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Faith in Little

Sermon - 9/19/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 16:1-13

The text this morning that I want to reflect with you on is an interesting story that Jesus tells, one of the parables, from the 16th chapter of Luke's gospel:
 
Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And 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.

10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No 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.’

 

Seems like a good story for these economic times. There is a natural tendency, I think, for us to expect that the heroes and heroines of the Bible be honorable people. But in fact, if you stop and think about it, many if not most of the stories of people in the Bible are actually stories about flawed characters.

Jacob steals the birthright from his brother, Esau.  David arranges for Bathsheba's husband to be murdered, so he can claim her as his own. Peter denies Jesus at the most critical time. Paul persecutes the followers of Jesus. I mean, these stories remind us that people in the Bible, they're human. Not all that different from us.

And in most of those stories those individuals are redeemed or forgiven, and so that in turn gives us hope. Jacob reconciles with his brother Esau. David repents when confronted by the prophet Nathan. Peter redeems himself on Pentecost. Paul is converted on the road to Damascus.

And now here we have a story told by Jesus of such a flawed character, who saves himself in his time of crisis, not by repenting, but by continuing in his dishonest ways! And using those to better himself. And thereby this has caused Biblical interpreters ever since all kinds of fits in trying to explain this and justify the dishonesty of this steward. Suggesting perhaps, well, he was forgiving the unearned, undeserved accumulated interest. Or he was foregoing his commission that he was owed as part of the deal. And thereby missing the whole point -- he's dishonest!

And now that he's being fired, do you think he's suddenly going to have a wave of conscience come over him, to repent of his deeds?

There's a reason why wise employers, you know, when they dismiss somebody, what do they do? Clean out your desk right now, right?

Jesus says the land-owner is rich, he doesn't say he's smart :). Leaves him with the keys and in charge of the books. If this Manager was to write a book, it would probably be "Embezzlement for Dummies". Or "How to Steal What You Deserve, Without Even Trying".

So, why would Jesus tell a story like this? I mean, are we supposed to emulate this guy? Would you ask Bernie Madoff to teach a course on business ethics? Or Bill Clinton to write a book on abstinence? Maybe co-authored by Wilt Chamberlain? Or would you ask the Ducks to please allow the opponents to score once in awhile, will you? No, we're not going to go there :).

So I'd like to ask Jesus -- what were you thinking? And I suspect Jesus would say something like this: well, if this story shocks you, good. Because that's why I told it.

If the gospel doesn't shock you once in awhile, you're not paying attention! So let that shock open your eyes to the greater truth. Or, as Jesus likes to say, let those with two good ears listen.

So yes, it's a shocking story, and that's a good clue that there's more to it than meets the eye. For starters, this is a classic "trickster" story. The kind of stories common in folklore, often told as a way to even the score (so to speak) between the powerful and the weak, between the haves and the have-nots.

Here is a similar story that comes out of Jewish folklore, recalled by a Rabbi over a century ago:

"A man once was caught stealing, and was ordered by the King to be hanged. On the way to the gallows, he said to the Governor that he knew a wonderful secret, and it would be a pity to allows it to die with him, and he would like to disclose it to the King. He would put a seed of pomegranate into the ground, and threw this secret, taught to him by his father, would make it grow and bear fruit overnight. Now, wouldn't that be a wonderful thing? Well, you know, the Governor thought, this is above my pay-grade, so he takes it to he King, and the King brought the man before him. And so it was that the thief was brought before the King on the next day, accompanied by a high officers. Undoubtedly, the King thought 'If it doesn't work, I'll just execute him tomorrow'. Accompanied by the high officers of state, they came to a place where the thief was awaiting. There the thief dug a hole, and said "This seed must only be put into the ground by a man who has never stolen or taken anything that did not belong to him. And I, being a thief, well, what can I do?". So he hands the seed to the Governor. The Governor's eyes grow wide :). He says "Ummm, well, you know, in my younger days there might have been something that I once took that didn't belong to me, maybe I better not". And so he hands the seed to the Treasurer. And the Treasurer says "Well, you know, I handle such large sums of money, it's hard to keep track of, and you know, maybe I kept a little bit too much once". So he hands the seed to the King. And the King said "I recall that I once kept a necklace that belonged to my father".

And so the thief said "You are all mighty and powerful, and want nothing, and yet you cannot plant the seed? While I, who have so little, have stolen because I was hungry, am about to be hanged". And the King pardoned him.

You see, trickster stories are not told just for their entertainment value, they are stories that challenge the status quo, to get us to see reality in a new way, to open our eyes to other possibilities. And often in the process revealing the moral bankruptcy of the rich and powerful. Remember, the King who has no clothes?

