Asbury First United
Text: Luke 16: 1-13
Before us today stands Jesus Christ, robed in mystery and announced in a strange parable. There is no easy interpretation for this parable. Why is its hero, my favorite accountant, commended for dishonesty, which is a breach of the ninth commandment? We do not know. Why is his master happy to be cheated? We cannot say. Why is an accountant's swindle upheld, in this parable here attributed to Jesus, as a preparation, somehow, for heaven? No one can tell. What, please, does verse 9, as tangled in the Greek as it is in your bulletin, intend? We do not see. What possible connection is there between the story, and the four trailing proverbs? Little at all, except that they all deal with money. How did this mess make it into Luke's travel narrative? It is not clear. Is this dishonest manager our role model, in the church, as we try to "manage wealth in the direction of justice?" (Ringe) Perhaps! And, most of all, where is Jesus, The Divine Mystery Incarnate, to be found in our reading today?
For some weeks we have ridden hard for three points a sermon. We will rest the horse a minute, a little feed and little water. Easy big fella. Get well soon, we said: Healing in Christ, and healing in society, and healing in people. The lamp of the poor we cried: Christ, church, disciple. Meet sin again, we implored: Sin is personal, sin is pervasive, Christ saves us from sin. Three points, and a poem. But the horse is tired. And our fellow bandits, interpreters Craddock and Ringe and Tittle, are tired too, at least in reference to this passage. I continue to curse the lectionary. The parable of the dishonest steward has really just one meaning, and it is very good news.
For the mystery of Jesus Christ falls upon us, approaches us, and enchants us, when and where we least expect Him. In the strange world of the Bible. In the midst of the community of strangers that is the Church. Hidden in the brutal estrangement of our personal life. Here, behold, the Lord Christ Jesus, "L'Etranger".
Contrary to much preaching, televised and popular today, his presence is neither simple, nor surface, nor easy, nor fundamental, nor shallow, nor ideological, nor one dimensional, nor ahistorical, nor primarily political. He draws us, lures us, and enchants us. So he sets us free.
For St. Luke has captured a collage of portraits of Jesus, "On the Road". We are on a journey, as Luke reminds the church. We are making a trip to the promised land. We are headed in a certain direction. With our spiritual forebears, we are traveling, on a journey. Israel left Canaan to go to Egypt to find bread. There they became the slaves of Pharaoh. But Moses led them out, parted the Red Sea, and guided them through the wilderness. He brought them the ten commandments. At last, he sent them forth, with Joshua, to inhabit the land flowing with milk and honey. In such a glorious land, they hunted and farmed. They even built a temple, and chose a King. Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon reigned, but were followed by others less wise and less strong. Although the prophets did warn them, the children of Israel left their covenant and their covenant God, and at last suffered the greatest of defeats, the destruction of Jerusalem and the return to slavery in Babylon, 587bc. Cried Jeremiah, "O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep, night and day, for the slain of my poor people." (9:1) Like Israel marching in chains to Babylon, and then trudging home again two generations later, we people of faith are on a journey, from slavery to freedom.
Luke's mysterious Christ meets us today, hidden in the calamity of unexpected change and economic crisis. On the road, the journey of faith, Luke has most to say, and Jesus most regularly addresses the issue of money. Remember how Luke traces the Gospel. Mary in the Magnificat honors the poor. John the Baptist preaches justice, in the great, unique tradition of the Hebrew prophets, from Amos forward. Isaiah's words and hopes are affirmed. Jesus blesses the poor, not just the poor in spirit, in his 'sermon on the plain'. Remember the parable of the 'rich fool', "tonight is your soul required of you, and these riches, whose shall they be?" Luke sets Christian discipleship at odds with, in contest with, anxiety about possessions. And in conclusion, meet Lazarus and Dives. Jesus Christ calls us to manage our possessions toward justice, both as a church and as individuals.
2. An Initial Personal Application
But you may wonder whether this parable speaks to you, especially if you are in financial calamity. Along Luke's Jerusalem road, Jesus has a healing word to say about possessions, money, wealth.
