9/22/2019 Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Luke 16: 1-13.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
As we do each week, a dozen Lutheran preachers sat in a conference room this past Tuesday, just up the road in the Synod office. The intent is to participate in ‘pericope’, the Greek word that describes ‘cutting out’ or extracting the specific bible passages to be preached on the coming Sunday. These study groups are held throughout the church and give preachers the opportunity to examine and consider Scripture together; with the goal of perhaps reaching a consensus as to the best direction to follow when preparing a homily. Most of the time this exercise is extremely helpful and everyone comes away with a snippet or two that each may incorporate into an already well-crafted sermon. As you may guess, after hearing Luke’s gospel this morning, this was definitely not the case at this week’s study group.
There seem to be several different interpretations of the second half of the passage, those regarding the reduction of debts owed, in hope of the manager receiving hospitality in return. His rich master oddly enough commends the manager for this action. He is told he has acted ‘shrewdly’. And strangely, the Greek for ‘shrewdly’ phronimos; is better translated as ‘prudently’ or ‘wisely’. And to top it off Jesus tells the disciples to ‘make friends by means of dishonest wealth’. Facing the predicament of having to deal with this challenging text, my initial thought was to have my wife present you with a note like a student would bring to school, stating that I was suffering from laryngitis and would be unable to preach today. But then reality took hold and I remembered that there is really nothing that would stop me from talking; it’s a curse that I must deal with…just ask Laurie. The other option, one which I shared with my study group colleagues, was that I would fake my own death; that way I wouldn’t have to contend with this problematic parable. After some consideration I determined that this course of action might be a tad extreme; and besides, I would eventually have to show up at some point and try to explain my miraculous reappearance.
So, unable to create a realistic method to avoid confronting this perplexing passage from Luke, the only other option is to attempt to confront the parable of the manager just as it stands.
Luke tells us the manager is simultaneously shrewd and dishonest; an accused squanderer and a commended overseer. Someone who, faced with being fired finds himself too weak for manual labor and too proud to beg. Before we attempt to discover the underlying motivation for the final verses of the parable, we can certainly have confidence in the initial revelation. The manager was indeed, corrupt. We’re not sure exactly in what way, but nonetheless his actions caused him to be dismissed from his job. To ensure that he might have someplace to stay, he calls those who owe debts to his master and has them reduce the amounts each one owes. It’s obvious that he is doing this to endear himself to those debtors, in the hopes they will reciprocate with hospitality so he doesn’t find himself out on the street. Why then does the master ‘commend’ him for this action?
In Galilee in Luke’s time, rich men who lent money or goods consistently added exorbitant, hidden interest and/or fees to the balance they were owed. This was in direct violation of Jewish Law, which forbid charging interest. Perhaps the manager was attempting to atone for his own wrongdoing by reducing the debts owed by others, possibly by the amount of interest they were being unknowingly charged. The master may have included forbidden interest and the manager may also have added his own fees. In that case, his lord may have at least been showing that he was adhering to the Torah and praised the manager for doing what was right and lawful. Again, we don’t know; the manager might have been looking out only for himself and in doing so, unintentionally helped the debtors. I suggest we might give him the benefit of the doubt.
Another option is that Jesus is telling this parable only to the disciples; therefore, we should accept that they are the most ‘mature’ in their faith in Christ and that the moral of the story was intended specifically for their ears. Jesus states that if they have not been faithful with what they have been given, how then are they to be trusted with what is truly important; spreading the Good News of the coming kingdom of God? Perhaps the entire passage was to serve as a teaching moment for the twelve.
Instead of using ‘dishonest wealth’ to take advantage as the rich do, the disciples are commanded to use wealth to ‘make friends for themselves.’ These potential ‘friendships’, or the calling of other Christ-followers are to be mutually beneficial; therefore, forgiving others’ debts establishes relationships which are based on equality and fairness. As noted earlier, this is less ‘shrewd’ and more ‘wise’ or ‘prudent’. As those whose debts were reduced by the manager were likely to respond with hospitality toward him when he found himself out of work, we find ourselves drawn to thankfulness for the forgiveness of our sin that we receive through God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice.
The last verse of today’s lesson is the one that is the least obscure; ‘you cannot serve God and wealth’. ‘Wealth’ in this instance is from a late Middle English word, ‘mammon’; and this is the word for wealth used in the King James Bible. In an unusual circumstance, the Greek word is ‘mamonas’. This in turn is from the Hebrew/Aramaic word, ‘mamon’. It’s not often that a biblical term maintains its similarity through several translations. The term, in all its iterations refers to the greedy pursuit of wealth. In fact, by the time of the Middle Ages, Mammon was personified to be a demon with the power to corrupt otherwise good people to be inspired to envy, lust, and greed. So, when we get right down to it perhaps the overall purpose of the parable is to reinforce the dichotomy between the secular world and God’s kingdom.
We can’t serve two masters; we must choose between God and the pursuit of mammon, the self-indulgent search for wealth that separates us from living a Spirit-led life. It matters not how much we accumulate in this life; what does matter is how we share what we have with others in need. In this way we are ‘making friends’ as Jesus tells the disciples; we are building Christian community for the sake of the Gospel. We are exhorted to turn our hearts and minds toward God and away from the relentless pursuit of wealth and material goods. We can’t serve two masters. It’s also good spiritual practice to remind ourselves that everything we have comes to us through God’s grace. Nothing we have is ours to keep, everything is on loan from the Father.
The Ministry/Outreach Team here at Emanuel has invited all of us to discern our future mission beyond our walls at a meeting to be held after worship this morning. If we are to thrive it will be up to all of us to focus our attention outward, in support of those in need. Jesus told the disciples to use their resources to ‘make friends’, to help those in want. We are called to do the same. Please consider attending this morning’s meeting; everyone’s input is invited. And, when a ministry goal is determined everyone’s commitment and participation will be sought to make that mission successful.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, help us to remember that we can’t serve two masters. Send your Holy Spirit to guide us toward serving you through the aid and support we offer to others. Discourage us from the striving for the mammon that would disconnect us from the Spirit-filled life we enjoy through your grace and Christ’s sacrifice.
And the people of God say…Amen
Let us be honest managers of the gifts of God!