Sunday, September 19, 2010

Gotta Serve Somebody

The parable of the dishonest manager Luke16:1-13 is a tough one. This is what I came up with. It was preached this morning at my internship site, Grace Lutheran Church, Petersburg, WV.

This parable is one of the continuing series in Luke where Jesus seems to be messing with our minds. It has been likened to a watermelon coated in Crisco being used as a football. It can be played with, but you just can’t get a hold of it. Like that slippery watermelon, parables are meant to keep us on our toes. Let’s see if together we can see what God is saying to us through this passage.

The parable of the dishonest steward or manager is familiar and puzzling to most of us. It makes us think. You heard me read the story. How many of you were puzzled? You’re not alone. You should have seen all the comments on Facebook as my classmates and pastors were preparing their sermonsAnd what do we do with phrases like, “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. No matter how we try to look at it, we just can’t get it to make sense.

Well, here’s a way to grab that slippery watermelon football of a parable we’re trying to get hold of. Society and relationships in Jesus’ day were based on honor and shame. For example, if you had someone over for dinner, you invited someone of a higher rank than yourself, someone with more honor. By doing this, you were showing honor to your guest and by having him over, you received honor. For us, it would be like having someone famous come to our house. It’s an honor for us. That’s why the Pharisees in other gospel stories are so shocked by who Jesus ate with. They were not ones who could bring him higher status in society. Jesus couldn’t benefit from those relationships according to the standards of his day.

So, let’s retell the story from the perspective of first century society in Jesus’ day. A rich man had a manager that was accused of “squandering” his boss’s property. Whether it was true or not, this brought shame to the rich man. Two scholars explain, “His honor and status in the community are threatened by the public perception that he cannot control his employees, so he resolves to save face by immediately dismissing the employee” (Landry and May, “Honor Restored: New Light on the Parable of the Prudent Steward Luke 16:1-8a)."

The manager is summoned by his boss. He’s in trouble now. Because of these accusations, shame has now fallen upon him. He must act quickly. The boss wants an accounting of everything. The manager is ruined unless he can find a way to restore the master’s property. He won’t be able to get work as a manager anywhere else—not with his bad reputation.

He says he couldn’t dig, which probably referred to digging in the mines, slave work, which was almost always a death sentence. After all, he was educated. He could read and write. He just wasn’t suited to that kind of labor. And begging would just bring him even more shame. What should he do?

He decides to give a deep discount to all the master’s debtors. In that way, they will be indebted to the manager, they will owe him, which restores some honor. One scholar explains:

People would assume that the steward was acting on the master's orders, so these gestures would make the master look generous and charitable in the eyes of society. The prestige and honor gained by such benefaction would far outweigh the monetary loss to the master. (Landry and May, "Honor Restored: New Light on the Parable of the Prudent Steward (Luke 16:1-8a)."

The manager was being so generous to those indebted to his master. He needed a way out of his predicament—a way to have the shame taken away and his honor restored. Then he would be golden. The debtors AND the rich man would all be grateful to him.

Now I can’t help but wonder just how honest the rich man was himself. If honor was restored to the manager despite such cuts to his master’s revenue, was the rich man overcharging his debtors in the first place? Was he guilty of price gouging? Were the boss and the manager both corrupt? Perhaps it’s not simply a parable of a dishonest t manager who may have doctored the books so the master wouldn’t find out, but also of a greedy master as well. What do you think?

Let’s see if we can get some help from what came before this parable. There are parallels between today’s story and that of the Prodigal Son, which immediately precedes this passage. Both men “squandered their property.” Both men then talk to themselves, plotting and scheming a way to get back into someone’s good graces. The prodigal rehearses to himself what he’ll say to his father. For the manager, he talks about what he will do to be seen in a better light by his master. Finally, they both receive greater mercy than they had expected, dreamed, or schemed. Mercy abounds in each, for neither man was worthy of the mercy received. That certainly resonates with us. We are undeserving of God’s abundant mercy, and yet God lavishes it upon us.

In today’s story, the master hears what the manager has done and praises him for his actions. It’s not just about the olive oil or the wheat. The issue is that the manager restored his master’s honor. He actually made the master look good. Honor and prestige outweigh the monetary loss. Now the manager had options. He could either remain with his master or work for another since his own reputation for loyalty and good service has been restored. Honor trumped wealth.

That’s all very nice, but it’s still confusing. Are we to understand the master to be God and the dishonest manager ourselves? The manager landed on his feet, but does this mean he had a conversion or change of heart? He was still referred to as the dishonest or unrighteousness, wicked, unjust (BDAG) manager. His restoration was due to his own work and cleverness.

This parable does not follow the pattern of the preceding parables that emphasize God’s boundless grace. In the parables of the lost coin, lost sheep, and lost son, something was lost, something was found, and then there was a party of rejoicing. We don’t see the party of rejoicing after this parable like we do with the others. The changes came about in the other parables because of God’s grace and not someone’s efforts

Perhaps the most puzzling phrase in this parable is, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” That just seems wrong. Is Jesus calling us to bribery and dishonesty? We need to understand that for Jews in that day, all wealth beyond one’s needs was considered tainted or dishonest. This is meant to encourage responsibility for those in need. It’s a matter of neighborliness, of being a caring community, like we have here at Grace.

The challenge to us from the parable is, so, who is our boss? Who do we follow? Who is our master? Is it fashion? Food? Drink? Sex? Are we enslaved to our own desires for recognition and acceptance? Or are we the slaves of Jesus Christ, like St. Hildegard, who described her life as "a feather on the breath of God?” (http://dailyoffice.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/evening-prayer-9-17-10-hildegard-of-bingen/). Imagine a feather on the breath of God. We just float; we don’t strive to be good, to do all these works to please God. God works and we just go with the wind of the Spirit. God is the One in charge.

Do any of you remember a show that was on in the ‘80s and ‘90s called “Who’s the Boss?” The story line is, “Former major-leaguer Tony Micelli and his daughter Samantha arrive at the Connecticut household of executive Angela Bower, where Tony has taken a job as live-in housekeeper” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086827/plotsummary).

The title of the show referred to the clear role reversal of the two lead actors, where a woman was the breadwinner, while a man stayed at home and took care of the house. Moreover, while Angela employed Tony, it was Tony who seemed to run the house, thus the question of who the "boss" really was. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who%27s_the_Boss%3F)

It’s like that in our Christian lives. At times we float like that feather when we allow Jesus to exercise his lordship of our lives. And then sometimes, we let people and other things get in the way and they become our master. The bottom line for the hearers of the parable and for us is who our boss is. Who or what do we let call the shots in our lives?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell who the good guys are in a parable like this. There’s still a lot to explore in it, but that’s best left for another day. The bottom line for us is what God is saying to us as the people of God gathered here today around Word and Sacrament. The verses that are at the end of the passage rings out the message clearly-- “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth" (Luk 16:1-13 NRS).

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan put Jesus’ challenge to music with these words:

You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody's landlord you might even own banks.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be working in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody's mistress, may be somebody's heir.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/bobdylan/gottaservesomebody.html

Who will we serve?

Please join with me in prayer:

Almighty God, draw our hearts to you, guide our minds, fill our imaginations, control our wills, so that we may be wholly yours. Use us as you will, always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. (LBW, p. 47)

Picture from Google Images



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