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Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Worst Parable Ever

Artwork: Marinus van Reymerswaele, Parable of the Unfaithful Steward, 1540.

A Sermon preached for Pentecost XV - Proper 20 C - September 22, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

Trying to prepare a sermon on what has to be The Worst Parable Ever is either a fool's errand or something I apparently need for my soul but didn't know it. 

Just to put this all in context, and in case the links don't work, here's the passage: 
The Parable of the Shrewd (Crooked) Manager

16 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
“‘Nine hundred gallons[a] of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’
“Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
“‘A thousand bushels[b] of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
This is one of those passages from scripture that leave us scratching our heads. At least on the surface, this is a wildly ambiguous text. What in the world is going on here? What is Jesus trying to say? Or, perhaps more cogently, why did Luke include this in his recounting of the Good News? What message is he trying to give us about how to live our lives of faith?

Well, the first thing to know about this parable is what every preacher eventually figures out.

First, it’s important to put this story in context. For this, you'll need to go to Luke 15, the chapter just before this morning's Gospel passage.

It is there we learn that Jesus is preaching and his audience includes not only his disciples but, as Eugene Peterson says in his translation of this passage, “a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religious scholars were  . . . not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends. Their grumbling triggered this story.

Put a pin in that because we’ll be coming back to that in a bit.

This story of the shrewd (or crooked) manager comes right after the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (or Prodigal) son. 

Each of these stories ends with an unexpected twist. The shepherd and the woman put aside everything to find the sheep or the coin that was lost. Turns out, it was the father not the son who was prodigal – lavishly and wastefully having a grand celebration for the return of his wayward son, even to the chagrin of his elder, obedient son.

What becomes even more clear in this story of the crooked (or shrewd) manager is that Jesus is talking to three different audiences: his disciples, and the “men and women of doubtful reputation” as well as Pharisees and religious scholars who were “not at all pleased”.

I once saw an interview with Oprah in which the comedian Chris Rock compared stand up comedians with athletes. He talked about how you can't fake being and athlete and you can't fake comedy, either.

As I thought about this, I realized that there are also striking similarities between the role of comedians and preachers. You only become a better comedian by, well, speaking in public and, not faking it. You only become a better preacher by preaching from the pulpit.

And, if the preacher doesn't tell the truth, the congregation can sniff it out in half a heartbeat. They may disagree, but if they sense it's coming from a place of integrity and truth, it will at least be more palatable. Telling the truth in public also helps the preacher to develop a thick skin – a very important asset, I’ve learned over the years. I suspect the same is true with comedians or any public speaker.

The last thing Chris Rock said in the interview made me think about Jesus. My colleague Julian DeShazier (who also performs as hip-hop artist J. Kwest) paraphrases it well (and omits the obscenities): The best comics can work multiple audiences in the same room. Sometimes you tell a joke and half the crowd won’t get it, but you didn’t do it for them.  
Preachers often face the same fate. Sometimes, being in the pulpit can feel like that scene from the Monty Python movie, “Life of Brian”

Jesus is delivering his famous Sermon on the Mount and says, “Blessed are the peacemakers”. 

Someone in the crowd doesn’t hear clearly and asks, “What was that?” 

A man - clearly visiting from England, responds, “I think it was 'Blessed are the cheesemakers.’” 

A woman - also apparently from England - asks, “Ahh, what's so special about the cheesemakers?” 

Her husband answers with great authority, “Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

I don’t know a seasoned preacher who can’t relate to that scene. Which is why a seasoned preacher figures out that in this passage, Jesus is preaching to multiple audiences and has something for each one – his disciples, the tax collectors and sinners and the Pharisees and other religious leaders – to hear.  Especially the Pharisees who are "not at all pleased" either at what Jesus is saying or the fact that he is saying it in front of tax collectors and sinners.

I suspect he wants his disciples to hear all of the different perspectives, which may be why Luke obliges and includes everything Jesus says, even though it may leave us scratching our heads in confusion.

I want to imagine ourselves hearing these words from the perspective of the “men and women of doubtful reputation” who were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. I want us to hear Jesus suggest that we should be shrewd in using our resources to gain friends. 
It sounds a bit disingenuous, doesn’t it? Except, I imagine everyone in his ancient audience can relate to that.
Modern audiences of Christians might resist acknowledging this, but we all know the truth of the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” 
We also know the saying, “It takes money to make money.” Those sayings are not lost on the poor, much less “men and women of doubtful reputation”. I would be a hypocrite if I did not admit that those sayings are also not lost on the Pharisees and religious scholars of both ancient and modern day.
It’s Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message which helps us through the ethical and, yes, political questions raised by Luke’s passage of the teachings of Jesus: 
8-9 “Now here’s a surprise: 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 behavior.”
To help that particular translation and understanding sink in, I think It's time for a story. A different, modern parable of sorts about being shrewd.

Ordained less than five years, I found myself Vicar of St. Barnabas Church, a small, struggling congregation in the inner city of Newark where I was also Executive Director of the AIDS Resource Center which operated out of St. Barnabas Church Parish Hall. The church and their agency decided to pool resources and provide Thanksgiving Baskets to those in our neighborhood and those who were our clients. 

St. Barnabas, Newark, NJ
Actually, I was pretty shrewd, if I do say so myself, in convincing my brothers and sisters who were rectors of affluent congregations to contribute money and frozen turkeys and fixings for Thanksgiving Day. We got lots of both, which allowed us, in turn, to be generous.

By some small miracle of Loaves and Fishes we came to the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving Day having distributed 250 baskets filled with frozen turkey, stuffing, fresh and canned vegetables and fruits, and even an apple pie for each basket. 

We were exhausted but thrilled, feeling we could go home to our families and truly give thanks for God’s bounty.

