Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Grasping at Heavenly Things: The Parable of the Desperate Manager

This sermon was given by Kellogg Fellow Emily Garcia on Sunday 22 September at the ECH evening service in Christ Church Cambridge. The readings for the week are available here; the parable in Luke in particular is available here.

I love the Collect, the collecting prayer, for today. Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure.

We know that some of these heavenly things, the things that shall endure, are qualities, and moments, and actions that we learn from God himself: love—all kinds of love—, mercy, forgiveness, patience, faithfulness, kindness.

We love and hold fast to these heavenly things not just in the abstract. We hold fast to them when we find them in our loved ones, in strangers, in ourselves, in our families, in art, in the natural world—in many places we can find heavenly things to hold onto.

I’ve always thought of the “earthly things” as appearances—the way things seem to us with short-sighted glasses. At the risk of sounding like your high school health teacher, I want to tell you that being cool is one of those earthly things that passes away. Being popular, also earthly. Being loved, that’s a very different thing, and that’s heavenly, I think that endures. Helping others, surely that’s a heavenly thing too—but being famous for it, that’s probably not. Making something beautiful and excellent out of love—I think, I hope that that will endure; but again, attention, importance, fancy notes on my resume—ultimately, these will pass away.

Knowing the difference between enduring and quickly-passing things isn’t always so easy, of course. Our readings this week dramatically display examples of how people do or do not hold on to heavenly things. I wish I could talk about all of them, but because I love you I’ll limit myself to the trickiest one, the parable in Luke.

This is, in fact, one of the trickiest parables in the New Testament. Most of us are inclined to hold onto that last, apparently conclusive six-word sentence: You cannot serve God and wealth. God, heavenly, the enduring thing, and wealth, earthly, something that will pass away.

But we don’t see such a simple dichotomy in the parable. The parable is a lot more like our lives—in fact, it’s hard even to figure out some of the basic story. How exactly was the manager squandering the rich man’s property in the first place? What precisely was he doing when he reduced the people’s debts—was he further cheating his master by simply reducing their debts in order to save his own skin? Was he righteously removing the interest that had accrued, as the Book of Deuteronomy would command him to do? Or is he generously sacrificing his own commission in order to reduce the people’s debt? And THEN, the master commends the manager because he had acted shrewdly! Note that it doesn’t say righteously or well—but shrewdly, better translated “dishonestly.” Is Jesus telling us to be dishonest and sneaky?

It seems that the Gospel authors were equally baffled, because following that closing line are a couple different explanations probably amended to the original parable: children of the light need to be more shrewd!, and part of the shrewdness means finagling some after-life item with dishonest wealth!

But scholars agree these seem to be nervous attempts to pin down the original parable. In fact, any attempt to make the manager into a well-behaved man requires imagining apparently unrealistic interest or commission rates. As the New Interpreter’s Bible notes: “the simplest solution, and the one that gives the parable the greatest punch, is to take the first alternative: the steward is dishonest, and he continues to squander the master’s goods by arbitrarily slashing the amounts owed by his debtors.”

So WHAT can we learn about heavenly and earthly things from this dishonest manager?

Here’s what I think. I think this manager had been spending his time occupied with earthly things. When he’s fired, he, very reasonably, wants a comfortable life, not begging or doing work he can’t do. He’s not thinking about the truly important things, like asking for forgiveness or making things right. He’s desperate. He wants something.

BUT! In his desperation, he grasps at something heavenly—good relationships with people around him. A mutual indebtedness, a shared gratitude, rather than the debt of money owed. He may not have done it with perfectly altruistic intentions, but he did a good thing. He forgave debts. He reconciled himself to those around him, those who were probably in need, those whom he had probably cheated earlier.

And that isn’t even the whole picture. As the New Interpreter’s Essay points out, this parable is like other parables told by rabbis at the time, parables in the great trickster tradition. Instead of holding up anyone’s dishonesty for ridicule, this parable turns on the [manager’s] shrewd response to the urgency of his situation and invites hearers to understand that they are [,] likewise [,] in the midst of a crisis that demands an urgent decision if disaster is to be avoided. Faced with the loss of his position, the dishonest manager acted decisively to secure his future. One who hears the gospel knows that just such a decisive act is required of those who will stake their all on the coming kingdom of God.”

In this man’s desperation, he made the choice for something heavenly. And in the urgency of his situation, he was decisive. This is what we can learn from him.

I remember a sermon in the Evangelical Free Church in which I grew up, asking the congregation to live each day as if it were their last, to live as if they might die at any hour. Not the best thing for a nervous kid like myself to hear, and not, I think, a truly sustainable way to live each day.  But I agree with that preacher that keeping in mind that we are “placed among things that are passing away”—this can be a good way of thinking about the urgency and importance of all our actions in God’s eyes.

We may not have the chance to forgive a monetary debt—to save a life, to write a law, to stop a war. But every day we have the chance to be faithful—to be decisive—in small things. Is there an opportunity to say a kind word? Is there someone who needs to be reminded of how much we care for them? Is there a chance to be patient with someone who’s feeling frazzled? Is there a chance to show mercy when we might reasonably be angry? Is there a debt, or a hurt, of another kind we need to forgive?

Is there some urgent change of habit that needs to be made in our lives? Is there something we need to stop doing, or something we really need to stop thinking? Is there some enduring, heavenly thing we need to pay more attention to? something we’re supposed to reach for, in our current, small moments of desperation?

All of what I’ve been trying to get at tonight, it’s much more simply summed up in Luther’s and my favorite closing benediction. You’ll hear it at the end of today’s service: “Life is short, and we haven’t much time to gladden the hearts of those around us, so be swift to love, make haste to be kind, and may the blessing of God Almighty be with us now and always.” Amen.

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