Proper 20C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor… The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely, I will never forget any of [your] deeds” (Amos 8:4, 7).  Today’s gospel makes me thankful for the Hebrew prophets. You can rely on Amos to tell you straight.  The good ol’ prophets reveal God’s truth with the- matter-of-factness of a carpenter’s square, or a plumb bob.  They’re quick to show where you step out of line.

Heal the sick, defend the poor, remember the widow, welcome the stranger, visit the incarcerated and do all of these in proportion to how much you love and serve God because the one is an exact measure of the other.

In contrast to the prophets the parables of Jesus seldom answer questions about God with a simple “yes” or “no.”  The parables do not speak in black or white, but “both…and.” Parables turn the message of the prophets into a story that is like a riddle then patiently wait for life or lived experience to reveal something to us about their meaning.  Using every color in a 64-crayon box, Jesus’ parables paint a picture of grace in all the shades, shadows, and hues of real life.

Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13b). That certainly sounds like something the prophets were always saying. Wealth is both a blessing and a responsibility. Do you realize there are more than 2,300 verses in scripture that mention money, wealth, or possessions? 16 out of 38 parables mention money as do one in ten gospel verses (288).  Much of the bible takes a dim view of borrowing except when it comes to lending to God. Proverbs 19:17 affirms, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD and will be repaid in full.” While plastic money on revolving credit multiplies plastic gods.

Mark Allan Powell tells how ancient warriors of Gaul converting to Christianity held their sword-arm in the air as missionaries dunked them under the water so they could proclaim ‘This arm is not baptized!’ if war were to break out.  Powell suggests many contemporary Christians do the same thing. They hold their wallet above the baptismal water. You may have all of me Lord—except this. (Giving to God: The Bible’s Good News about Living a Generous Life, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006). German theologian, Helmut Thielicke said, “Our pocketbooks can have more to do with heaven, and also with hell, than our hymnbooks.”

The truth is we were not made for the thrill of shopping.  We are made for the thrill of touching, talking, giving and loving.  The American dream becomes a lie, and all those who have sacrificed their youth, innocence, sweat, blood, and indeed their very lives to sustaining this dream will have sacrificed in vain if in the end it only means living worse in a bigger house.  We are not made to serve our wealth.  Our wealth is meant to serve us to the glory of God.

We could stop right here if we were only talking about Amos. Yet this is where Jesus begins to add new textures and nuance to the message of the prophet. It sounds bizarre yet Jesus says that those who strive for the Kingdom of God are like a dishonest manager and/or a capricious rich man.  What does Jesus mean by telling us a story in which the hero is a crook? Why did the boss commend the bad manager? What is Jesus trying to tell us? Suddenly, just like real life, we don’t have quick and simple answers.

Jesus describes a world we know only too well. A world in which dishonesty, corruption, self-interest, and ill-gotten wealth rule the day. A world in which selfish ambition often secures praise and prosperity, while honesty garners cynicism and contempt. A world in which ethical living is neither straightforward nor easy.

“Maybe the parable of the shrewd manager is simply a grim but truthful portrait of the world as it is— the real world in which we are called to be “children of light.” Maybe the story is an acknowledgment that the calling is both radically countercultural and painfully hard.” (Debi Thomas)

Unrighteous mammon cannot be separated from righteous wealth, just as the sinner in us cannot be separated from the saint.  There are weeds growing among the wheat. We await the harvest when the wheat can be separated from the chaff. But this truth does not lead to despair or inaction among God’s children, but to thanksgiving. We are indeed thankful God does not share our contempt for such folk as the dishonest manager, but has love for him, in the same way God does not abandon us to our misdeeds but has compassion for us. In the meantime, our faithful striving is being transformed into treasures. Our gifts, the sweat of our brow, and even our very lives, are wiped clean as we lay them upon the altar of Christ and as we return to wash them in the waters of baptism.

In God’s economy, people matter more than profits.  Notice, the dishonest manager adopts a whole new approach to the problem of amassing resources. He realized that generosity was the best investment he could make. He doesn’t try to hide or hang on to the money. He uses money and possessions to make friends. He gets himself out of a hole by building social capital. Rather than be slave to it he uses the money to perform a service. Money will one day forsake him, but hopefully his new-found friends will not. Could this be how Jesus turns the message of the prophets into a parable for our own lives?

Jesus has reached out to grasp our dirty hands. The children of light get busy and get their hands dirty in the real world working beside Jesus. But blessed are you when you make unrighteous mammon righteous because you used it to feed the poor and hungry, to clothe the naked.  Enter into the joy of your master! Blessed are you when you make friends through sharing the same mercy and forgiveness Christ Jesus has shown you.  Let your joy be complete! “Where there is forgiveness, there is God.  Where there is unburdening, where there is liberation, where there is crazy, radical generosity — there is God.” (Debi Thomas, Notes to the Children of Light, Journey with Jesus, September 15, 2019)

“As is ever the case with the parables of Jesus, we are dealing with an overabundance of meanings, truths, and possibilities — not a lack.  But the calling, still, is to live as children of light in a world that sorely needs solace, grace, forgiveness, and freedom” (Debi Thomas). Jesus calls us to enter into that calling with our whole hearts and minds — creatively, urgently, shrewdly—for the redemption and renewal of the real world.  Amen.