Sep. 22, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Sep 22, 2019 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20C)

September 22, 2019

There are a few misconceptions about this gospel reading, so let’s dispense with those first. It’s helpful to note that the debts here are on a ‘commercial’ scale; 900 gallons of olive oil is not a household account from a small family tenant farmer! The grain owed is around 1200 bushels—reducing that to 80% is significant, and the local businesses would be buzzing. Also, the series of five sayings or interpretations which come after the parable indicate that even as the author set this story down there was likely some struggle to understand the parable—and there still is. Even the punctuation in your bulletins is unlikely, since the parable itself ends mid-sentence, and is then followed by commentary. “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” (End of parable). Then we are told of the lessons to be gleaned, beginning with, “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Whereupon we hear more lessons or interpretations that some speculate were added later.

Without trying to write in story-lines not already in the parable, the conspicuous point Jesus makes to his disciples is this: when the end comes and the wealth of this world is failing you, use your shrewd judgment to employ what you have in the best possible way, so as to be welcomed, he says, into “eternal homes.” His discounting of debts brought both cash and an air of goodness to be attributed to the master, and those whose debts the steward slashed are now obligated to reciprocate the benevolence.

There’s an important deeper lesson from Jesus here, that’s somewhat lost in translation; when the steward was fired and began to worry he says to himself, “I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their houses.” The word he uses is for a physical building, a structure for a family household. At the end Jesus says “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” The word Jesus uses is tent or booth, a temporary shelter often made of branches or skins, often portable. It evokes the tabernacle or tent of God’s presence from Exodus and makes clear that Jesus is not just referring to some temporary dwelling but subtly revealing that ‘home’ as the place of God’s eternal presence. The unrighteous steward wanted a secure house to land in, and he was afraid of being cast out. Jesus promises ‘tents’ rather than houses—he doesn’t promise possessions or stability in the wealth of the world but offers instead the tent of a wanderer or pilgrim who follows him; materialistically unencumbered but walking in the treasure of God’s eternal presence.

The pointed words about serving one master, and that we cannot serve both God and wealth are about taking the long view, the whole-life picture. He urges being shrewd enough to see that the way we use what we have reveals who we serve. There’s nothing wrong with wealth, it’s all about how we use it, accumulate it, and who we serve with it. Is the good we do with it for only ourselves or to help others? For “houses” or “eternal homes”? Notice Jesus’ understanding of human nature is such that our options are serving material things or God? There’s no third option, nor one where we serve no one. Being a disciple means committing to this time and again. Loving Jesus wasn’t a forever fix that meant you were through dealing with the philosophical questions or the very real-world decisions around housing, hunger, employment, weighing honesty and dishonesty. In this world it will keep coming up!

Let’s look at the letter to Timothy we heard. Timothy is a new leader in Ephesus, taking care of the church there. “Paul” is by tradition how we refer to the author, and he is helping to guide Timothy and the church as they struggle, and the letter was to be read aloud to all of them, and now, to us. He urges that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, “for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” They were not so different from us, and there was a heated struggle between people who each thought their way was the only right way. No doubt the church in Ephesus chafed at the thought of praying for the king (emperor), and there was a strong imperial cult built up around him. The church was caught in the middle of a hostile environment, and they questioned to what extent they could live and function in that culture or society without compromising their Christian faith. Authorities needed little reason to act against the little house churches and had no respect for their beliefs. This wasn’t a western democracy where groups with different ideals were equal before the law or expected tolerance. One option would be to be faithful in hiding, keep secret their rituals, beliefs, membership—and yet they chose the opposite. They lived in the world with their neighbors, good and bad, sympathetic and hostile, because they believed as the letter said, “there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.” All. That word is what instructs them as much as it does us and reminds the faithful of our identity. They do not need to pray to the king, rather for the king, and for all those in high positions of authority. Some were undoubtedly praying for his change of heart or to find the salvation they knew, but the wisdom of the letter’s instruction is to pray for these leaders in authority so that the Ephesians “may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” So that they could carry on living their faith.

The letter is about adapting Christian ideals to the society we live in. Why pray for (difficult) leaders? Because it’s practical the letter says, and because to do so denotes intentional and right behavior that both offers and asks for respect from others. Prayers are urged for that which would result in a safe and peaceful environment, to be able to live faithfully before God and the world. Surely living in ways which constantly revealed that mutuality could influence the persecutors! The letter urged prayers of thanksgiving as well, and I imagine the Christians in Ephesus struggled to identify anything good in their king and his cohort for which to thank God, just as we struggle with our own acrimonious political climate these days. We might even believe it in the abstract, or in our hearts of faith, but do we forget it when we turn on the news? All means all. “Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.” In a world of oppositional, intolerant, disparaging, I’m-always-right thinking, we might need reminding that everyone we pray for is worthy of God’s blessing. And here’s what is not said in the letter; our genuinely offered prayers for them may well be part of what helps us to grow into truer followers of Christ. Prayer is not always at the center of things, but it can get us there!

So, the best connection I can offer between these two lessons is that we are to be faithful even when it’s hard. Fred Craddock, originally from rural Tennessee, became Distinguished Professor of Preaching and New Testament Emeritus in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, but was always best known as a Tennessee storyteller who simplified and humanized the complex. On this reading from Luke he wrote,

Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat. “Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much.”

(Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation, Louisville: Westminster/Jon Knox, 1990).

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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