September 18, 2022 Hamilton Coe Throckmorton
Luke 16:1-13 The Federated Church, UCC
If you’re confused about what you just heard, who could blame you?! I’ve spent the entire week living with this parable of Jesus, and frankly I feel little closer to understanding it now than I did when I first read it. A preaching teacher of mine once told us students that a way to think about a sermon is to picture members of your congregation and imagine what they might need to hear. Try as I might, though, when I picture your wonderful faces, I still feel miles from sensing how this story might shine a ray of light into your life and mine. How’s that for an encouraging start to the sermon! You might want to slip out now, as if you suddenly remembered an appointment you had forgotten about! Who could blame you!
So where are we with this illogical and counterintuitive tale? Jesus tells this story in which the lieutenant of an extremely wealthy person finds out they’re going to be fired. Seeing the end of a comfortable way of life, this aide decides to bill some of the rich person’s clients less than what they owed, figuring that, once the job has vanished, there will be at least some people who will be inclined to welcome this manager into their homes.
The shocker comes at the end of the story, when the rich person finds out what the manager has done, and heaps praise on this shifty, self-centered now former employee. And we’re left scratching our heads. Jesus can’t possibly be commending this sort of underhanded behavior—can he? Every Sunday School lesson we ever learned goes right out the window. Fairness? No. Honesty? No. Selflessness? No. Instead, what Jesus does is praise to the hilt this deceitful employee. As long as you can feather your own nest, we seem to hear, you’re fine. And all we can do is shake our heads in despair. What are we supposed to glean from this odd tale? What can it possibly teach us about God?
I want to suggest two ways in which hearing this parable may be a gift to us. The first gift is its very inscrutability. That may sound strange to say, but I suspect that when we have to work at grasping something, it may enrich our lives more than when what we already think is automatically confirmed. When we’re haunted by something inexplicable, and we have to labor to understand it, there may be something more lasting and profound in what we come to learn from it. When I’ve had to work at learning algebra, for example, or, in singing in a choir, I’ve had to learn some difficult piece of music, the very act of wrestling with it increases my sense of confidence and competency. The struggle itself, in other words, has provided a gift I would not otherwise have had.
The blessing of the struggle is true in more profound ways, as well. If you had asked me some years ago if I were a racist, I would have denied it vehemently. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” I would have thought. And then, internally kicking and screaming, I slowly came to see that I was inextricably tied up in ways of being that oppress people of color. Painful as it has been, my being able to baldly state that, against my will, I am a racist, has the perverse effect of freeing me to acknowledge what I can now see is unquestionably true and to change how I think about and live my life. It lets me be more aware of the countless ways my own life and behavior, and the many and complex systems of money and power from which I benefit, contribute to the oppression of Black and Brown people. Working intentionally and painfully at seeing my and our failings has been an odd and unexpected blessing.
Some of us may have had a similar experience with personal journaling or therapy. Through reflection and perhaps with the accompaniment of a counselor, maybe we’ve come to understand our alcoholism or our sudden furies or our frustration with our spouse in an entirely new way. These are issues that none of us can grasp in an instant. They are deep-seated matters of identity and self-understanding. And it’s often only with sustained attention and reflection that a new dawn comes to be.
All of which is a long way of saying that working at grasping the mysteries of a story such as the one Jesus tells today is not a bad thing. That work frees us from the misguided notion we often have that we already know what Jesus is saying, we already know what God’s ways are like, we already know what Christian faith is about. The bald truth is: no, we don’t. Listening for hints of divine guidance and truth in a story such as today’s can be a slow and laborious process. And the very act of working at it may be one of God’s great gifts to us.
So as we let the parable work its way with us, and as we struggle with its inscrutability, what are the gifts it may bring us? The discomfiting thing about the sixteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, which includes not only this parable but the one we’ll hear next Sunday, is that it’s all about money, and the way we think about it, and the way we handle it. In some ways, I suspect we’re all terrified of reflecting on money and how we use it. And that may be especially true in church, where we fear having our shortcomings exposed, and God perhaps seeing how stingy and ungenerous we can be with that money, and fearing that demanding expectations are going to be heaped upon us by preachers and church leaders. So if you’re like me, when you hear that money is the topic of the day, you may well tense and recoil: the fear and guilt and envy it may evoke is not what I want to think about today, thank you very much!
And I get that, I so get that. I think about money a lot. I wonder if Mary and I should buy a new refrigerator now that the icemaker on ours is broken and it will cost an arm and a leg to fix it. I wonder what we can afford to spend on vacations. I wince when something I bought last week goes on sale this weeik. I notice each month how much we still owe on our mortgage. I worry if we’ll have the resources we need for retirement and for end-of-life care. I ruminate about how much to give away. Money is never far from my mind.
And while I’m sure not all of you are like me in this, I’m betting that money is a pretty common preoccupation for many of us. And I’m guessing that, when the rich landowner praises the manager’s apparently underhanded way of dealing with the owner’s wealth, maybe a little part of us is kind of like, “Yeah, I’m glad to hear that.” When the landowner seems to reward the manager’s deviousness and selfishness, doesn’t that mean we have permission to do whatever we want with our money, and it will be alright? That’s just being smart, right? OK, I can go with that.