Until SHE came in. 

At exactly 3:55 PM.   

Just five minutes before I was to head out the door, stop by the grocery store for a few last minute items, and then home to prepare for my own family. She was out of breath and waved a slip of paper in her hand as she announced, “Wait. Don’t leave. I’m here for my turkey basket.”

My heart sank. I had nothing. No turkey. No stuffing. Not even a can of string beans. 

I put my coat over the chair and said, “I’m so very sorry. We have given out our last turkey.” 

She was enraged! “But, I’m homeless! I don’t have anything. I need that turkey. I have a slip from my social worker and everything. You’re a priest. You HAVE to find me a turkey.” 

I flushed with frustration and shame because I didn’t have anything to give her.

I took the slip of paper while she went on and on about her homeless plight, thinking of various alternatives, when she encouraged me to call her social worker to verify her claims. Hoping that he has already left for the day, I was surprised to find him still at his desk. 

When I told him the situation, he also started to berate me, “But, she’s homeless! What kind of priest are you, anyway? How can you be so heartless? It’s Thanksgiving! And she’s homeless.”

As I was deliberating whether or not to take my last $20 bill and give it to her, or to take her shopping and let her buy $20 worth of food in my sight, I suddenly heard something. Something obvious I had completely overlooked.  

Perhaps you’ve already figured it out and you are silently snickering at me in your pew. Go ahead. All these years later, I’m looking back on that well-intentioned, passionate young priest and snickering at my own naivety.


“Homeless,” I said out loud. 

“Homeless,” I said, looking at her while talking into the phone. 

“Yes, “ her social worker said sarcastically, as if he were talking to a moron, “she’s homeless. As in SHE HAS NO HOME.”  

 “Well,” said I, clearing my throat, "if she doesn't have a home, then she doesn't have an oven in which to cook the turkey. Or a stove on which to warm up the vegetables and rolls. Or, even a table on which to serve the Thanksgiving Dinner."

There was stunned silence on the other end of the phone. 

The woman stood in front of me, slack-jawed. 

I don’t blame the woman. Hunger and poverty can make you crazy – or make you think there’s something wrong with you that you don’t have at least the very basics of what everyone else in America has on Thanksgiving Day.
Her social worker and I were so focused on filling voids and solving problems that we had forgotten that before you can do that effectively, you have to sit and listen to a person’s story. 

Before whatever help you are offering can be effective, you have to understand the context. 

Context is as important as content. Sometimes, even more so in the holy stories of our lives than in sacred writ. 

So, I assured the social worker I was on it. I brought the woman into the parish hall kitchen and we talked while I fixed her a cup of tea. We sat and talked for a while. She told me her story. How she had lost her job and apartment. How she now had a job as a waitress but couldn’t afford her apartment and medication so she chose to keep her car to get her to work. How she was mortified and embarrassed. How she hadn’t told anyone in her family – especially not her adult kids. How she had promised to bring a turkey to her sister’s house where she would spend the holiday weekend. 

Please note: This can happen to anyone. It happens to more people than you or I know or can possibly imagine.

After we finished our tea, I took her in my car to the supermarket where I spoke with the store manager – the guy from whom I and my parishioners had bought all those turkeys with the money I had cajoled our sister suburban congregations to donate. He quickly put together another couple of bags of Thanksgiving stuff, including a 10 pound frozen turkey. 

I tried to pay him with the $20 bill I had in my wallet and promised the balance on the Monday after Thanksgiving, but he just waved me away. Bless him. 

Was I, in my shrewd handling of suburban congregations and local markets, just as guilty, at least in principle, as the Crooked/Shrewd Manager? Was I being a corrupt Pharisee or scribe? 

Was I wrong to collude in the woman’s ruse so her family would believe that everything was fine and she had enough money to buy Thanksgiving Dinner to feed everyone? 

I’ll leave that for God to judge. 

My dear friend and colleague, Margaret Watson, who serves the churches of the Cheyenne River Episcopal Mission on the Indian Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota where she lives, often says of the gospel, “Sometimes, ya just gotta leave it lay where Jesus flang it.”

Glenn Jordan, a member of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland writes: 
Jesus’s parables (step outside the social codes of the day to do the unexpected) all the time. A Samaritan acts in a caring way. A father acknowledges his failures and humbles himself before his sons. A wealthy man throwing a party by which he will ensure the indebtedness of his guests ends up inviting a whole host of people who could never repay him.”

“The Gospel consistently refuses to match our expectations of social and cultural norms. In fact Jesus keeps breaking the social taboos of his day, making space for those who are on the outside and unseating those in power.”
If I were to give this parable a headline in a local newspaper, I think it would be “God Sees Behind Appearances.” 

And, I hasten to add, that works both ways – our good intentions, our shrewdness as well as our indifference to those who have less and those who are different, those who those are poor and those who are listening intently for even the possibility of hope. 

As evidence of that truth – that God knows the human heart – I want to offer this final prayer by Glenn Jordan, of Northern Ireland. 

After hearing The Worst Parable Ever, may this prayer remind us, in the often confusing enterprise of being human, that in the midst of it all, Jesus is there, ready to inspire and lead us into the way of Truth and Life and Love.
Lord Jesus,
You are the great storyteller
Of unexpected twists
And surprising endings.
Forgive me when I seek
To control the narrative,
To order the characters
And keep the drama from their lives.
Open my life to more unpredictable storylines
To more bewildering turns
To more exciting encounters
And more unforeseen outcomes.
And teach me to look there for you,
Popping up in unpredictable places
In dazzling dress
And with confounding figures.

1 comment:

Bathwater said...

Very interesting. It seems you know well this proverb can can relate it to the several levels of your audience.