Proper 20, September 22, 2013

September 23, 2013

Workin’ With Jesus
Luke 16:1-8a

16:1 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. 2 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.’ 3 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. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 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.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;

My preaching over the past few weeks has brought me about as close to a sermon series as I’ve ever been. Two weeks ago my sermon title was “Hatin’ With Jesus”, last Sunday it was “Partyin’ With Jesus”, this week it’s “Workin’ With Jesus”, and next week it’s going to be “Chillin’ With Jesus”. I really don’t know what I could have called this series if I had decided to give it a title, but it would have been something like: Hangin’ With Jesus: Old Preacher Tries to be Cool.

You might think my resistance to organizing my preaching under themed series is rooted in my inability to plan ahead – and you might be right about that, but the truth is that I consider Christianity itself to be all the theme I need. I don’t find Jesus to be easily organized and labelled. About the time you think you know what to expect from him he says or does something that breaks the pattern. I like to imitate that in my preaching. I want people to come to church not knowing what to expect – other than to hear some truth about Jesus.

And the truth is we’ve got some challenging words from Jesus this morning. I mean, what do you make of today’s passage? Is this something you ever would have expected Jesus to say? Apparently he did – I don’t think this is something Luke would have made up. This is a curious text. And the verses that follow this parable are portrayed as an explanation of what the parable is about, but the explanation is more confounding to me than the parable, so I’m not going touching the explanatory verses. It’s the parable itself that I find to be the most compelling. I don’t know if my reaction to this parable is what Jesus hoped to provoke, but I do find some good news in this text, and I hope you come away feeling the same way.

I think it’s helpful to remember that Jesus didn’t tell this story as an anecdote for a business ethics workshop. Jesus isn’t functioning here as a traditional instructor in a management seminar. He was functioning as an instructor, and you might say he was engaged in some management of a troubled institution, but there’s nothing normal about his instruction or his management style. I think it’s good to remember that Jesus wasn’t dealing with a community that needed some minor adjustments. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to address the monumental problem that had developed among the people of Israel and beyond. It’s that pesky problem of us not understanding the cost and the value of loving one another.

Jesus would eventually reveal what such love looks like in a powerfully graphic way, but along the the way to Jerusalem he did all sorts of things to reveal the true nature of God. One of the things he did was to tell these parables, and while people were often clueless as to what he was saying, I think it’s accurate to say he was offering clues. Today’s parable is a real head-scratcher, and there are a lot of different opinions about what he was talking about.

I take the simple approach, which is to try to identify where God fits in this story. In this case it’s not so easy, because there aren’t any clearly identified heroes in this story. But parables were never designed to tell the whole story about God – Jesus told parables to illustrate very specific characteristics of God, or to help us understand particular things about ourselves. Our challenge is to identify the truth that Jesus was wanting to highlight.

I may be wrong, but I think we are to think of God as the rich man in this story. I know that doesn’t inspire confidence in your preacher to hear me say, I may be wrong,but as I mentioned a moment ago, there are a lot of different opinions about what this parable is all about. I’m not alone in my thinking that God is the rich man here, but there isn’t consensus on that. I should probably preface all of my sermons with that line, I may be wrong, but there’s no reason to state the obvious. We all know I may be wrong, but I also know the Holy Spirit works miracles and I take great comfort in that. I trust that the Holy Spirit can enable you to hear more than I am able to say, and that’s what enables me to get up and speak.

And here’s what I’m thinking: we’ve got this rich man who hears that his manager has been mishandling his property, and the rich man shows up to tell him he’s fired. Yes, this rich man has some of the same characteristics of Donald Trump. I know you have been trying to eliminate the image of God as being an old white man with long white hair and a white beard, and here I’m conjuring up an image of God as another white man in a suit with sort of yellow hair that mysteriously hovers over his head. I know you are thanking me for that.

But it’s not his hair that I want you to focus on. This rich man does tell his manager that he’s fired, but he doesn’t just say,Your fired! This rich man asks the manager to give an accounting of his management, and in so doing he gives him an opportunity to resolve the situation.

This manager is no fool. He knows himself well. For years he has been the one who’s been telling people where to dig, and he knows he is in no shape to start digging. Maybe this is where you should insert the image of Donald Trump. You wouldn’t even want to hire him as a digger, and you know someone like that doesn’t want to start begging, so he decides to cut some deals. I’m seeing Donald Trump really clearly now. He cuts deals and he resolves the accounts in a way that will not only provide him with some new contacts – the rich man isn’t left without anything. And by taking this action all of the relationships were preserved.

This rich man is an interesting character. He wants his enterprise to operate well. He has no tolerance for the abuse of his resources, but he isn’t overly harsh, and he valued the man’s creative resolution to the difficult situation he had gotten himself in to.

I like this rich man. This rich man isn’t unaware of the way in which his manager mismanaged his enterprise, but his impulse was not to destroy his misguided manager. He allowed him to resolve the problem he had created in a way that was very pleasing to the people who were in debt to the rich man.

I don’t know if the Pharisees and the other mismanagers of the house of Israel identified with the dishonest manager in this story, but I think Jesus wanted them to. It’s not hard for me to think of those perpetual antagonists of Jesus as the ones who squandered the rich man’s property. They had not served God well, and Jesus exposed their abuse all too clearly, but Jesus wasn’t out to destroy anyone. This God of ours values reconciliation.

Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see themselves, but he didn’t just reveal their ugliness. He showed that God still had some appreciation for them. Perhaps the most redeeming characteristic of the manager in our story is that he didn’t question the authority of the rich man. He didn’t even try to weasel out of the situation – he knew the gig was up. He understood the authority of the rich man, and he knew his only hope was to forge ahead in a new way. I think this was the hope Jesus had for all who live in opposition to the will of God.

Last week Forbes magazine published the list of the richest people in the United States, and once again it is confirmed that Bill Gates has more money than God. God didn’t make the list. Of course God doesn’t deal in that kind of currency, but Jesus did, and he never would have made it on that list. Jesus did portray God as a rich man in this parable, he didn’t want us to confuse being rich with being godly. Jesus just wanted us all to understand who truly reigns over this world, and how rich it is to serve our God.

I think Jesus told this parable as a reminder of that truth, and in so doing he was inviting the very people who had opposed him to repent, and to become reintegrated into God’s community. It’s easy to become alienated from God and to pursue misguided agendas. I think it’s particularly easy for those of us who declare our intentions to serve God in this world to get crossed up in that work.

I think we would all do well to see the ways in which we have mismanaged the abundance that has been placed at our disposal – and to figure out how to proceed in a manner that will be redeeming and restoring to everyone involved. We are all capable of interacting with a degree of shrewdness in this world, and I think Jesus is challenging us to utilize our shrewdness in a holy manner.

Jesus wasn’t celebrating dishonesty in this parable – he was offering a stark reminder of who’s world this truly is. He was also encouraging us to use our wits in creative and clever ways. God wants us to be engaged in this world in ways that will be compelling and redeeming to other people.

We Christians have been called to engage in some really unusual work. Working with Jesus is not easily defined, but it is easily recognized. It’s the work of redemption. It’s not about judgment – it’s about restoration.

I’m grateful that Jesus told this odd parable of how God appreciated this misguided man who was able to find an avenue to a new life. There was some good news here for the Pharisees – there’s some good news here for us all.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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