Saturday, September 21, 2013

Jesus Said What?

This week's gospel text from Luke is a doozy. The following is the result of prayer and study with the scripture. This is what I'll be preaching tomorrow morning at Bethel.

What in the world is Jesus talking about in today’s parable? There is nothing easy to understand about it.        
Is this an early example of a debt settlement offer? How ideal for our culture of consumers who are overspent, overextended, and stretched beyond reason. We’ve probably all heard the ads on the radio or TV. “Call 1-800-BYE-DEBT and let us deal with your creditors.” They make it sound so easy. However, we all know there are no easy fixes and that if it sounds too good to be true, then it is. Money issues are complicated.

Why does Jesus tell this story? Is Jesus praising dishonesty and rewarding the “self-serving shenanigans of a [sleazy] employee?” (Sharron Blezard) The manager doesn’t do folks in, but he is determined to secure his future by means of his master’s wealth. This guy really has nerve.

One thing that all Jesus’ parables have in common is that they are meant to startle us and grab our attention. That is certainly the case with today’s parable. But this parable differs from many of Jesus’ other parables. It is not an allegory in which God is represented as one character and the other characters of the parable symbolize someone else. Today’s parable is drawn from first century everyday life. It’s taken for granted how the world works.

Are you clueless about the meaning of this parable? Don’t feel bad. You’re not alone! Luke had four different interpretations that followed it: 1. The children of light need to act more shrewdly, 2. Christians should make friends by dishonest wealth, 3. If we’re not faithful with dishonest wealth, who will trust us with the true riches?, and 4 is we cannot serve two masters. Was Luke confused about the meaning of the parable or does the meaning vary according to the needs of those hearing the parable? 
Is there an overall theme in today’s gospel reading? The 16th chapter of Luke is devoted to teaching about possessions. 

Jesus tells us right away that the rich man’s manager is dishonest. Isn’t it curious that Jesus can say something good about a person like that? A person with unsavory ways, may still exhibit commendable qualities of love of family, generosity, and loyalty. As Martin Luther wrote, we are simultaneously saints and sinners. 

What I find most puzzling about this parable is how the dishonest manager’s cleverness in saving his own skin is an example for Jesus’ disciples and for us. The manager uses the rich man’s wealth in such a way that turns the existing order of things upside down. Such reversals of status are at the heart of what happens when Jesus and the kingdom of God appear in Luke. The powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted up, the proud are scattered, the hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty.

The disciples can learn something from the clever manager. Rather than being a victim, the manager turned a bad situation into one that benefited not only him, but others as well. 
Relationships have been changed. By reducing people’s debts, the manager created a new paradigm of relationships that is no longer based on the business affiliation between lenders and debtors, but transformed into the reciprocal relationships of friends. The manager was a man of the world who worked and thought diligently to protect his interest. 

Jesus’ interpretation of this parable is that his disciples are to handle possessions in order to gain, not lose one’s eternal home. What we do in this life matters. What if everyone had the same level of commitment to God’s kingdom as they do to work or hobbies? What would happen if we use our ingenuity for sharing the gospel with the world as this manager used his to get out of manual labor or begging?

The last few verses of today’s gospel reading teach faithfulness even in small things. Our behavior in small matters indicates what we would do in matters of great importance.  Jesus argues from lesser to greater.

Then, there’s a sudden shift. The focus becomes all or nothing. This is the capstone of Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel. Living in the kingdom of God means giving up all other commitments, including that of economic security.

Whom do we worship and serve? We cannot serve both God and wealth. Do you hear the echoes of the first commandment? We can only have one God.

As Jesus’ disciples, we occupy two spaces at the same time—the world and the kingdom of God which we experience now, but not yet fully. 

The heart of the issue is how we can be good stewards. What we have is not our own, but rather gracious gifts from the Father’s hand. How are we going to use those gifts to benefit the world around us?

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