bless one another, to sustain one another and to solidify our relationships, both with each another, and with those who are outside our family or the established church culture; be attentive to everyday responsibilities, including those in the realm of spiritual growth (like Bible study and prayer); and keep our focus on serving the right Master – the One that died for us.

Thanks be to God.

1 comment:

  1. "He goes on, “When the average person in the pews can tell you the names of all the Judges on American Idol, or can name all the Glee cast members, but does not know a soul that makes 1/4th their income, I think it is fair to say we have lost our sense of mission as co-creators of the Kingdom of God."

    WEEEOUCH! Watch out there, Brudda. There might be some toes stomped on under that one.