“Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure.”
The manager in today’s Gospel needed the collect we prayed at the beginning of the service. He was pretty anxious about earthly things. When the boss threatened to fire him for mismanagement he panicked and took desperate measures to ingratiate himself with the tenants. And it worked, apparently; he got a pat on the back instead of a termination notice.
This is a notoriously challenging Gospel passage, especially in the teaching that follows the parable. What is Jesus up to? How can he apparently express approval of sharp practice? How can he tell his disciples to make friends by means of dishonest wealth?
Let me disappoint you right away: I don’t have an interpretation that resolves this tension. And neither do any of the commentaries that I consulted – in fact, they all more or less throw in the towel. But I can give you more material to chew on.
Let’s start with a little cultural context: Palestine in the time of Jesus was a land of huge inequity between rich and poor. It was essentially a feudal system, or a culture of sharecroppers. There was the wealthy landowner and there were the virtually destitute tenants who worked the land. The economy wasn’t one of money; the tenants paid their rent in the form of the crops they grew. They lived in a perpetual state of indebtedness to the landowner: for the privilege of living on his land they were to provide him with an often excessive percentage of the oil or grain or fruit they harvested. They would never be able to pay him enough to get free of this arrangement and live independently. The landowner employed a steward or manager to do the dirty work of collecting the rent and evicting those who weren’t able to meet the landlord’s demands. The steward too was paid in goods rather than money: he added a percentage on top of what the landlord expected and took it as his cut, gouging the tenants even more.
So it’s likely that when this manager reduced the amount of oil and wheat due, what he was doing was giving up his cut, which had probably been outrageously large – hence the accusation that he was squandering the master’s property. His remedial action didn’t cheat his boss; he was giving the tenants a break in order not to meet a knife in a dark alley once he was no longer under the protection of the landlord.
We might look askance at the motivation, but the action the steward takes is clearly one that benefits the poor and improves morale on the plantation. The landlord can congratulate him for taking action that benefits everyone: while the manager himself loses out on a payday he preserves his job by making a generous gesture that might, by the way, disarm those who have accused him of mismanagement.
The last words of our Gospel passage have Jesus saying very clearly, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” The manager made a decision to serve God, in effect, by giving up a portion of his wealth to those who had none. It was not only a smart move but a faithful one in the context of Jewish teaching.
Regardless of the interpretation we choose, this Gospel lesson gets our attention. It shakes us up. It doesn’t fit with our picture of gentle Jesus, meek and mild. The teaching goes against the grain. It’s counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. And maybe that is the point. Maybe this is a sort of proto-parable, a sharp prod that we can’t explain or ignore. Maybe it’s telling us that the way things usually work in this world isn’t the way they work in God’s kingdom. In our transactional culture, there are contracts and payments and deliveries. I give you something so that you will give me something. But in God’s Kingdom, we give and receive, not as part of a transaction, but for the sheer joy of giving and receiving.
The prophet Amos has no time for sharp business practices. He condemns those who take advantage of the poor, who cheat their customers, who resent the religious holidays when they can’t do business, who buy and sell human beings in defiance of the law of Moses. Amos calls the people of God away from anxiety about earthly things and back to those things that shall endure. He reminds them and us that there are more important things than making a profit or outwitting your competitor. And this brings us back to Jesus, telling us that you cannot serve God and wealth. Sometimes, being faithful means doing what doesn’t seem to make sense.
It might mean leaving life-saving jugs of water in the desert, as the Border Angels do, even if you know that border patrol will probably slash them.
It might mean forgiving the killer of your loved ones, as the people of Mother Emanuel did, even though he shows no remorse.
It might mean voting, not for the candidate who promises the most goodies for me and my family but for the one who will sincerely act to benefit the destitute and slow down climate change.
It might mean renouncing a lucrative or prestigious position to serve the poor, as the scholar Henri Nouwen did.
It might mean giving up some of your free time to serve others by organizing showers or free clinics or by participating in political actions on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves.
The work of the Kingdom doesn’t always make sense in the eyes of the world. Our efforts to love our neighbors as ourselves can look as baffling to outsiders as Jesus’ teaching about dishonest wealth looks to us. The way of Jesus is deeply counter-intuitive to this divided world.
Let me tell you a story about one of my fellow Yale Divinity School alums.
Nancy Jo Kemper, a UCC minister for 50 years, ran for Congress in 2016. She ran as a democrat in a deep red district in Kentucky, knowing she didn’t have a chance of winning. She ran because she saw an opportunity to share the good news of the Gospel in a way that provided an alternative to the prevailing, fundamentalist form of Christianity in the district. She spoke to people who would never have entered her church. She refused to use negative campaign tactics. She ended each stump speech with William Sloan Coffin’s words: “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” After the election, which of course she lost, she wrote passionately about the need for a strong, resilient vision of Christianity. Nancy Jo used contemporary means – the election process – to do the work of the Kingdom.
How are the children of light to behave in this age? We can take our cue from Nancy Jo and use the tools of the age to do the work God has given us to do. The methods of previous generations don’t work any more. We need to get over our distaste of electronic worship aids, of witnessing to our faith in the community, and maybe even of bringing coffee cups into church.
We can follow Jesus by letting go of our anxiety about earthly things, by serving God rather than wealth, by demonstrating unconditional compassion to our neighbors. We can be faithful with the little or much that we have, holding fast to the God whose love and faithfulness endure for ever.
September 22, 2019
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges