A Sermon for 18 September 2016
A reading from the gospel of Luke 16:1-13. And just a warning in advance: this really is one of Jesus’ more confusing parables. One commentator writes about this text: “A parable is a grassroots lesson connecting the ordinariness of life with the extraordinary nature of God. Parables usually are gifts of clear insight into God’s choices for our lives. However, this parable is difficult to read and difficult to preach. The reader is oftentimes left to struggle for meaning, just as the preacher struggles to interpret. Both end up frustrated” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, Helen Montgomery Debevoise, p. 92). In other words, get ready to join me in how I’ve felt all week about preparing a sermon on this text! . . . Another commentator writes of this text: “None of the parables of Jesus has baffled interpreters quite like the story of the dishonest steward (or is he better labeled ‘the shrewd manager’ or ‘the prudent treasurer’?). The story is clearly set in a context in which wealth is of paramount importance” (Ibid., Charles B. Cousar, p. 93). That part seems clearest in this text – the admonition at the end, which scholars believe to be a move on the part of the gospel’s author. The thought there is that the parable was floating around along with a bunch of other sayings folks had heard from Jesus. And when the gospel story was being written down, the author decided the parable needed the saying from Jesus about wealth and God to follow it. Maybe the text came to us in that way. We don’t really know. What we do know is that we have a puzzling parable before us today. Hold on, and if you find yourself saying: HUH? It’s ok! Just listen for the word of God to us in a reading of Luke 16:1-13. And remember this comes right after the gospel of Luke’s unique parables about the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Brothers – also called the Prodigal Son. Listen:
“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. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then 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.’ And 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. And 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. 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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No 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.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Did you hear that the new season of Survivor begins this Wednesday? If you’re a fan, record it so you still can come to our gospel of Luke Wednesday night study! I’ve never watched the show. But I think it’s a whole competition to be the last one standing – avoid being the one voted off the island. Survive to the end and you get a bunch of money, I guess. This new season it’s the Millennials versus the Gen Xers. And it’s got me thinking about the clash of the generations. While many Presbyterian Churches really don’t have among them a whole lot of people born after 1964 and before the turn of the 21st Century in the year 2000, the two generations of those who are between eighteen and fifty comprise about 43% of the total population of the United States (www.marketingcharts.com). We’d do well to know something about them. The Millennials are slightly larger as a generation than are the Gen Xers – so they’ll have the numbers advantage in this upcoming season of Survivor. Each generation has its own flare – based upon general worldview, societal realities in their most formative years, and lived values passed on through their parents. Well, these are the first two generations of U.S. adults who primarily experienced two working parents in their household – if they still had two parents in their household. Their parents’ and older siblings’ anti-authority push of the 1960s was ancient history for these two generations. The Millennials are the first generation to grow up experiencing the realities of school shootings – mass violence at the hands of their peers so that factors like bullying, mental illness, gun-control laws, and other realities coming to light in their formative years (like sex-scandals, harassment, and college campus rape cases). All of this significantly shapes the way they understand the world. The way they view the institution of the church, and how they choose to connect with God. . . . Rachel Held Evans, the blogger who is the author of the book we’re about to study for Home Book Club, describes herself as “having one foot in generation X” while “identifying most strongly with the attitudes and ethos of the millennial generation” (Searching for Sunday, p. xii-xiii). Thanks to the 1992 de-regulations regarding marketing to children, about millennials Evans writes: “We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell (BLEEP) from a mile away” (Ibid., xiv). Millennials demand authenticity. Gen Xers pretty much want it too. Both generations tend to be drawn more to what they are for rather than what they are against. Millennials seem to be a bit more optimistic about life than many Gen Xers do, and for the most part are more ready to throw themselves into working together to make a positive impact in the world. Gen Xers and Millennials alike all were born after postmodernism began – the movement that stepped outside of the box, was more comfortable with AND rather than OR so that pluralism became an expected norm, and wasn’t about to buy into top-down authoritarian anything. Grassroots is a typical term for Gen X and Millennial adults – not only because formation from within tends to be their way, but also because sustainability of the earth is a crucial value for them. In fact, most of them have grown up believing earth to be only one significant part of this universe thanks to the readily-available-on-the-internet photos of it all from the Hubble Space Telescope. For the most part, Gen Xers and Millennials aren’t all that interested in the sweet by and by. If they’re not dreaming about how to make it to Mars or beyond, they’re focused on the ground under their feet and the community that will accept them to provide a stable sense of belonging in the chaotic world into which they were born and in which they continue to live. . . . I’m not about to watch, but it’s bound to be a very interesting season of Survivor!
