Unthinkable

© Michael Clarkson, 2019.  Preached at St. John’s Ithaca, September 22, 2019, for Proper 20, Year C, Track 1.  Texts:  Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13. Image:  The Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Army, by Juan de la Corte.

“This is not going to go the way you think.”

So said Luke —Luke Skywalker— in Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi.  I think Luke — St. Luke the Evangelist— could have helpfully added it to the beginning of today’s parable of the dishonest manager.  Because, this parable does not go the way we would think.

Disaster strikes the dishonest manager:  his boss, the rich man, gives him a pink slip.  He’s fired for cause:  he’s been squandering his boss’s property.  The manager no longer has a job, and he doesn’t see much in the way of new job prospects:  digging and begging are the two that come to his mind, but rejects them both.  Instead, he hatches a plan:  on top of whatever he was already guilty of, he’ll reduce the bills of his boss’s clients.  That way, they’ll be grateful to him, and he’ll still have a shot at the good life.  Then the boss commends the manager “because he had acted shrewdly.”

Already, this isn’t going the way that we think it should.  If this is a parable of Jesus, shouldn’t we be getting instruction on moral behavior?  Shouldn’t the protagonist of this story, the “dishonest manager”, be someone we want to emulate?  Instead we have a guy who was guilty of negligence and now seems to have added fraud to his list of crimes.

Things aren’t always what they seem, of course.  It’s possible that the manager was eliminating his own commission from the bills—effectively bribing the clients with the money that was due to him, while not cheating his boss out of any money. It’s also possible that the manager was eliminating some of the “standard fees” that were used to circumvent laws against lending money to other Jews—charging interest wasn’t allowed, but charging extra for the product was.[1]  In which case, the manager was still cheating his boss, but more in the sense of a biblical Robin Hood:  the economic system was at fault, so the manager was robbing from the rich man to give to the poor clients.

Regardless of which of those three crimes the dishonest manager was guilty of—fraud, bribery, or creative wealth redistribution—his boss commends him.  Note the commendation isn’t for the morality of the manager’s action; it’s for the shrewdness of it.  In the face of disaster, the manager prudently makes friends with the clients.  He hopes—he has some kind of faith—that his future will thereby be secured.

Jesus comments on that, saying “make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  Jesus seems to be making a moral mandate to steal from our employers, bribe our so-called friends, and hope to mooch off them in eternity.  That’s certainly not the morality I expect to hear from Jesus.  I don’t think I’m alone.  As one Bible commentary I own says: “this parable defies any fully satisfactory explanation.”[2]

But maybe that’s the point.  Parables, as a literary genre, don’t go the way we think they should.  Instead, they challenge the way we think.  Think back over some we’ve had this summer:  a shepherd who abandons his flock of 99 sheep to go after 1 lost sheep; a master who gets home at midnight to find his servants ready to feed him dinner, only to instead have them sit down and serve them himself; and praise for a Samaritan (an outsider) for being a good neighbor.  Parables are the surprise ending stories of the Bible:[3] the O. Henry or M. Night Shyamalan stories.

I think the parable of the dishonest manager, especially its surprise ending, challenges us to think differently about how we respond to disaster.  Disaster challenges us to put resources and relationships into perspective.[4]  Disaster calls forth acts of faith.

The dishonest manager put his faith in the relationships he could make, albeit it through possibly dishonest use of resources.  Instead of extorting money, which he could have tried [Mt 18:21-35], he essentially gave it away.  We don’t know how that worked out for him.  Maybe, through that act of faith and generosity, he grew closer in relationship with his friends and with God.  We can hope.

Disaster also calls forth acts of faith in the Old and New Testament readings today.  In 1st Timothy, the disaster is hidden in the background.  At the time this letter was probably written, Christianity was considered to be a “contagion of superstition” by the Roman empire.  If Christians wouldn’t offer incense and wine to the image of the Roman emperor, and curse the name of Christ, they were sent to prison or tortured for failing to participate in the Roman state religion.[5]  In the midst of that disaster, the author of 1st Timothy urges an act of faith:  pray for those in authority, because God desires even their salvation.  Those early Christians didn’t know where the church was headed:  they didn’t know that it would one day become the state religion itself; that beautiful and horrible things would be done in its name; that 2000 years later we’d be here dealing with disasters of our own.  But they had the faith to pray for their enemies, and here we are:  still the Church, still proclaiming God our Savior, still giving thanks for the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Reaching back another 700 years or so from 1st Timothy, disaster is writ large across today’s reading from Jeremiah.  God had made covenants though Abraham, Moses, and David; God had made his singular dwelling in Solomon’s Temple in the holy city of Jerusalem.  Surely no permanent harm could happen.  God would never permit it.

But once more, things did not go the way they thought.  The unthinkable happened.  The Babylonians invaded Judah, deported its people, sacked Jerusalem, left the corpses to rot, and destroyed the Temple.  Of all disasters, it was the uttermost.  It is still remembered on the Jewish calendar each year as Tisha B’Av: the saddest day of the year, a fast day (as we have fast days on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday); a day on which this reading from Jeremiah as well as Psalm 79 are read as part of the liturgy.

O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance; they have profaned your holy temple; they have made Jerusalem a heap of rubble…

My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick…

“Is the Lord not in Zion?  Is her King not in her?”…

O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

Do you not weep with them?  Is your heart not torn by that sorrow?  “Look and see if there is any sorrow like [that] sorrow” [Lam 1:12].

But there have been other sorrows.  “Disaster comes upon disaster” [Ez 7:26].  The Holocaust.  The near genocide of the native peoples of this continent.  Ethnic cleansing in eastern Europe and Africa. [6]  The violence we have perpetrated upon the Earth’s environment, and the consequent calamity soon to come.

Disaster calls forth acts of faith.  The Psalmist prays at the end of today’s reading, “Help us, O God our Savior…deliver us, and forgive us our sins.”  It takes an utter act of faith to pray to the God who seems to have abandoned the people entirely.  It takes an utter act of faith to confess “yes, we are guilty” and yet plead for salvation.  It takes an utter act of faith to stridently question and argue with the one, true God, “How long, O Lord?”

That’s what faith is:  to pray, to grieve, to lament, to argue, to cry, and to suffer…with God.  With the God who weeps day and night for God’s people.  With the God who gave himself a ransom for all upon the cross.  With the God who dwells in the Church from age to age.  With the God who tells enigmatic stories with surprise endings.  Your story.  Mine.  The story of this world.  The story of the Kingdom of God.

A story that is not going to go the way we think.

Acknowledgements.

Bartlett, D. L., & Taylor, B. B. (eds.),  Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, vol. 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Van Harn, R. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary, vol. 3, Eerdmans, 2001.

Footnotes.

[1] The NIV Study Bible, 10th anniversary edition, note on Luke 16:3, Zondervan, 1995.

[2] The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Oxford, 2011.

[3] “I take parables to be vivid stories that seduce hearers (readers) to adopt an initial position that the parable then subverts. Like a movie with a surprise ending, the parable startles hearers so that they have to revise their thinking and view reality from a new perspective.”  Robert L. Brawley in Lectionary Commentary.

[4] “Jesus does not commend the manager’s practices, but rather his insight into the connection between resources and relationships.”  Christine Pohl, “Profit and Loss,” Christian Century, August 29–September 5, 2001, 13.  Cited by G. Penny Nixon in Feasting on the Word.

[5] Pliny, Epistle 10:96.

[6] “There is no balm in Gilead to undo the near genocide of Native peoples in Canada and the United States. There is no healing from the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing in eastern Europe and Africa, to name but a few tragedies.”  Stephen Breck Reid in Feasting on the Word.