Minister's Sermon - 22nd September 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenReading 1: Psalm 113

Reading 2: Luke 16.1-13

The parable in today’s Gospel reading, is probably the least understood of all the parables Jesus told. There are dozens of interpretations, and even ‘though some seem good, they all leave us wishing Jesus had said more. Whenever I hear it, I’m confused by it, and get lost before the end of the passage. So, assuming I’m not alone, I want to retell the parable. Just to make sure we’ve got it before I say more.

There was once a rich man who had a manager. Someone told him that his manager was squandering his assets. So, he called the manager in, and said. ‘You’re fired. And I want a complete audit of your books.’ The manager said to himself, ‘What am I going to do? I’ve lost my job. I’m not strong enough to do manual labour, and I’m too proud to beg. Ah I know! He called in the people who were in debt to his master and he reduced their debts so they’d be hospitable to him when he lost his job. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ The manager said, ‘Here, take your bill, sit down and write fifty.’ Then he asked the next, ‘And you, what do you owe?’ He answered, ‘A hundred sacks of wheat.’ The manager said, ‘Take your bill, write in eighty.’ But here’s the surprise. The rich man praised the dishonest manager - because he was shrewd - street-wise we might say today.

So, that’s the parable. The rest of today’s Gospel reading, contains some sayings about money, that offer the first interpretations of the parable. But why does Luke include this story in his Gospel? What’s he trying to say with it? And what might it say to us today? I’m going to answer those questions in 3 ways. I’m going to reflect on where Luke has placed the story in the Gospel and on similar stories in the Jewish tradition. Then, I’m going to look at two of the interpretations of the parable, that follow it. And alongside these, think about three issues that are exercising us today, declining churches, Brexit and climate change.

The first thing we should notice, is that this parable is a bridge between the parables in chapter 15 – about the lost sheep, the lost coin Prodigal Son - and the Rich Man and Lazarus later in chapter 16. Like the prodigal son, the dishonest manager has “squandered,” what was entrusted to him. And he has a conversation with himself about what to do. And, like the parable about the rich man and Lazarus that follows, this one begins with the phrase, “There was a rich man.” We’d expect that someone praised by Jesus would have repented. But just like the sheep, and the coin, and the prodigal son, the dishonest manager doesn’t repent. If that sounds surprising, reread chapter 15, and notice where repentance comes in the story. Nor does the manager act virtuously like Lazarus in the parable that follows. ‘Though his story does anticipate that one. Because the way he uses the rich man’s wealth reverses the existing order of things – for himself – and for those in debt. And in Luke’s Gospel, reversals of status are at the heart of what happens, when Jesus and the kingdom of God appear. Remember, Mary’s song of praise, right at the beginning of the Gospel? About the proud being “scattered” and the lowly lifted up? It’s a theme that’s repeated over and over again in Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts. And the Greek word for squandered – which is what the dishonest manager is accused of - is also the same word that’s used for scatter and separate. As in scattering of the rich and the proud. As well as reversals of status, there’s also a tradition of clever tricksters and wise rogues, in Jewish folklore and the Hebrew scripture. And the parable of the dishonest manager is just one more. Here’s another told by the rabbis.

“A man caught stealing was ordered by the king to be hanged. On the way to the gallows, he said to the governor that he knew a wonderful secret and it would be a pity to allow it to die with him, so he’d like to tell it the king. He would put a seed of pomegranate in the ground and through the secret taught to him by his father he would make it grow and bear fruit overnight. The thief was brought before the king, and the next day the king, accompanied by the high officers of state, came to the place where the thief was waiting for them. The thief had dug a hole. He said to them. ‘This seed must only be put in the ground by a man who has never stolen or taken anything that did not belong to him. I being a thief cannot do it.’ When he turned to the first official, he said he couldn’t plant it, because in his younger days, he’d kept something that did not belong to him. The second was the treasurer, and he said that since he was dealing with such large amounts of money, it was always possible that he’s entered too much or too little. Even the king said he’d once kept a necklace belonging to his father. Then the thief said, ‘You are all mighty and powerful and want for nothing, yet you cannot plant the seed, while I, who stole because I was starving, am to be hanged.’ The king was so pleased with the ruse of the thief that he pardoned him.” (1)

Both of these stories – the story of the dishonest manager and the thief - turn on their shrewd actions. Their life is in crisis. And how they respond to the urgency of their situations is at the heart of the reversal that happens for each of them. The manager reduces everyone’s debts to ensure he is in favour with them. The thief invites the officials to see his actions in the light of their own. This suggests that one way of reading the parable, is as an invitation to see that we too are in the midst of a crisis that demands an urgent decision, if disaster is to be avoided. I was reminded at Synod yesterday, that the Greek word for crisis, isn’t only negative. It also includes opportunity.

