Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sermon: The Crisis of God's New Day

Luke 16:1-13
The Crisis of God’s New Day
James Sledge                                                                           September 22, 2013

Jesus has just finished telling three parables about God’s desire to seek out and welcome the lost, parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a prodigal son who has squandered his father’s wealth. These parables were directed at the good, religious folks who complained about Jesus hanging out with undesirables and riff raff.  But now the audience changes.
Jesus now addresses his followers, who presumably includes us, and we meet another character who has squandered someone else’s money. This fellow is a manager who works for a very wealthy man, presumably an absentee landlord. There is some sort of arrangement with tenant farmers who owe a portion of their crop to the landlord, and the amounts here are quite large. The manager is the one who keeps watch over all this, and there were surely many opportunities for him to cook the books or skim off more than the cut that would have been considered his share. Or maybe this manager isn’t a crook but simply bad at his job.
Lots of commentators and interpreters want to rehabilitate this manager in some way, for pretty obvious reasons. Not only does this manager get commended by his master at the end, but Jesus tells us to be more like him. So surely he cannot simply be some bad guy.
This is a difficult bit of scripture, made more so by the sayings joined to the parable. Trying to tie it all together in a way that makes good sense has troubled people this the earliest days of Christianity, and has provoked all sorts of creative efforts.
Some suggest that the manager doesn’t cheat his master when he reduces the amount of wheat or olive oil owed, but takes it out of his own cut. Some even suggest that the manager is simply removing interest charges, ones that were forbidden by the law of Moses. Thus he was righting a wrong and not committing one.
The wide variety of opinion on this passage makes me cautious about speaking with much certainty, but still I doubt that the disciples would have listened as creatively as later scholars feel the need to do. Presumably they would have heard a more obvious meaning, especially since the praise from the master and Jesus urging us to be more like the manager are surprise twists that come at the end.

So if we take at face value the rich man’s claim that his manager is a crook, what do we do with this parable?  I suggest we contrast it with the preceding parable of the prodigal. It strikes me as something of a negative image of that parable. In each parable, the lead character squanders another’s money and then finds himself in dire circumstances that require action. One repents and returns home to discover his father’s extravagant love and forgiveness. The other schemes in an act of shrewd self-preservation.
Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal to opponents who complain about the company he keeps. But the parable of the dishonest manager is for followers. The first parable speaks of the gracious ways of God and warns those who are offended by them. But the second parable speaks to disciples about how we are to act. Its warnings are about the failure to act boldly and skillfully, using all the resources at our disposal.
Jesus is not recommending the manager’s dishonesty, but he is urging us to imitate his sense of urgency, his whatever-it-takes attitude. If the parable of the prodigal, along with the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin, are warnings to religious insiders who imagine God’s love is reserved for people like them, the parable of the dishonest manager warns those of us who say we follow Jesus, yet live as we always have, as though nothing has changed.
Jesus insists that in him, God’s dominion, God’s rule, God’s new day has drawn near. It is a day vastly different from the status quo, one where the poor and oppressed are lifted up, and the rich and the powerful are brought down. In this new day there is enough for all. People freely share all they have with no need to hoard or accumulate riches and possessions.
Jesus expects the nearness of this new day to create a kind of crisis for those who sense its presence, one that causes them to leave old ways and live new lives. And in this parable, Jesus says to his followers, use whatever you have, a little or a lot, in the cause of God’s new day. I’m not sure if Jesus implies that all wealth is “dishonest wealth,” but I’m not sure it matters. Jesus calls us to expend our wealth in a different sort of squandering, one for the sake of the kingdom. And he ends by stating the crisis as starkly as he can. We must choose. Wealth or God.
I can only assume that for Jesus, God’s coming rule is so vivid, so real and present to him, that all that he says and does emerges from the urgency he feels over this new day. But if God’s new day seemed almost fully present to Jesus, we can scarcely glimpse it. Some of us have managed to dip a little toe into the water of God’s coming day, but everything else is rooted firmly in the world as it has always been. We are much more comfortable with the ways of the world that Jesus says are passing away, which is why Jesus tells us this parable. He’s attempting to jar us from our complacency and give us a sense of urgency. Not that it seems to have worked very well.
Even horrific events such as the Navy Yard shootings this past week don’t give us much sense of urgency or crisis. Oh we’ll mourn, lament, be upset, and ask questions about how this could happen, and then get back to life as usual. The inertia of how things are is just too great. The problems are too large. We want to believe in a new day, but we’re not sure we can.
It is easy to become cynical or depressed about such things, about rampant gun violence, the growing gap between rich and poor, the slaughter of civilians in Syria and the Congo, or the killings in Nairobi. A new day doesn’t seem very real or near, and today’s scripture doesn’t exactly cheer me up. See the urgency and choose; God or wealth? At times I lean toward God, but wealth seems pretty nice, too. Occasionally I put a foot on God’s boat, but I’ve got the other firmly planted on the dock. And I’m holding on to it with all my might.
One of the problems with preaching is that it’s usually tied to a small bit of scripture. Sermons tend to look at one surface of an immense, thousand-faceted crystal. Today’s facet sets before us a crisis, an urgency, that we can’t quite seem to embrace. But there are other facets.
In the book of Acts, the companion volume to Luke, we hear about a remarkable community of sharing and generosity that truly seems to have caught some of the urgency Jesus says we need. People sell what they have, share it with all, and there was not a needy person among them. But none of this happens because of skillful preaching or even because people somehow get what Jesus says in today’s parable. This new life that embraces the ways of our parable comes because of Pentecost and the gift of the Spirit. These people aren’t convinced, they are transformed by God coming into them via the Spirit.
Of course a lot of us are big enough control freaks that the last think we want is the Spirit running around loose in our lives, or in our church. Fortunately, God doesn’t always ask first. And while it is hardly a regular occurrence for me, I can say without question that there’s nothing quite like when the Spirit gets ahold of  you, reorients your life, and pulls you a little deeper into that new day Jesus insists is drawing near.

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