Richard Maxwell

Proper 20 C
22 September 2013
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well!  Today's Gospel story is just a mess, isn't it?  I mean, just WHAT is going on?  WHAT, exactly, is Jesus trying to teach us?

Some rich guy . . . probably some absentee landlord, living the highlife off in the city . . . has someone managing his property in the country.  The rich guy hears that this manager is doing a lousy job . . .  so he tells the manager to bring him the books and then get lost.  The manager panics . . . he has no other job prospects . . . so he's gonna need some good friends - people who might take him in - FAST.  So he goes to some of the people who owe the rich guy money and he tells them to pick up the I.O.U.s they signed and change the amount they owe.  He tells these people to change their I.O.U.s to say that they owe LESS to the rich guy than they actually do.  And what does the rich guy do when he hears what his soon-to-be-ex-manager has done?  He says, "Good job!  That was really smart!" 

WHAT?!?!

This would be confusing enough.  But then, in the text we heard this morning, Jesus praises this manager just like the rich guy does.  Jesus seems to say that his own followers are not as smart as other, worldly people, and that they need to be a little more like the guy in today's story.  Is Jesus saying that his followers should be lousy managers and cheats?  I don't think so . . . but . . . ???  Jesus says, "Use your worldly wealth to win friends."  Are we all supposed to be lobbyists?  And then he tells us the obvious:  don't trust a petty thief with the keys to the bank.  Well, duh! . . . and what's THAT got to do with what we're talking about?  And finally Jesus ends with, "Ya can't serve God and money."  Okay.  That's kinda familiar.  But, again, what's that got to do with everything else he's talking about?

See what I mean?  It's all just a mess!

So, I started trying to figure out what's going on in this passage, and I learned that people have been arguing about this text practically from the time they first heard it or read it (which made me feel a little better).  Finally I discovered something interesting:  At the beginning of the 20th century a scholar proposed an explanation for today's story that other scholars seem to have accepted over time, based upon discoveries of practices in various ancient cultures. 

It seems that in the ancient world it was common, when a manager or steward was taking care of some property, for the manager to make loans from the property and to charge interest on these loans.  The interest - or at least a portion of it - went to the manager . . . that's how he made money.  The principal, of course, continued to belong to the landowner.  The formal agreements for these loans, however, did not distinguish between the amount loaned and the interest on it, they simply listed the total amount owed. 

So, you see, in today's story, when the manager is running around telling debtors to change the amount listed on their I.O.U.s it's very possible that what he's doing is erasing the interest - and his own income - but preserving the rich guy's principal.  The rich guy's happy because, with the smaller debt load, it's more likely that the debtors will repay their loans and the rich guy will preserve the core of his wealth.  The debtors are happy because they owe less.  And the soon-to-be-ex manager is happy because he's made some friends who'll probably help him out when he's unemployed.

The manager is praised because he has used the material possessions he has control over to ensure his future security . . . a security that is NOT based in riches but in relationship.  This lousy manager - the dishonest steward - is a model for Christian disciples NOT because of his dishonesty (his mismanagement and squandering of property), but because of his prudence.  In a crisis he acts quickly and shrewdly . . . not holding onto money for itself, but using it for something far more important . . . to secure his future.

Which leads us, perhaps, to the lessons that Luke says Jesus teaches in regard to this story.  First, Jesus tells us that we can learn from people like this lousy manager.  Now, Jesus would never tell us to do our jobs badly or dishonestly . . . but he DOES want us to be as wise as serpents . . . to quote from another story.  The manager in today's story gives up all concern for his prosperity now, to secure his future by winning friends.  If Jesus is talking to us, what future would he be telling us to be most concerned about?  He certainly would NOT be talking about our retirement funds . . . Jesus would be talking about the Kingdom of God and our eternal life.  So if Jesus is telling us to use our material goods to secure our future, he's telling us to use our money to secure our place in heaven.  And, if he's talking about winning friends, I have a suspicion that Jesus is talking about God . . . about entering into a right relationship with God, who will welcome us into dwellings that are everlasting.