To me it is clear that the chief communal issue before Luke's (Antioch?) congregation was the management of wealth. This means that they had money. This also means that they did not immediately throw it away. This further means that they reasoned that the apocalypse of the end was not so very near that no financial planning was necessary. This additionally means, as Luke's writing shows, that they were trying to learn to become prudent, astute, imaginative, shrewd, clever, insightful, accountable, interpreneurial managers. So they are reminded, in argument from less to more: "Keep faith in the little things, to be ready for the big ones." An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. "Be faithful with money, which belongs to God, so that you will become faithful in soul, which belongs to you." A stitch in time saves nine. "Do your pre-season training with possessions, so that you will be ready for the regular gridiron season of the spirit." Look before you leap. Be penny wise, not pound foolish.
In other words, "use possessions so as to gain, not to lose, your future" (Craddock). Be creative. "For all the dangers of possessions, it is possible to manage goods in ways appropriate to life in the Kingdom of God" (Ringe). Remember that you are a manager of someone else's accounts, an absentee landlord who has a claim. And go ahead, be clever. Be creative and loyal, but if you have to choose - be creative.
3. The Gospel of the Dishonest Manager
The deeper truth in this passage, though, is simply that faith handles change. Faith carries the power to master the vicissitudes of change. Ultimately, this parable cannot be interpreted along moral, or economic, or even political lines. So read, it makes no real sense. Luke has gone ahead to read the parable so, in part, by appending the four parables about fiduciary fidelity. We have honored his teaching. But the parable itself says something else. Like the mystery of Christ itself, the story is not moral but mystical, not theoretical but theological, not law but grace. It is good news.
The good news is that faith handles change. A man gets the pink slip, and leaves under suspicion, with the sheriff on the way. He is looking at doing time. He is on the lamb. He is headed for jail, prison, the lockup, the pokey, hoosegow, calaboose, the slammer, the joint, the tank, in stir, goin' up the river, doin' time, in the brig, the gray bar hotel, the big house, the can. (Isn't language wonderful? As the steel magnolias said, "accessorize - it's the only thing that separates us from the animal kingdom". I would add speech.) He is not a moral exemplar. But just as his ingenuity handles the sudden change in his circumstance, so the powerful grace of faith, the faith of Jesus Christ, handles the constant change of life. Faith manages change, masters change. So Paul can shout, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me and the life I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me." (Gal. 2:20). The faith of Jesus Christ, working heteronomously through life, handles change. Faith is nimble, not flatfooted; agile not stolid; creative not loyal; shrewd not complacent; quick not quiescent; fast not slow.
Notice what my favorite accountant does not do. He does not pray, go to temple, seek ministerial counsel, bellyache, celebrate his victimhood, join the choir, or leave it all up to Jesus. He does not say, 'let Go let God'. Unlike Jerry Falwell this week, he does not claim that God has done this to him. In fact, the faith here acclaimed has no religious clothing at all. No, he does none of that. Rather, he responds, shrewdly. He finds the faith to handle change, and lives the faith that handles change. Change is real hard, and real good. Like life, like love, like faith, like…any of the things of God.
Of course, this week, I cannot help think of the young father, RIT graduate, and others on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Somehow, amid sudden and calamitous change, they found the courage to act in a way that, at least in part, handled change. They even had the presence of mind to call home first. Faith handles change. I cannot help think of the men who carried a person in a wheelchair down dozens of flights of stairs. Faith handles change. I cannot help think of the several firemen's boots you have put dollars into. Faith handles change (literally). I cannot help think of Mayor Giuliani, in his finest hour. Faith handles change. I cannot help mention our President, who found a grand phrase when he needed it, this young leader of such few words: "We shall meet violence with patient justice." Beautiful. Subject, verb, predicate. May our actions be as eloquent as that old Yankee sentence. Faith handles change. The faith of Jesus Christ, our salvation, does not fear to change, nor does faith fear change. Faith manages change. This is the grace and beauty of church meetings. You can see this ordinary grace at work in most church meetings, where faith is called upon to handle change.
It makes you wonder whether there is collectively an unforeseen, creative, shrewd response to our changed circumstance as a people. How to meet violence with patient justice…hmmm…in the trust that faith handles change. This is the faith of Jesus Christ, apart from which all else is sin.
Keep this portrait of the shrewd manager in your wallet, especially for the days your wallet is empty. He meets the report of his mismanagement, itself possibly false, with calm. He does not try to change the world, or this news. He raises the basic question with courage: "What shall I do?" He thinks creatively, acts enterpreneurially, communicates astutely, relates cleverly, strategizes shrewdly...and lands on his feet. When the cheese moves, he does too. And Jesus commends him, I guess. And Luke commends him, I guess. And even his old boss commends him, I guess. You can't help but love the guy.