Jesus presents a clash of generations too. Here in the gospel of Luke he paints a picture of the generation of this eon – or the shrewd children of this age – and the children of light – who he seems to call here the overly-naïve generation of those following him. The text points to the clash of those chasing wealth against those chasing the ways of God. It’s hard for us to believe, as the parable seems to state, that Jesus would want us to embrace practices of securing dishonest wealth. When the squandering manager realizes he’s about to be fired; he indebts the rich man’s debtors not only to himself but also to the rich man. While still in the role of representing the rich man, the manager decreases their debts in what surely seems to them an act of great generosity. The debtors now may see the rich man as one who cares about them. And as the agent of that kindness, the debtors now owe the manager a favor – which he hopes will secure him somewhere to go when the boss cuts him loose – brilliant really as everyone seems a winner in the end. But it sounds like Jesus is saying the end justifies the means – the sneaky, conniving-to-save-his-own-skin act is something that shouldn’t irksomely rub against our sense of right and wrong. Is this parable really promoting that we act likewise?
We forget the backdrop of the story. The Pharisees are within earshot – at least according to verse fourteen of chapter sixteen. The gospel records: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So Jesus said to them: ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God’” (Luke 16:14-15). While it seems this parable is addressed to Jesus’ disciples, clearly some are present who are squandering what was entrusted to them. Maybe they really care about the little guy getting a break in the eyes of the rich man. But it sounds a whole lot more like they’re just putting first their own desires for wealth, power, and security – even if they have to align themselves, as was happening in Jesus’ day, with the powers-that-be in Rome. Is it possible that Jesus is trying to expose the ways of the children of this age while teaching a lesson to the children of the light? Is this parable supposed to confound us so that we find ourselves going right along with Jesus as he speaks until we have to perk our ears because he suddenly sounds like an unexpected trickster? Is he backhandedly saying you can put your hope in securing your own wealth, or you can put your hope in God? You can take on the values of the ways of this world, or you can stay true to being light in the darkest places?
It’s clear we cannot put our energies to both ways. There’s a Cherokee legend of two wolves battling within. The legend goes that a grandfather is trying to teach his grandson about life. He tells him: “’A fight is going on inside me.’ . . . ‘It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One (wolf) is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.’ He continued: ‘the other (wolf) is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.’” The grandfather wisely states: “’The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person too.’ The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf will win?’” The story goes that “The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one you feed.’” (http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/TwoWolves-Cherokee.html).
We cannot feed our striving for the accumulation of wealth, as is typical of the children of this age, and our striving for the ways of God. With the ways of God growing in us, we share when we see someone in need. We welcome the stranger. We walk alongside those going through any kind of need just so they know they are not alone and they will make it through. Maybe we need to get a little bit wiser in dealing with the powers-that-be around us. After all, there really are those who starve the good wolf in them while sumptuously feeding the other wolf that also is in us all. Maybe the children of the light need to wake up to that. To open our eyes to see what too often is right before us. Maybe the most important thing we need to know is that the clash is real. Children who live for the Light walk differently. They live differently. They feed in themselves the way of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. They seek first to serve the One we know in Jesus the Christ. And in so doing, we are welcomed here and now, and forever, by an incredibly Gracious Master.
In this we can trust.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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