After a fair amount of wrestling, I've come to the conclusion that perhaps today's Gospel message isn't such a mess, after all.  When Jesus concludes the teaching we heard today with the admonition that we cannot serve God and Money, he's pointing out a general Christian attitude toward wealth . . . an attitude that underlies all of the disparate parts of today's Gospel lesson.  And as Luke presents it, this Christian attitude toward wealth is a radical position:  God or mammon!  Which will it be?  It cannot be both.  Which is going to govern your life?  Which are you going to serve?  Which are you going to worship?  God or Money?

Some time ago I decided to reread St. Augustine's Confessions.  I started it . . . but I couldn’t finish it.  Perhaps when I first read it in college I read it too quickly, simply needing to "get it done," because I don't remember reading it the first time and trying to argue with the author.  I don't remember stopping every few paragraphs - as I did this time - and thinking, "But . . . but . . . but . . . ."  At the rate I was going, it was going to take me months to finish the thing.  It's very tiring to try to argue with someone who's smarter than you are . . . and that's what I was doing with Augustine.

What kept stopping me was Augustine's absolute and complete insistence that God come first in all things.  ALL things.  It's an unassailable point of view, of course.  Every time I say mass I repeat the Summary of the Law, which begins, "Love God, with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind."  ALL your heart, ALL your soul, ALL your mind.  Love God with your entire being.  I believe absolutely that we are supposed to do this.  BUT, as I started re-reading Augustine's Confessions, I was confronted with the story of someone who was actually trying to DO this.  And I found it rather frightening. 

Think about it for a moment.  Apply it to the people in your life, to the people you love, to your family.  Your spouse, your children, your parents, your grandchildren . . . EVERYONE is second to God.  Which means that if, for some incomprehensible reason, God should tell you to turn you back on them . . . to leave them . . . you would.  Don't say to yourself, "But God would never ask me to do such a thing."  We heard Jesus teach this very lesson only a couple of weeks ago:  "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be a disciple of mine."  NO ONE in your life can come before God.  And it was the living out of this teaching that I found so off-putting . . . so frightening . . . about Augustine's Confessions.

NOW, today, Jesus is saying the same thing about money.  "Love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind," and if you have to give up all your money, all your financial security, to do this . . . DO it.  THIS is a very hard and frightening lesson for many of us . . . because, truthfully, while we love our families, many of us WORSHIP our money.  This may sound extreme to some of you, but I fear it is true for many of us . . . we worship money.  This idol-ization is what drives so much of our lives . . . our pursuing, our seeking, our ambition . . . it's why we find it so hard to give money away.  We worship money because, for many of us, we use money to buy, quite literally, our sense of security . . . and our feeling of control over our lives.

When we're honest with ourselves, we know that our purchased sense of control and security is an illusion.  When we wrestle with our private demons, we know that all the money in the world won't conquer our anxieties and defeat those demons.  But the illusion of security and control are VERY seductive.  It can be truly terrifying to give them up . . . to realize that there IS no security or control apart from God.  But this is the truth.

God keeps reminding us of this truth over and over again . . . not just in readings like the Gospel passage we heard this morning . . . but in our lives.  Whenever our cherished plans go awry, our treasured hopes are crushed, it's an opportunity to remember where our security and safety truly lie . . . with God.  With God, who reached out to us over and over again through the millennia to teach us that our only safety, our only security, our only HOME is with God.  Who finally came to us as one of us, as Jesus Christ, hoping that through this fully divine human being we would FINALLY understand God's infinite care and love for us.  Our only safety and security lie with God, who was willing to stretch out his arms and die on the hard wood of the cross to bring the whole world into God's embrace.

You canNOT serve God AND money . . . so LOVE God . . . with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind.

Amen.

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