Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. Elizabeth A. B. Tesi
September 21, 2013: Proper 20
Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13.
Today's gospel celebrates lying, misuse of funds, cheating the Man, and watching out for Number One. It's a great story for the church, right? Anyone out there want to self-idenitfy as a professional swindler? Anyone? Hello? What in the world do we make of this? Jesus told a ridiculous story to tell us. Are we to hear this story as an allegory? Do we commend the shrewd manager, and accept that lying, cheating, and misuse of funds is just a way of life, and that we'd better watch out for Number One? That is indeed one way to look at this story. We've just justified everything that has happened on Wall Street and in our society. As long as your boss is as sneaky as you and as long as you make friends, it'll probably work out well for you.
Let me tell you a great celebrated classic story that explicates just these themes: It's the story of The Dude. As the story goes, the Dude is the laziest man known to human kind, and indeed is so lazy that he doesn't actually do any work. But he lives pretty comfortable, wearing bathrobes and bowling. His life goes rapidly south when some uglies mistake him (The Dude, who name is Lebowski) for the rich business owner, The Big Lebowski. Now, the rich business owner isn't exacvtly a very nice or good or honorable man, and the movie spends a fair amount of time explicating just what a lousy gormless worm this guy is. The Dude, on the other hand, is upset for just one reason: thanks to this mistaken identity, he suffers the tragic loss of his rug. Who cares about the rug? Quite a lot of people, and it really ties a room together. In one scene, as he attempts to negotiate the keeping his replacement rug with the businessman Lebowski's scheming daughter, the Dude notices a man floating aimlessly in the pool. She says dismissively, "Don['t worry about him, he's a nihilist." The nihilist doesn't care about anything, except his own benefit- what a great fit for today's Gospel! At the end of the movie, the hero is The Dude, because he was shrewd and obtained the replacement of his unfairly soiled rug. And having successfully watched out for Number One, The Dude abides.
Given today's Gospel and Scripture, I can't imagine why people find Christianity to be a confusing, conflicted religion. I can't imagine why anyone would ever consider the Christians to be a naive, out of touch people. We worship a Messiah who gives us tales like these and yet we want to say that we value honesty and fairness. We talk about God's grace freely offered, and yet our main story on Sunday morning is filled with lies and deceit. How can we make this parable work for us? Do we say that, because the manager offered debt reduction to the debtors and was praised by the rich man, that debt reduction is praised by God? Does that mean that the rich man really does love mercy and want to extend grace to the debtor, but just doesn't have the guts to do it, so he allows his slimy manager to be the middle man? Does grace comes despite the cowardice of the Man in CHarge?
Rather, let me suggest that we do a disservice to the parables when we reduce them to simple allegory. Let's think about why Jesus might have told this story. Actually, let's start with exploring how we hear this story today. You have two priests who are all dressed up in fancy vestments, a deacon formally attired and reading the story in a formal little ceremony from the center of a church, where people come to do serious praying. We are reading this story in our serious, church voices. What if that wasn't how Jesus actually told it? Do you think that perhaps it might have been a funny, ridiculous story? I mean, I just compared this Gospel to a modern movie- I think this Gospel bears some strong resemblance to The Big Lebowski! It's a pretty obvious comedy. You can see the ridiculousness in our modern day stories. We wouldn't think of taking them seriously, although maybe there's a kernel of truth in there. What if Jesus was telling a slightly ridiculous story to make a point, as well? If so, what is the point he is trying to make?
I believe that God calls our whole selves, including our brains, to faith and ministry. Often, I feel as though, in our culture, especially here in Oregon, that we almost must apologize for being people of faith. Faith, and Christianity, are looked down upon. I often feel as though the popular culture wants to believe that because I am a woman of faith, that I am foolish, naive, kind of dumb. Jesus turns that on its head. He calls us to bring our entire selves- even the shrewd, calculating part- to the work that God's church is doing in the world. Think about what we can do as shrewd people.
What if Jesus is trying to tell us the story of a person who uses his brains- and what if Jesus is asking us to use our brains, too, but use them to do good? What if God is calling us- our whole selves, the shrewd, disbelieving part of us as well as the kindhearted soul, into communion here? We have many kindhearted people who want to give charity without judgement; but how do we give that charity in such a way that we are giving honorably? It doesn't feel good when we feel like our charitable intentions are being taken advantage of. What if Jesus is calling us, as a people of God, to use judge wisely as we combine our intellects and our hearts to do ministry among the people of God? The Needle Arts Guild is a great example is shrewdness: (and you thought we were just nice ladies with knitting needles, right?) we knit prayer shawls as fast as our fingers can move, and just the other week, one of our rainbirds arrived with a sackful of yarn. She'd found a great sale. We found ourselves comparing stories of where we went and which coupons we used and which store had the best deals for our yarn. We are no dummies when it comes to getting our yarn properly bought! Just yesterday, at Parking Lot Sale, I quickly found that I am the worst bargainer in the entire upcoming Pilgrimage cohort! My philosophy is cash in hand, make me a deal. Not these pilgrims: One woman bought several .25 paperbacks and by the time one of our future pilgrims had finished, we had an extra $20 in hand. Their shrewdness (and frankly, their drive to make an extra deal!) benefitted our future ministry of confirmation and pilgrimage.
Shrewdness can be a good thing. What if we were as shrewd as the dishonest manager, but used that intellect for the benefit of God's people? We can use our brains honorably Our intellect can be used to do Good. Jesus uses exaggeration and humor, to explain that God wants our whole selves and all our brains to be engaged in the good works of ministry. So go forward, abide, and use those wonderful intellects to do good works.