At the moment, we’re right in the middle of at least three crises, probably more. Climate change, Brexit and church decline. The first is a world-wide crisis. The second is a national – and maybe European – crisis. And the third is a crisis for the church. I don’t need to say much about any of them, maybe not more than mention them, for us to recognise them as crises.

This summer, we’ve experienced the highest temperatures on record, throughout Europe. The polar ice has shrunk to the smallest ever known. The Amazon forest has been burning at a faster rate than before. And over the last couple of years, we’ve seen hurricanes in the Caribbean and Asia, that have been far more devastating than any on record as whole islands have been flattened. Today, there will be a memorial service for a Swiss glacier, that has died. And schoolchildren, are experiencing the sort of anxiety, that I remember from the early 70s when we felt threatened by the threat of nuclear war. Squander – the thing the dishonest manager is accused of - is a good word for what our generations have done with the earth.

Then there’s Brexit. Brexit has revealed divisions that existed and weren’t acknowledged. Yet it’s also contributed to an even more hostile environment, for people who came to this country legitimately, but don’t now know what their future will be. Not knowing whether we’ll be in or out on 1st November is contributing to uncertainty for businesses, for as those who depend on medication that comes from the EU, and destabilising peace in Northern Ireland. And all these things will affect the weak and the poorest most profoundly. I said that the word that’s translated as squander in today’s parable, also means to scatter or separate, in the original Greek. Whether or not we agree with Brexit, we cannot get away from the reality that it is separating, scattering, dividing us.

The decline of the main-steam churches is causing similar anxiety and uncertainty. In the Methodist Church, one of the challenges is ministering to fewer people, in the same number of churches. It’s stretching ministers to engage with more churches and more communities and an increasing number of us are feeling overwhelming. It means that members are having to take on more and more to simply keep their churches going. And even ‘though people look at larger churches, and think we’d have plenty of people willing to share the responsibility of running the church, we know that our congregation is aging and many people don’t want to do more. All this presents us with huge challenges as we seek to be faithful to God’s call to share the good news of the Gospel and share in building the kingdom. And just as the challenges of worship here at Chandler’s Ford, have the potential to divide us, so do these.

So, what do the interpretations of the parable that follow it, have to say about these issues? I think that two of them have something to say about how we might tackle the crises I’ve spoken about. But remember, crises aren’t only negative, they might also include opportunities!

It isn’t clear whether the first interpretation is actually part of the parable or the first interpretation, since commentators disagree, about where the parables ends. I’m going to read verses 8 and 9 as the first interpretation – and use the version from The Message. “The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behaviour.” Jesus is saying that his disciples could learn something about acting wisely from street-wise people. He calls us law-abiding citizens. And says we need to learn to be smart – not to use our resources to exploit other people – but to do what is right. And then, we’ll live, really live. In other words, we’ll use all we have and everything that happens to us, to make friends. The way the dishonest manager made friends was by releasing his master’s debtors from part of their debt. For that creates a different relationship between them that’s based on a reciprocity. Instead of being the manager who collected debts from them, he established a bond between them, that enriched them all.

Lois Malcom, a professor of Systematic theology in the US, says there is Filipino concept of u-tang na loob. When it’s literally translated, it means an “inner debt,” or a “debt of inner gratitude.” (2) This is what the dishonest manager established when he released the rich man’s debtors from some of their debt. He created a network of people who would support him should he need their help. And isn’t this what we see in Jesus’ ministry? Luke often mentions that Jesus’ ministry and the work of his followers, is dependent on the hospitality of others. The women who accompanied him. The people who invited him for banquets. And that hospitality was often provided by those who are considered religious outsiders or lower down on social scale.

So, what has this to say to us, in relation to the three crises we’re facing? Here are some thoughts. I think that the invitation of this interpretation of the parable is to consider our relationships with those we are separated from. Whether we’re separated because of our views about the climate crisis, Brexit, or church decline. Or whether it’s the way that those issues have separated and scattered us. From the earth and those suffering as a result of climate change. From people who are different. From people in other churches because we think we must compete with them. And from those who are feeling anxious, uncertain, afraid about all of these issues. I think this parable invites us to make a conscious choice to move closer to those we don’t agree with or who have been separated from us. To draw in. To keep on talking. To keep the channels of communication open. To refuse to be divided, scattered, or separated. And to use our resources – however we gained them - to break down the barriers that separate us.

