The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, Year C - September 18, 2016

Preacher: 
The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 20, Year C

September 18, 2016

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

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." (Luke 16:1-13)

 

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As most of you know by now, this year’s theme for our Shrine Mont retreat is “Go Tell it on the mountain”… and our theme song will be “Tell me a story!”  If you never heard that song - it was sung by Frankie Lane and Jimmy Boyd in 1953 and hit the charts as #4 – google it…it will bring a smile to your face.

We love stories, something that every good teacher knows - which is why they are so often used as tools of learning.  This was just as true in Jesus’ day as it is in ours, perhaps even more so.  Over and over again, the gospels show Jesus not just as a teacher, a prophet and a miracle worker, but as a storyteller - one who could not only draw a crowd but keep it riveted.

The word that we use to describe the kind of story Jesus told is a “parable.”  This word literally means "a throwing beside," – it’s a composite of the Greek para- ("alongside") and bole ("a throwing, casting, a beam, a ray"). These short-short narratives are often underestimated as simple, one-point "messages" designed to teach some truth.

But in Jesus' version of the form, they are much trickier – the story he throws is often a curve ball - more an enigma than an illustration, a problem to be puzzled over rather than a moral to be learned. His parables often work against received wisdom, or propriety, and even justice – for instance, a laborer who works all day gets paid the same as the latecomer who only works an hour. So we are left with a bit of interpretive work to be done; even if occasionally the Gospel writer provides an interpretation at the end that helps brings closure. [1] [Whether Jesus actually offered these interpretations himself, we do not know.]

A case in point is the parable we just heard in today’s Gospel - about the rich man who discovers that his wealth is being mismanaged by a "squandering" manager. When the steward is fired, he quickly considers his options. He's not going to soil his hands or ruin his image by going around begging. Instead, he'll make deals with his boss's debtors in order to ingratiate himself with them: "people will welcome me into their homes." Still having access to his boss's funds, he cuts one debt by a third, another by half. 

Astonishingly, the rich master commends this crook for "act[ing] shrewdly." Why is that? Does he simply admire the man's moxie?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wanted Jesus to end this parable with a clearer explanation of what he really means by it!  Instead, Luke’s gospel has Jesus offering puzzling suggestions that the "children of light" have much to learn from the shrewdness of the "children of this age"; that dishonesty in small matters (like "dishonest wealth") reflects badly on one's ability to handle the riches of the kingdom; that one cannot both "serve God and wealth," even though this is precisely what everyone ends up doing. 

To quote the Apostle Paul, "What then shall we say to this?"

Doing my best with this passage, I am left with a disarming story about people who have only one thing in common: a preoccupation with the "wealth" we used to call "Mammon." The rich man has so much of it that he can afford to admire a petty crook's shrewdness at his own expense. The wily manager turns everything to his advantage, going from potential ruin to making friends and influencing people. And the rich man's debtors profit from the manager's mismanagement of the boss's resources. They get a deal! No one comes off looking very good.

If you think about it, the world of the parable is very much like the world in which we live today – governed by the "children of this age," where dishonest wealth is more often than not the coin of the realm and "true riches" extraordinarily difficult to believe in let alone to find.

All this has gotten me to thinking about a recent episode of John Oliver’s talk show, “Last Week tonight,” where he addresses head on the unsavory practices of predatory debt collection.  I have my son Turner to thank for sending me the link, and keeping me on the cutting edge when it comes to talk show hosts – we’ve come a long way from Johnny Carson.  As one reporter put it, “Oliver understands that the best way to convey vital information in an age marked by attention deficit is to wrap it in spectacle.”[2]  And so he ventures in to all sorts of schemes to reveal them for what they are – for instance, he’s shown how easy it is to set up a mortgage company, a televangelist site, and similar entities, and how susceptible each can be to corruption.

For his latest trick, Oliver formed a company called Central Asset Recovery Professionals — or CARP, named after the bottom-feeding fish — and purchased $14.9 million worth of medical debt for just under $60,000.  He said it had cost $50 to create his company, after which he received the portfolio offering the names, current addresses and Social Security numbers of about 9,000 people.

Oliver then forgave all of the debt, entirely, bragging that his giveaway was bigger than Oprah Winfrey’s — her recent car giveaway was estimated at $7 million — and he completed the show by pressing a giant red button that triggered a rain shower of dollar bills!

The same reporter I mentioned earlier describes Oliver’s escapade this way:  “Like spinach concealed in a brownie mix, this deliciously entertaining scene masquerades as TV dessert, but it has real nutritional (or, in this case, informational) value: Oliver wanted to illustrate how easy it is for companies to buy debt and try to collect from consumers, whether those consumers are still legally liable for the debt or not.”[3]

Near the very end of that episode, John Oliver admitted that buying the debt was “absolutely terrifying, because it means if I wanted to, I could legally have CARP take possession of that list and have employees start calling people, turning their lives upside down over medical debt they no longer had to pay.”

“There would be absolutely nothing wrong with that except for the fact that absolutely everything is wrong with that,” he said.

Which brings me back to today’s parable…granted, John Oliver cannot be entirely compared to the “dishonest manager” in today’s story, he’s a third party, whereas the shrewd manager deals directly with his own debt issues. But there are similarities:  they both take a personal financial risk, both act in a way that ultimately remedies a bad situation and brings them praise, and both do, ultimately, serve their own interests – the dishonest manager endears himself to his debtors and his master, and of course, John Oliver gets paid a lot of money for the entertainment value of his escapades.

Which is, perhaps, also the point of Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel. And that is, maybe it doesn't have to be the clear takeaway I want; maybe it’s simply the presentation of the brokenness in our relationship with money, posessions, and each other that serves Jesus' purpose. Actually I am haunted by what the rich man says at the beginning of the tale: "What is this I hear about you? Give me an account of your management."

Maybe that's the question and the command we all need to hear, all need to be asking ourselves….Because, if I’m honest with myself, there are times when I too, have squandered the gifts entrusted to me, and while my wastefulness is often known only to the eyes and heart of God, it is no less so because others don’t see it or recognize it for what it is.  And yes, I can also be self-serving. I have been known to plot and plan in order to ensure my own future. And yes, even the good I seek to do (as perhaps the manager sought to do in lowering the obligations of his master's debtors) can be tainted by my own mixed motives.

All of these things can happen far more often than I would want anyone else to know, and even so, by the gift and grace of God my behavior still winds up reflecting well on God, just like the dishonest manager’s shenanigans end up reflecting well on his rich master.  And while I know this analogy isn't perfect, if nothing else, it brings me to a place of gratitude for a God who always manages to 'make good' out of my paltry gifts. And who always gives me another chance.

Of course, it's entirely possible' that I will come to an entirely different conclusion the next time I wrestle this parable. 

I wonder where you will end up if you do the same? 

Amen

 

[1] I am indebted to Peter S. Hawkins’ article “A Story without a Hero” for this and some of the observations in the following four paragraphs.  His article can be found at www.newsletter@ChristianCentury.org.

[2] http//www.nytimes.com/2016/06/07/arts/television/for-his-latest-trick-john-oli...

[3] Ibid

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