Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
This gospel lesson is considered the most confusing speech that Our Lord Jesus ever made. But we can make sense of it, as long as we think in terms of contradictions. The lesson is in two parts, and I think they’re intentionally contradictory.
The first part is a parable, verses 1 to 8. The parable is comic, it’s meant to be a little funny. It’s in the form of a fable, like Aesop’s fables, with a wily fox, or like Uncle Remus, with Bre’r Rabbit, who outwits his enemies, or even like Bugs Bunny, who gets away with everything.
So there’s this wealthy man, the master, and he’s a decent guy. He owns an estate, with tenant farmers on it, like sharecroppers, who pay their rent in kind. He employs a manager to run the place. He hears complaints that his manager is squandering his goods, so he calls him in. “What’s this I hear about you? Hand over your records. You’re done.” Uh oh.
The parable switches to the manager. He doesn’t bother to defend himself, he doesn’t waste his breath. And at least he wasn’t thrown in jail, which was decent of his boss. “But now what am I gonna do?” (Think cartoon here.) “I could dig. Nah. I could beg. Nah.” Light bulb comes on. “I got it. He still wants the accounts, and they don’t know I’m fired yet. If I work fast I can put them in my debt.”
He goes to the tenants. “How much do you owe the master? 800 gallons of olive oil? That’s a lot of olive oil! (It’s a fable, folks.) Quick, rewrite your contract and reduce it by half.” No problem. “And you, how much? 1000 bushels of wheat? That’s an awful lot of wheat you owe. Reduce it by 20%.”
It’s like when the Fed reduces interest rates. You go change your mortgage quick to get that rate. My bank didn’t like it so much when we refinanced our apartment, because of how much less interest they would collect from us, and they kept adding new paperwork to hold us off, but they finally yielded and we refinanced. And so the master, when the manager’s scheme comes out, is not going to force his tenant farmers to pay their former rate. He’s already shown he’s not that kind of guy. He’ll be as decent to his tenants as he was decent to the manager.
Which is what the manager was counting on. That’s where he was shrewd. He calculated on the decency of the master. He did not bother to excuse himself or defend himself. He counted on the mercy of the master, that the master would never be untrue to himself, no matter how crooked the manager was. That’s the shrewdness that’s commendable.
So when it comes to God, you can count on God to be true to God’s self, and God is merciful, and the quality of God’s mercy is not strained, no matter how often or how much you need it. So just don’t bother to be self-righteous, don’t stand on your rights or reputation, don’t waste your breath on your explanations and excuses. No matter how good or bad you are, no matter how much you have gained or how much you owe, all you really have to stand on, all you can resort to is God’s mercy. And you can also thank the Lord Jesus for being that wily rabbit, that crafty manager who comes to you and who cancels your rightful debts to God for you. That’s the good news.
The second part of our lesson is the bad news. It’s as critical as the first part is comical. The second part is a poem. It’s hard to recognize as such, because the form of the poem is not typical in Western literature. The form is more like Arabic poetry, or like the verses of the prophets of the Old Testament.
I will skip the literary analysis, but only say that the poem develops like a wave upon the beach. It gathers, it rises, it crests, and then crashes and spreads and recedes. Its climax is in the middle, at verse 11. Its climax is the challenge, “If you then have not been faithful with unrighteous wealth, who will entrust you with the true?” The true? The true what? True wealth? Or the Truth? Either, or both. It’s ambiguous and suggestive. What is of real value? In the world? In your own life? What are you really worth? What is your true value, what do you value?
What does the Lord Jesus mean when he says “unrighteous wealth”? He means to be allusive and imprecise. This is poetic language play. His term for “wealth” is the Aramaic word mammon. You may have heard this word before: “You can’t serve God and mammon.” Mammon means ordinary wealth, ordinary capital, your savings, your 401k, your equity in your home, all that you have to report when you apply for a mortgage or a loan. All of you have mammon, more or less.
Why is it unrighteous? In principle, wealth itself is morally neutral. It can be good, as with the landed property which God had guaranteed in the Torah to every Israelite. It is your security, and the birthright of your children. But the Lord is saying that it’s really never neutral and always compromised and crooked, no matter how respectable you are. It always tempts you and it always pulls on you, no matter how upright you are. It is your constant moral problem. Do not pretend to yourself that your small amount of wealth is righteous, or deserving, or clean. You could have an ethical investment policy, you could divest, you could boycott, you could even occupy, but you cannot escape the corruption of what you value and hold dear. You’re all complicit, not one of you is innocent, no one is exempt. No excuses. Don’t waste your breath.
The Lord Jesus has assaulted your integrity. Don’t defend yourself. He has impugned your reputation. Don’t defend it. Accept it. Plead his mercy. Fly to his mercy. He gives you the parable to show you how to survive the wave of his judgment crashing down on you. He shows you your place of refuge for when he comes to assault you. He has given you the place of grace in which we stand.
Grace and forgiveness, righteousness and morality. Mercy and justice. These can be contradictory. What is the purpose of being a Christian? What are we baptized for? Is it not to become a better person, more righteous, more ethical, a better example of humanity? Or is it to keep coming back for mercy, coming back again and again as diggers and beggars who have nothing to stand on but God’s mercy? Which is it? It is both. God calls you to be ethical. Yet all you have to stand on is God’s mercy. Being a Christian is to work them both, to learn the interplay, to work the balance.
Today we will baptize Clyde Li Williams. He knows how to walk, he has learned to balance in his body the opposing forces of tension and compression and of gravity and thrust. He’s learning to balance his food on a fork. Before you know it, his parents will be teaching him how to balance on a bicycle. And they will also teach him the balance of mercy and morality. The God he belongs to expects him to be moral. The older he gets, the more that will include. The more he comes to value the more pressing it will be. His parents will teach him how to take care of his things, to put his toys away, to clean up after himself, to respect the rights of others, to only take his share, but also how to have a share, to build up capital in the world, to be thrifty but also generous, a model citizen. I am not joking. And they will also teach him how much he needs mercy. How much in need of it he is, with no excuses, and how endlessly he can find it in the God he belongs to.
All of us are complicit. All of us enjoy the benefits of a global economy that is increasing the wealth of the wealthy and the poverty of the poor, exhausting our resources, and risking our very planet. What do we do? Don’t waste time defending it or denying it. Deal with it from out of mercy. Which means don’t waste time feeling guilty either. Do what you gotta do. The trick is in that strange advice which is the bridge from the parable to the poem: “Make friends for yourselves with your crooked wealth, etc.”
Okay, you’ve got it, so now be generous. Share it as if you believe that you don’t really have the right to it. The Rev. James Forbes famously said that, “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” You have some wealth? Okay. Maintain it but don’t fool yourself. You’re always more in bondage to it than you think, so be more generous with it than makes sense. This is not for guilt. It’s for joy. It’s for welcome. It’s for celebration. Your resort is not in anything you can do, your first and last resort is in the mercy of the God whom you belong to, who gently laughs at your pretensions, and who loves you like you’re a little child.
Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.