The second interpretation comes in verses 10 to 12. “Whoever is faithful in small matters will be faithful in large ones; whoever is dishonest in small matters will be dishonest in large ones. If, then, you have not been faithful in handling worldly wealth, how can you be trusted with true wealth? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to someone else, who will give you what belongs to you?” This is a collection of related sayings that have been drawn together and placed here, because they are about the use of money, wealth and resources. Faithfulness and honesty are not linked to wealth and power. But how a person deals with dishonest or worldly wealth, and what belongs to other people, says much about how they will deal with true wealth and what belongs to themselves. How we use the resources at our disposal in this life - especially when we’re in a tight situation - matters.

In South Africa, there is a concept called Ubuntu, which “is very difficult to translate into a Western language.” This is what Desmond Tutu says about it. “Ubuntu speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say… he or she has ubuntu. This means they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate. They share what they have. It also means my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘a person is a person through other people.’ It is not ‘I think therefore I am.’ It is rather: ‘I am human because I belong.’ I participate, I share. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are good and able; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.” (3) I think that the concept of ubuntu, captures what this saying means, when it talks about faithfulness. It’s about how we live, how we relate, and how everything we are and have, is offered for the good of the whole community because that’s what’s good for us.

I think that the invitation of this interpretation of the parable is the opportunity to work for the good of all. For me (and I know not everyone will agree), this seems to be the opposite of what’s Brexit has tapped into or released, in our country. It’s clear that for some, it was a vote against the powerful and wealthy, who have ignored those who lack power and wealth for so long. But I also believe, that the way it’s become acceptable to treat those who do not fit a narrow definition of what it means to be British, is contrary to the Gospel. And I hope too selfish to be really British in the long run. The politics around Brexit are challenging and frustrating, but I wonder whether the break-down of party loyalty and the cross-party alliances, might be showing us a way forward when we eventually leave the EU. Friday saw a mass protest against the climate crisis. A year after Greta Thunburg began her solo boycott of school on Friday, 4 million people joined in. The marches built on movements all over the world, including Extinction Rebellion’s protests in this country, but were led by young people whose lives are being blighted because we have squandered the earth’s resources. Young people are pointing out the selfishness of previous generations, and are taking responsibility for all humanity, and not placing themselves first. They do not have wealth and power yet they are being faithful. I’d like to say the same of 3 Generate, the Methodist young people’s organisation, who are also raising issues for the whole church. They are as horrified by the decline of the church as everyone else. So, they suggested that this year, should be a year of testimony. You’ll hear me talking about it about it from time to time, even ‘though we won’t major on it here, because we’ve chosen to focus on Holy Habits. But it’s a good example, of how those who do not have power in the church, have used their imagination and enthusiasm to challenge the church to do something new. ‘Though it's not really new. Testimony is how the Methodist Church began and grew in the first place. But it’s been neglected. And now we need to rediscover its wealth for a new era. And maybe, by sharing our stories of what God is doing in our lives, we might enable others to recognise what God is doing in theirs.

Today’s reading ends with a pithy saying that most of us will know better than the parable it follows. “No servant can be the slave of two masters; such a slave will hate one and love the other or will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Wealth, and the need for economic security, can easily master us. One of my commentaries says, “Materialism enslaves us, but God requires exclusive loyalty.” Jesus’ disciples can only have one master. This a central theme in Luke’s Gospel. Over and over again. Luke’s Jesus invites his disciples to give up all their other commitments. Over and over again, he speaks about, how the status of the rich and the poor will be reversed, in God’s kingdom. And this is reiterated in the Book of Acts, when Christian community is seen where Jesus’ disciples share “all things in common,” and distribute them “to all, as any had need.” The invitation of today’s parable and the sayings that follow, is to be faithful to this vision, whether we deal in little things or vast resources. Whether we are as shrewd or street-wise as the dishonest manager depends on whether or not we use our material goods, and all we have and are, to work for God’s kingdom with all its reversals. We have to choose. But I suspect those with least to lose will choose best. Climate change, Brexit and church decline are crises, that require an urgent response, not just more talking. And like the dishonest manager, we’re invited to leave behind squandering, scattering and separating, to break down barriers, to seek connection, and to behave in ways that value the good of all, not just people like us. For that’s what it means to worship God, to really live, and not get by on our good behaviour. And it’s the way to make friends in the highest place that there is. Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

22nd September 2019

(1) The new Interpreter’s Bible Vol IX, 1995, p310.

(2) https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1783

(3) Desmond Tutu “No future without forgiveness”, 1999, p34-5

(4) The new Interpreter’s Bible Vol IX, 1995, p309.

References

(1) The new Interpreter’s Bible Vol IX, 1995, p310.

(2) https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1783

(3) Desmond Tutu “No future without forgiveness”, 1999, p34-5

(4) The new Interpreter’s Bible Vol IX, 1995, p309.