Pentecost 15 September 22, 2019

The Rev. Janet Campbell

PENTECOST 15 Proper 20 Year C

Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

 

Christ Episcopal Church

Tacoma, Washington

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Rev. Janet Campbell

 

 

The parable

of the Unjust Steward

(or Manager

in the Revised Standard Version translation –

but I am going use “steward,”

because even while writing this sermon

I found the similarity of the words

“manager” and “master”

made it increasingly difficult

for me to tell one from the other).

 

So, to begin again . . .

 

The parable

of the Unjust Steward

is

set in an ancient world,

a Mediterranean culture,

and an agrarian economy.

 

It’s astonishing, really,

how pertinent it is

to today.

 

 

 

In Jesus’ world,

much of the land

of the land-of-milk-and-honey,

the land God had promised

to all God’s chosen people,

was in the hands of the few and the rich,

 

worked by tenant farmers

who earned barely enough

for their families to live on

 

after turning over

the percentage of the harvest

they owed

to the already wealthy landowner.

 

 

Three things are operating

in the parable . . .

 

land as a commodity;

 

people as a commodity;

 

honor as a commodity.

 

 

 

A rich landowner,

the master,

found out that the steward

entrusted

with the management of his wealth

had been cheating him.

 

Easy enough to do,

for a steward’s job was to keep the books,

tracking how much

each of the landowner’s debtors,

his tenant farmers,

owed after the harvest

and collecting what was due.

 

We don’t know exactly how

the steward had been squandering

the master’s property,

 

perhaps by

holding back some of each payment

for himself,

cooking the books to hide

his scam.

 

(I wonder who ratted on the steward . . .

and what he gained by it?

There’s probably

a whole ‘nother sermon

there.)

 

But not this one.

 

The irate master fired the steward,

but made the mistake of

not taking the books

away from him right then and there.

 

The steward saw his chance

to escape both disgrace and poverty . . .

 

Calling the tenants one by one

he reduced their debts

to their great surprise,

for surely such a thing had never

happened to them before . . .

 

To pay 50 jugs of olive oil instead of 100,

and keep 50?

To pay 80 containers of wheat instead of 100,

and keep 20?

 

An unexpected windfall

of olive oil and wheat,

yielding for once

a more-than-mere-subsistence year.

 

The tenants went away grateful,

unaware of the cheating,

 

and both steward and master

gained something even more important

in their culture than riches . . .

 

honor.

 

 

The steward:

whom the tenants supposed

had petitioned the master

on their behalf

to reduce what they owed . . .

 

The master:

whom the tenants supposed

had agreed

to be so uncommonly generous

to them.

 

Word would get around

of this amazing generosity,

and both steward and master

would profit in honor.

 

Now the master could do nothing

to get payback

from the dishonest steward . . .

 

If he were to reveal the steward’s fraud

in order to recoup the forgiven debts

he would show himself

not to be generous after all,

and lose the windfall of honor just accrued.

 

He had to admit it . . .

his steward had been shrewd,

 

and he had been something

that rhymes with shrewd.

 

 

 

Jesus was the fulfillment

of the great prophetic tradition of Israel,

prophet after prophet

proclaiming

God’s deep concern

with how we use

what God has entrusted to us

 

making very clear

God’s condemnation

of our hoarding

of the goods of this world,

our exploitation of the poor and needy.

 

“Hear this,” cried the prophet Amos,

“you that trample on the needy,

and bring to ruin the poor of the land . . .

you who make the ephah small

and the shekel great,

who practice deceit with false balances . . .

The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:

Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”

 

“The children of this age

are more shrewd

in dealing with their own generation

than are the children of light,”

said Jesus,

“They make friends for themselves

by means of dishonest wealth,

in order to obtain what they want.”

 

 

A strategy that

makes perfect sense

in a dishonest world

where the goal

is to obtain what one wants,

to enrich oneself,

gain property and power,

rise over others.

 

But that is not the world

as God intended it . . .

 

not just a land but a world

of milk and honey

continually flowing from God,

not to be owned by a few

but to be shared by all.

 

And the children of light

are called to be

advocates for that world,

co-creators with God

of that world,

a just world . . .

 

not through dishonest means,

dishonesty doing battle with dishonesty . . .

 

but through a strategic and shrewd honesty

in service of the gospel.

 

 

“Be wise as serpents

and innocent as doves,”

Jesus advised the disciples

as he sent them out on their first

missionary journey

to proclaim the coming kingdom.

 

Be innocent in expecting the best,

wise in dealing with the worst.

 

Be shrewd; be trusting,

and learn to discern

when it is time for which.

 

Jesus himself was both

shrewd and trusting,

completely aware

of what he was doing,

what he was risking,

and why,

persisting with innocent expectation

and confidence in God

in the face of

powerful and implacable

opposition.

 

His strategy

led him to crucifixion,

 

the apparent crushing defeat the seed

that gave birth

to his risen body the church,

the community of the children of light.

 

The shrewdness of the children of this age

is revealed

in strategies of self-serving.

 

A pharmaceutical company

continues aggressively to market painkillers

it knows to be

highly addictive and dangerous

even as an epidemic of overdoses and death

spreads across the country.

 

When its deceit is finally brought to light

and accounts are to be settled,

its owners

hurry to stash their ill-gotten gains

in hidden accounts

beyond the reach of

the financial settlement

for their victims

and survivors of their victims.

 

The shrewdness of the children of this age

is revealed

in strategies of self-serving.

 

 

The shrewdness of the children of light

is revealed

in strategies of self-offering.

 

 

Youth,

kids still in high school,

dare, in savvy anger and innocent hope,

to call for and organize

a worldwide climate walkout,

a massive demonstration of concern

for the health of our planet

in advance of the United Nations summit

on climate change . . .

 

and millions, millions,

turn out all around the world . . .

 

walking out of school . . .

walking out of work . . .

some absences allowed

by school districts and employers,

some denied and punished . . .

 

risks taken

to call us all to collective account

for our abuse and pollution

of God’s good creation.

 

The shrewdness of the children of light

is revealed

in strategies of self-offering.

 

 

It would not be honest

if we did not admit

our failures as children of light,

the church,

to fulfill our vocation of self-offering

 

they have been many throughout our history . . .

 

our ignorant destruction of non-Western cultures

by missionaries who thought them

incompatible with the gospel;

our failure of courage to speak out

against Nazi persecution

of our Jewish sisters and brothers;

our support of slavery and segregation;

the sexual exploitation by clergy

of children and vulnerable adults.

 

I don’t mean to suggest that these have been

part of Christ Church’s history,

but we all have had our failures

of nerve and compassion.

 

It is a sad truth

that we have all too often

been shrewd

in the way of the children of our age.

 

 

We have also,

throughout our history,

been generous

in sacrificial giving of ourselves

in service of the gospel

for the sake of others.

 

This, too, is true.

 

 

“The children of this age

are more shrewd

in dealing with their own generation

than are the children of light,”

Jesus observed.

 

His challenge

to his followers

of every age . . .

 

Whose children are we . . . ?

 

(with much gratitude to a convivial group sharing lunch and

conversation after an extraordinary Third Fridays at Noon

recital by pianist Una Hwang. Our lively discussion of this

parable contributed a great deal to this sermon. Thank you

to Una, her family and friends for their questions and insight.)

 

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