Sermon delivered on Sunday, September 22, Trinity 17C, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
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Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 8.18-9.1; Psalm 79.1-9; 1 Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s gospel lesson has vexed commentators, preachers, and readers of it for a long time. What on earth is the point of this parable and how does it possibly relate to our other lessons this morning? It is these questions I want us to look at briefly this morning.
To help us understand what is going on in our gospel lesson, we must remember that Jesus is telling his disciples a parable. Whenever we have parables about a master and stewards in Jesus’ day, they are about God (the master) and Israel (the stewards). As we have seen over the last several weeks, God called his people Israel into existence to be his light to the world, to bring his healing love to the nations. But Israel had failed to be God’s light, keeping it to themselves and turning it into darkness. This is what’s going on in our OT lesson. God’s people Israel have reached the point of no return and judgment is imminent, the terrible judgment that our psalm laments, in which God finally sent his people into exile for failing to bring his light and love to the world. Commentators disagree over whose voice of lament we are hearing in our OT lesson. Is it Jeremiah’s or God’s? Perhaps it is both. After all, prophets did serve as God’s mouthpiece. Regardless of whose voice we are hearing, the point remains that God takes no pleasure in pronouncing judgment on his people. As Paul notes in our epistle lesson, God desires that everyone be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, not just a few. How much more so for God’s desire for his own people’s salvation?
But as we have seen, Israel was remarkably stubborn and hard-hearted, and this is what Jesus is addressing in his parable this morning. Israel is under the imminent threat of being dismissed by God (once again) for failing to be the people God called them to be. So what should God’s people do? The Pharisees’ answer was to pile on new rules and regulations to ensure people’s holiness. But as we saw last week, Jesus took them to task over this approach because more rules and regulations had the effect of adding more burdens to people’s lives rather than helping them be God’s light to the world. These additional rules and regulations also implied that God’s saving love was reserved only for the holiest among Israel, those most “deserving,” with deserving of course being defined by the Pharisees and their rules.
And here we see Jesus warning his disciples that the way of the Pharisees and their allies is not the way they should go. Instead of imposing more rules, which would ultimately prove to be ineffectual in helping God’s people be true to their calling, they should take their cue from worldly folks who were not God’s called-out people to make friends for themselves wherever and with whomever they could. After all, judgment was coming on Israel and those who cared at all about their relationship with God and his people (the children of light) had better act shrewdly like the dishonest manager had in the parable to preserve themselves so that they could serve their heavenly Master and be the people God called them to be. Jesus may be suggesting that perhaps the dishonest steward acted shrewdly by canceling interest the master charged his debtors, which of course was illegal for the master to do. This would have prevented the master from charging him with fraud and reducing the debt owed obviously delighted the debtors. Of course, we must be careful not to take the parable too far. Jesus was surely not suggesting that God had acted unethically toward his people Israel as the master may have done in the parable. The point rather is the shrewdness of the steward to ensure his future.
Given all that Jesus did and said up to this point, there is little doubt he believed that the people who heard the warning contained in his parable and acted accordingly would be his own followers who would serve as the reconstituted Israel. After all, Jesus told this parable on his way to Jerusalem where he would do and be for Israel what Israel failed to do and be for the world. Jesus would die on a cross for the sins of the world and accomplish healing and reconciliation to God for all who had the good sense to accept the gift freely offered. And if we are wondering why Jesus used parables to warn his disciples instead of coming right out and telling them these things, we must remember that he was also surrounded by his enemies and Jesus knew he could not die outside of Jerusalem (cf. Luke 13.33). Consequently, he had to be careful in how he taught his disciples so as to avoid arrest and/or death prematurely.
So here is a parable that appears to be directly related to the situation of Jesus’ own hearers. God’s judgment on Israel was imminent and that judgment would be thorough. Therefore Jesus’ followers needed to act wisely, even shrewdly, to avoid being caught up in the coming holocaust. “That’s all well and good,” you say, “but what in the world does it have to do with us who follow Jesus in the 21st century?” Just this. Jesus is the light of the world and as his followers he calls us to be beacons of his light and healing love to others, to a world living in sin, despair, and darkness. We are not likely to do this well if we take the approach of the Pharisees so that we preach a gospel of salvation only for an elite few who manage to follow all the rules. Don’t misunderstand. Rules are important, but they are only a means to a greater end and too often we as Christians get confused and want to make following the rules an end, rather than a means.