The steward may be dishonest, but what about the wealthy landlord? How did he get his wealth?

Debt was an enormous problem in the time of Jesus. In order to produce goods and taxes to support the Roman Empire, the agrarian economy of Palestine was commercialized in such a way that Jewish peasants were forced off of their land and into economic relationships with absentee landlords as in this parable, often owing in the process enormous sums that they could never possibly repay. We know of two major peasant revolts in Palestine. One shortly before the birth of Jesus, and one a couple of decades after.

So I ask you, how many such peasants, and how many such landlords, were likely in the audience of Jesus? A ratio of one in 10? One in 100? One in a thousand? Did landlords even bother to come and listen to some itinerant preacher from backwater Galilee?

And imagine, then, how you, as a heavily indebted farmer, forced to rent land that you previously owned, would respond then to the ingenuity of this dishonest Manager. You can almost hear their cheers in the background as each debt is reduced -- 20%, 30%, 40%, 50% even.

In effect, this unscrupulous Manager is enacting the Jubilee year pronounced by Jesus in Nazareth, told in the fourth chapter of Luke's Gospel. Proclaiming good news to the poor, forgetting the debts of his master's debtors. So I suggest to you that it's not the dishonesty that Jesus embraces, but his benevolence. Using his authority like that of an outgoing President, pardoning prisoners as he goes out the door.

There's one more subtext to this story: note the attitude of Jesus towards wealth. Two times, in the verses that follow, he refers to dishonest wealth as if to offset the dishonesty of the Manager. How many read Non Sequitur? Great cartoon, right to the point yesterday. If you've been following the storyline, the Eckert, this being that has been released that feeds off of peoples negativity (he takes their negativity away from them and turns it into positivity, niceness, goodness), and this is creating havoc in the country, especially with the generals and the authorities in charge who need that negativity. So now the waitress and Eddie are reflecting on the situation in a little café that sits on the bay there:

 

Yeah, that's true. And that leads us to the main point Jesus draws from this story. Yeah, wealth can be corrupting, and yeah, the bad guys have more more money than the good guys. So should we abandon all wealth, and follow the advice given by Jesus to that rich young ruler 'Go, and sell all that you have, come and follow me'?

But here, Jesus says nothing of the sort. To the contrary, the message here is we should learn to be as shrewd with our finances as those of the world. So, is Jesus suggesting then that we should all become like Wall Street brokers? Hardly. Recall the final warning: "You cannot serve two masters". You have to make a choice, between God and wealth.

I think that the wisdom Jesus is offering here is much more mundane, and yet profound. That being a faithful Christian is about being a good manager of our financial resources. Learning how to make and live on a budget, within our means. Avoiding personal debt and credit card temptation. Making wise choices in our daily living with our money. And such is not only an important life skill, it is a part of Christian faith -- being a good steward, that we talk so much about.

Jim Wallis, from Sojourners, likes to talk about how the budget is a moral document. He's talking about governments, and the budgets we make in the county and the state and at the federal level. And what's true at the macro level is also true at the micro level. Our household budgets are faith documents. So what does it say about our faith when we spend more on what gets us to work than what draws us to God? How often do we readily spend $20 on a meal for ourselves but hesitate to spend $1 for the people in Pakistan?

Our checkbook, for those who still use that archaic device, literally if not metaphorically, may be the single document which reveals more about our faith than anything else we ever write. That's not to suggest we should do as Zacchaeus does, to give half of all our wealth to the poor. Although, Bill Gates has been on campaign essentially suggesting that to his fellow billionaires. Not a bad idea -- if I had a billion, I'd give up half :). Or, as one televangelists unashamedly proclaimed: Jesus is returning soon and you don't want to be encumbered with wealth when he does! So let us help you unload your burden -- telephone operators are standing by :)

God bless those who have the faith and have the means to write those big checks, to make significant gifts to support the ministry of the Church. But you know, for most of us, our faith is not revealed in those big sums of money, or those big events of life.

Fred Craddick writes in his commentary on this text that most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the Queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake (I hope). More likely, the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, serve a breakfast, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a County Commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbors cat.

Whoever his faithful in a very little, is faithful also in much.

In a time of crisis when urgent action is needed, may we be shrewd as this Manager, but for everyday living. All the hundreds of little choices we face day to day. Let us show our faith in the simple deeds, the small acts, the unnoticed things.

Learn to be faithful in those things, Jesus says, and the big stuff will take care of itself.

 


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