Luke 16.1-13 Year C
September 19, 2010
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and Peace to you from the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.
Life is full of surprises. Some good, some bad, and some funny. On Friday I was surprised to see the first snowflakes of the fall. Whether that is good or bad I’ll leave that up for you to judge. I was also very surprised to see the bird feeder in my front yard that I had filled to the brim less than 24 hours earlier, surrounded by 50 plump and happy birds and almost gone. I had a good laugh about this and wondered when it would be a good idea for me to fill it again. To my surprise, I am now a bird watcher.
Scripture is also full of surprises and so is the Christian faith. I would be lying to you if I said I liked this parable, or story, from Luke today. In fact, I have even gone so far as to call this text, “wretched.” I have yet to meet a pastor, lay person, or theologian who would say, “Yep, the parable of the dishonest manager, love that one; it really speaks God’s grace to me.” However, it is given to us as Scripture and so we wrestle with it together as people of God.
The reason I struggle with the interpretation of this parable is because Jesus says the opposite of what I think he is going to say, or in my opinion, what he should say. In our OT reading in the book of Amos, those who sell grain and wheat for unjust prices, who “trample on the needy,” and take advantage of those who are poor, are harshly warned that God does not forget about those actions. There is judgment to come and the outcome doesn’t look good for those who have let greed be a way of life.
Then we move to the book of Luke and hear about the dishonest manager, or the unjust steward. How about we’ll just call him a more modern term…a cheat. Essentially he rips off his master twice. Now in this story we can assume that the master is a very wealthy land owner and that there are many peasants or people who work the land for him. It is clear that the people who work for the master have accumulated much debt. They are enslaved to the land and are bound by what they owe. Then we have the manager, a kind of middleman between the master and the people, who has been entrusted with the stewardship of the master’s property. Now this guy is not liked by the people because he is the one that goes around collecting what is owed to the master. No one likes to see this person.
So the manager is first accused of ‘squandering’ the master’s property. What is interesting about the word ‘squandering’ is that it has a meaning of ‘scattering.’ In fact, it is the very word that is used in the parable of the sower when the sower carelessly ‘scatters’ seed. So the property is essentially scattered, gone. So what is the manager to do? Well, he gets smart and tries to make some friends by decreasing the amount owed to the master, which is no longer his privilege since he was just fired. His motivation isn’t, “These poor people…they’ve been taken advantage of so I should do something to help them out.” Nop, rather it’s, “How can I make sure I don’t end up on the street?”
And this is where Jesus never ceases to surprise me: the master finds out what the manager does, and commends him for his actions. What is up with that?
One of my favorite stories of grace is portrayed in the musical, Les Miserables. There is a scene between 3 characters: a bishop, Jean, who is a person just freed on parole after many years on a chain gang, and a police officer. The bishop invites Jean for a meal in his home. After the meal was over, Jean steals all of the silver on which the meal was served. Jean is eventually apprehended by the police and brought back to the bishop’s home. Upon accusation of theft by the police, the bishop tells the police that he gave Jean the silver. Then he goes and gets the candlesticks and holds them out to Jean and says, “You forgot to take these with you.” The candlesticks remain with Jean for the rest of his life.
Surprising response, radical grace.
The bishop’s response to Jean, and the master’s response to the manager is one we don’t expect. We expect what we think of as “justice,” right? We want what is fair. But we all know that life isn’t fair and that it is full of surprises.
When I take a step back and look at the story, I wonder whatever happened to the families that had their debt reduced. One person’s debt was cut in half! This is no small matter. Even though the manager’s motivation for reducing people’s debt was for selfish gain, was good able to come of it? I really must answer, “yes,” to this. Does it really matter what the manager’s motivation was if people in poverty were relieved of some of their debt? This is a question I need to ponder further, but it makes me think of what Martin Luther said. Martin Luther said that even the good we do in the world is not without sin because it is always motivated by selfishness. We are completely incapable of acting without selfish desires, whether good or bad.
For example, we follow rules because we want to get rewarded, or we don’t want to get punished. We take a meal over to a friend when they are sick because we care for them, but also because it makes us feel good to do it. We recycle because it is good for the earth, and we also don’t want to feel guilty about how much trash would go to the landfill if we didn’t.
Luther made it perfectly clear that the good we do does not come from ourselves, but rather from God. And the good news is that even when we make mistakes, known or unknown, God has the power to transform our mistakes into new life.
What never ceases to surprise me is that God isn’t in the business of punishment; God is in the business of radical grace and transformation. God doesn’t work how the world works. And I don’t even think God works how we think God should work. The ELCA’s theme this year is “God’s work, our hands.” Who would think that God actually does and would work through us in the world?! We, who are imperfect, who make mistakes, who hurt others, are the ones entrusted with bringing God’s grace and healing to one another and the world. Surprising, isn’t it?
The ultimate example of surprise comes to us in the form of a cross and an empty tomb. In the time of Jesus, the cross was a feared symbol and an object of torturous death. It was seen as a valid punishment by the Romans for those who threatened their rule. But Jesus threatens any rule, even the rule and law of death. It was only through death, that death could be transformed into life. The resurrection of Jesus, the empty tomb, is the greatest surprise the world, and we as people of faith have ever known. And here’s the kicker…it was all for you. It was all for you, for me, and every other dishonest manager in the world.
It is surprising to be your pastor and to be living in Bismarck. It is surprising to have survived the Haiti earthquake, and to have lost my husband Ben. It is surprising to still have faith despite it all.
This thing we call faith, dear people of God, is very powerful. Faith is not magic. It is getting up every day and living it. Coupled with doubt and uncertainty, it tugs at us, beckoning us to trust in the One who breathed life into our lungs. To trust in the One who knows every part of us and still holds us close. The surprise of faith is that we still believe in God’s love for us and for the world in Christ Jesus, despite all of the mismanagement, corruption, war, sickness, poverty, injustice, and death. We don’t always know what God is doing in our lives, in Scripture, and in the world, but we trust that God is with us and that one day, all will have new life in its fullest in the resurrection of the dead and the new creation.
And so we stand at the foot of the cross, looking through the empty tomb, with all of the other dishonest managers, asking God to transform our actions, our hearts, and our lives in order that we might have faith and be God’s hands in the world.