Moreover, we probably will not be very bright lights to people who are lost if we call them miserable sinners and condemn them to hell right out of the blocks. We cannot help people develop a relationship with Jesus if we give them the impression by how we behave toward them that Jesus hates them for who they are and is just waiting for the chance to punish them for their wickedness. This does not embody the love that God has for his broken and wayward creatures, a love that Jesus embodied and most powerfully demonstrated on the cross.
No, we are to use worldly wealth and methods to reach out to people and meet them where they are, not where we want them to be. There are many examples of this but I want to focus on what Paul is talking about in our epistle lesson—prayer. Of course prayer does not represent dishonest wealth. But as Jesus’ followers, Paul reminds us we are to use prayer for the welfare of the world, not to condemn it. Our ultimate loyalty is to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we are to pray for leaders of all kinds, whether they are believers or not, whether we like them or not, or whether we agree with their political agendas. In praying for our leaders, we are asking God to help them rule wisely so as to establish peace, justice, and order, all things desirable in God’s sight (cf. Jeremiah 29.4-7; Romans 13.1-4). When we pray for our leaders, especially those with whom we disagree, we are acting not only for their welfare but also for ours and for the sake of the gospel. While the gospel has the proven ability to spread despite persecution and hostility against it and God’s people, living in a peaceable and orderly society provides much better conditions for the gospel to spread. When we don’t have to worry about getting arrested or our churches getting shut down, we are less distracted and better able to keep our focus on the main thing—being God’s wise stewards who work to bring God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. And of course we are to pray regularly for the conversion of the nations and their leaders because we remember it is God’s desire that all should be saved. Just think how greatly the kingdom would be advanced if all the world’s leaders were transformed by the love of Christ for them!
Likewise, when we meet people on their own terms and embody the love of God to them through our prayers and how we treat them, we show God that we really do believe that God wants everyone to be saved, not just a select few or those whom we happen to like better than others. This allows us to use our jobs, our wealth, our worldly skills, and our interactions with others to reach out to those who do not know God in Christ and embody God’s love to them in how we conduct ourselves and treat others. And just as we pray for the leaders of the nations, so we are to pray for all those in our daily lives, especially the unbelievers, that God will bless our use of dishonest wealth so that everyone might know God’s healing love in Jesus and be saved. It seems to me that this is a good part of what Pope Francis had to say in his recent interview that is causing such an uproar in some circles.
And of course, charity starts at home. When the world sees Christ’s body, the Church, sniping at each other and imposing all kinds of non-essential requirements on each other that are really superfluous to the gospel, this can only hurt our ability to be Jesus’ light and love to them. When outsiders and unbelievers see us behaving like they do instead of celebrating and rejoicing in the love of God that is ours in Jesus Christ, is it any wonder why they turn away? Of course, there are those who do not want anything to do with God and we must acknowledge that with great sadness. But that is not God’s desire and as his people we must use any and all means at our disposal to bring God’s love in Jesus to others, resting content in the knowledge that God in his mercy and through the power of his Spirit will finish the task we start.
All this invites us to think carefully about who God is as well as our role as his light-bearers. It invites us to look at how we use (or don’t use) the things in our life—from our career aspirations to our relationship with others to how we manage our money—for the glory of God and the spread of the gospel. So how are you doing in managing your dishonest wealth? Are you embodying the welcoming love of God to others and inviting them to join you or are you holding them off at arm’s length? How you answer, of course, will be directly proportional to the kind of relationship you enjoy (or don’t enjoy) with Jesus. If you really do know God’s crazy, wild love for you in Christ despite who you are or can sometimes be, you will doubtless think of new ways in the power of the Spirit to use all the gifts with which God blesses you—both worldly and spiritual—to share that crazy, wild love with others. We can do so because we know there is plenty of room at the foot of the cross. This reminds us, of course, that because we know what it means to have Good News, we are willing to share it with others, both now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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