The Sacred Tasks of Thinking, Feeling, Doing

Posted: September 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 18C, 2016
Luke 16:19-31

 ‘The Sacred Tasks of Thinking, Feeling, Doing’

Jesus tells the Parable of the so-called dishonest manager or steward, and people have beat their heads against this text for generations trying to figure out what in the world he was talking about. Clergy, lay people, seminary professors and commentators agree that, at least as far as Luke 16 goes, the Lord works in mysterious ways. So what do we do with this text? Do we just ignore it and move on or do we struggle with the millions who have over the centuries? I am not sure so I thought we might just roll with it and see what happens.

We start with the so-called facts as we know them. We start with two characters: the rich man and his manager. First the unnamed rich man who in Luke’s story was likely a man of great style. A member of the ruling urban elite perhaps, he would have worn a contented smile and dined each day on a feast. He would not have been a violent or uncharitable man. He wouldn’t have been one who kicked the poor man, every time he went in or out of the gate. His greatest challenge would have been like most of us who have a reasonable life, one of an apathy and neglect which widened the chasm between rich and poor. He would have been aware of the people who begged but blind to the person who struggled to survive. and he would have been dismissal of the lack of effort yet blind to the human need. His pursuit of great wealth, so the storyteller implies, had taken over his life.

The second character is the manager and the word on the street is that the manager has been misbehaving. Maybe he has been embezzling funds and taking kickbacks. The rich man summons him to his office for a pre-firing dressing down. In serious hot water, the manager realizes he’s not trained for any other type of job and he’d better lay some groundwork for his future. So, going to his master’s clients, he reduces their bills, thereby earning himself their gratitude and restoring his master’s reputation from someone who employs corrupt officials to someone who is generous with his clients.

We can easily follow up to this point in the story. It touches what we know and perceive. The manager is trying to make the best of a bad situation, and since he’s already defrauded his boss, he might as well go whole hog and make himself look good by unethically reducing the amount of money the clients owe. But then comes a twist. We might think that when the rich man found out that his manager had again cheated him out of money, he would call for the tar and feathers. But no.

Jesus said that the “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.”

Here we have arrived at the point of confusion. What is Jesus saying here because he doesn’t seem to make sense. His words don’t seem to match the type of behaviour he usually asks us to display. There’s nothing in the Sermon on the Mount like, “Blessed are the shrewd, for they shall make eternal homes by means of dishonest wealth.” So where do we go next?

Well, if is obvious that hundreds before us have got here and survived. So let’s not panic just yet. There is hope. First of all we remember that parables are meant to be confusing. They are meant to turn conventional wisdom on its head, leave listeners scratching their heads and praying for guidance. So we are in good company and like many before us have experienced Jesus doesn’t leave us totally without resources. He hands us stories like this and says, “Trust what you know of me and figure this out.” So let’s give it another go.

What exactly is it that the manager does that is unethical or wrong? He forgives the clients’ debts. That seems to ring a bell. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Maybe this parable is about forgiveness! But hang on this still doesn’t make sense. If Jesus wanted to talk about forgiveness, why didn’t he just say, “There was this guy who had a lot of people owing him money, and this guy could have been a jerk about it an insisted on their paying what was owed, but he said, OK, you guys don’t have to pay, and everyone lived happily ever after.”

Well, once again, we stumble over the reality of human life that doesn’t let us get away with easy answers. Our lives don’t have any easy answers. Jesus doesn’t tell simple stories because none of us live simple stories. Think of the way the connections we have to the people we love sometimes get hopelessly tangled and snarled, until we can’t remember what the problem was in the first place, but we sure can’t figure out how to fix it now. Think of the times you’ve been between a rock and a hard place, knowing that any decision you make will hurt someone. Think of the times you’ve been driven by circumstances to a place where compromising your integrity seems like a small price to pay if it will just get you out of this mess. It seems that there was a need for this parable after all. Suddenly when aligned with what we know it makes sense.

Jesus seemed to know that lives are not black and white, and he also seems to know that we need help to discern how to live out of our better selves. That it is about making choices, its about discerning between being right and being humane.

I was talking with Andrew the other day, about this sermon and he suggested that the issue was about being righteous. I hadn’t thought in that direction but on reflection it is. Righteousness is more than being right, it is about something more holistic. Its about the fact that the rich man did not abandon his manager because he saw that there are always other factors involved in the reason for shrewdness and even dishonest behaviour. The environment, the circumstances all play their part. Justice is always more than right punishment, it is also about education and growth. It’s sometimes more important to maintain relationships between people of difference than it is to be honest.

Now let’s touch on the presenting issue of forgiveness. At one level forgiveness is just about letting someone off some wrongdoing, but at another it is about an extravagant, irrational giving. The master’s affirmation of the manager’s action is such an act. A forgiveness given openly, freely and without restraint. There is a message here that nothing we can ever do will alienate us from the possibility of love and goodness or in traditional terms there is nothing that will take God’s love away from us. There is no way we will ever be anything less than wonderful cherished human beings, no matter how many mistakes we make or people we hurt. Traditionally this is where we are forgiven before we know we are going to do wrong, because Jesus loved us even unto death. This is less about the freedom to do wrong and more about seeing the reality about being human. Knowing that forgiveness is ours for the asking at every step of the way how can we not want to try it out ourselves?

And then we move to the nature of forgiveness or at least two aspects of it. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” is what happens in this parable. Here the plea is not for an unearned forgiveness but rather a forgiveness that is earned by an act of forgiveness. The dishonest manager is forgiven even as he forgives others. And this is the best part: It’s not neat and tidy and clean cut. There are still loose ends and ethical questions and uncertainty.

Because once again, in our tradition Jesus seems to know that this is what our lives are like. Even as cherished, god like creatures and even though we might have god like abilities we are not God, and we cannot offer one another perfection even a perfect love. We are human, and we are always going to have mixed motives, and screw things up, even when we’re trying to do the right thing; in part, we really want to have integrity and in part we just want everyone to see us as having integrity. This is where we say that Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves, and in this parable, he tells us that it’s OK.

It’s OK to have mixed motives and make mistakes – what’s important is that we keep trying. If we waited to forgive each other until we had perfect charity in our hearts, we’d be here until the apocalypse. Jesus here is saying, just haul off and do it. Forgive everyone. Forgive people even if you know they’re wrong. Forgive people when you know you’re wrong. Forgive people when you don’t feel like it, when they aren’t talking to you, when you aren’t talking to them, when you don’t have time. Forgive people you’ve never met, forgive atrocities so big you are afraid to forgive them, forgive faults so small you are ashamed that they bother you. Forgive even if you’ve done it a thousand times; forgive even if you’ve never forgiven before.

The truth is that there’s a bit of the Dishonest Manager in all of us, our wheeling and dealing in everyday life is about trying to “manage” our lives to be better, to look good or experience happiness. Maybe in this parable Jesus is saying that he sees right through us – and loves us dearly anyway. The challenge then of this parable, the twist in the tail or the tale is the challenge of loving not the ideal but the real. Loving each other even when our frailties and failures are so apparent. And when we can’t do it with the generosity and grace we strive for, the Good News is: We are forgiven.

 

Notes: Mackay, H. 2007.  “Waking up scratchy from the Dreamy Period” in Sydney Morning Herald, Weekend edition, 15-16 September, Pg: 42. Wieman, H. N. 1030.  The issues of life. NY: New York. Abingdon Press.

 

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