And we can think that, but I suspect that’s not really what Jesus had in mind. I don’t imagine Jesus is encouraging us to do whatever we want with our money. I suspect the larger point of the story is to affirm in the conniving manager a way of being that is focused and determined and intentional. In Jesus’ eyes, this manager is “shrewd,” and that shrewdness is a vital quality in our following of Jesus. In the same way this manager is shrewd and knows what has to happen, so also are we, in our faith, to pursue that faith with passion and a kind of drivenness. As one observer says, this is really a story “about the urgency of discipleship” (Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, After Pentecost 2, p. 47).
I suspect that urgency in our discipleship means recognizing a strange kind of paradox about money. It means both demystifying the hold that money so often has over us, and, at the same time, accepting the power money has for doing good. One way to put it may be to say that life will be at its best if we refuse to let money control us. And at the same time, we will use the power of money to do good in the world.
Urgency in our discipleship may mean grasping that paradox. We are bid first to take money off the throne it too often claims in our lives and to instead let the One True God reign in our hearts and lives. To dethrone the power of money may mean that we find more ways to connect, in regular daily practices, with the Holy One dancing in our midst—that we take quiet meditative time each day to invite God into our lives. It may mean that, as we make more room for God, we talk less—much, much less—and that we listen more—much, much more. We listen for the lilting song of God that sings of that immense holy love that is holding us close always. We listen for the endless affirmation that comes to us, the forgiveness that washes over us, the grace that holds us without any contingencies, without any expectations of performance or success. None. Zero. Nil. Nada. Urgency in our discipleship says no to the ways of the everyday world that make any approval contingent on our passing all our tests and doing everything perfectly. Urgency of discipleship means taking in the truth above all truths, that we are each adored just the way we are. Urgency of discipleship takes its cues only from that grace. Not from zip code, not from title, not from degrees, not from honors, not from gridiron victory, not from club membership, and certainly not from money. Only from that grace that embraces us with the tenderest fervor.
The brilliant Roman Catholic priest and theologian Richard Rohr makes this observation about this passage: “Jesus says, in effect, ‘You’ve finally got to make a choice.’ Most of Jesus’ teaching is what I call non-dual, . . . but there are a few areas where he’s absolutely dualistic (either-or), and it’s usually anything having to do with power and anything having to do with money.
“Jesus is absolute about money and power because he knows what we’re going to do. Most of us will serve this god called mammon [or wealth].” And the problem with this is that money makes a claim on us that only God can rightfully make. So he goes on to say, “‘Mammon illness’ takes over when we think all of life is counting, weighing, measuring, and deserving. We go to places that have sales, so that we don’t have to give as much to get the same thing. My mother spent much of her time cutting coupons to save ten cents. It was good and even necessary for a while, I guess, but it’s very hard to get rid of that fixation.”
And then he says, “To participate in the reign of God, we have to stop counting. We have to stop weighing, measuring, and deserving in order to let the flow of forgiveness and love flow through us. The love of God can’t be doled out by any process whatsoever. We can’t earn it. We can’t lose it. As long as we stay in this world of earning and losing, we’ll live in perpetual resentment, envy, or climbing.” Infinite grace is not about calculating. It’s not about a spread sheet of pluses and minuses. St. Therese of Lisieux put it this way to a nun “worried about God keeping track of her many failings: ‘There is a science about which [God] knows nothing—addition!” (We Cannot Serve Two Masters — Center for Action and Contemplation (cac.org))
One of the invitations that comes to us from God is to let go of the incessant need some of us have to keep count, to keep track, to keep score, to watch the ledger. In God’s world, grace is poured out without the slightest calculation. That’s the richness of choosing God over mammon, the Holy One over our bank accounts. That’s the first part of the paradox of money: to be healthy and whole, we’re invited to let go of the tenacious hold money so often has on our minds and psyches.
At the same time, though—and here’s the other side of the paradox—money is never far from us. We sometimes forget, or pretend not to notice, that Jesus is phenomenally focused on possessions and money. You may know that Jesus talks more about money than he does about anything else except the realm and reign of God. Sometimes, in the desire to be more deeply “spiritual,” people get irritated with the church when we raise such matters, because they think that Jesus is above all that, that he’s focused on what they think of as “higher” things. Not the case, though. The life of the Spirit, for Jesus, is intimately wrapped up with the stuff of this world. In Jesus’ eyes, there’s no possible way to separate the so-called “spiritual life” from the stuff of daily life. Spiritual life and worldly life are wrapped up together in a way that is completely intertwined. To be spiritual is about listening for God’s guidance and love when your child falls apart. It’s about attending to God’s healing from the childhood beatings that were absorbed at the hands of a cruel parent. And it’s about whether to buy a new refrigerator, or to go on that vacation, or to indulge in that hobby. All of these are spiritual matters.
Far from separating matter from Spirit, Jesus reminds us that they are intimately connected. But he also says, ‘You have a choice which one to worship.’ After warning us that we can’t serve two masters, he concludes this section of the gospel by putting the matter starkly: “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13).
So one part of the paradox is that we’re best served by letting go of our relentless obsession with money. The other side of that paradox, though, is that the very money which is not to control us also has an immense power for good.
So as we let go of our preoccupation with money, and as we willingly grant the blessings that money can provide, perhaps a renewed spiritual urgency will lead us to be freer with our money—to give it away far more often and easily, to share abundantly with this church that will, in so many ways, spend our money better than we can, to make generosity our byword. That’s freedom. That’s love. That’s the shrewdness and passion of the dishonest manager turned for good and made a blessing to the world. May it be so for us.