Did Anyone Get a Ten-Spot?!

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church
19 September 2010 / Proper 20C (Luke 16:1-13)
To download an audio version of this sermon, click here.

Imagine walking into church one day – or the grocery store or your child’s school or a local pub – I guess what I’m trying to say is location doesn’t matter. But for the sake of expediency, imagine walking into church one day and receiving a $1 bill.[i] Your reactions of course might vary. Maybe you’d look around you to see if someone had dropped it. You might wonder if it was a mistake; if perhaps you’d been mistaken for somebody else. Then, as you saw the confused looks on other faces, you’d perhaps begin to realize that everyone received a bill. Weird. What does it mean? Are we supposed to give it back? Maybe we are supposed to give it to someone else? Are we supposed to put it in the offering plate? Is it ours to keep? What did we do to earn it? And, for some of us, the smart-aleck ones (and we know who we are), we might wonder, did anyone get a ten-spot?! And, in this state of wonderment and confusion, our questions go unanswered as we focus our hearts and minds on worshipping our God.

I think for the Pharisees and the Scribes and, most likely, the disciples too, being with Jesus caused this same kind of confusion. And Jesus’ parables were meant, at least in part, as a response. Last week, we heard the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin- how the shepherd will hold nothing back to seek out the one lost sheep and upon finding it will carry it back to the flock; how the woman will search diligently – moving furniture and lighting lamps – until she finds that one lost coin.[ii] We heard these stories and understood them to mean that God’s desire to be in relationship with us is so strong that he will risk it all to bring us back – to take us back – to reclaim us as children of God. When we heard last week’s parables, we intuitively knew that the stories were not about sheep or about lost coins at all – they were about God’s relationship with God’s people.

This week’s reading offers a greater challenge for contemporary readers – and perhaps it did for Jesus’ followers as well.[iii] Here we have an odd store of a rich man and his manager. The manager has been accused of squandering the rich man’s property and so he is being fired. But before he leaves the job, the rich man wants an accounting of his management. We don’t know for certain, but this is how many of us believe this business system worked: the business owner earned his money by selling for a profit, much like business owners in our own society make their money. The manager, however, made his money directly from the customers by collecting even more. In other words, the manager was not paid out of the owner’s profit. So, when the manager sits down with the customer who owes 100 jugs of olive oil and tells him to make it fifty, it is likely that the owner is still receiving his full profit. It is the manager who will go away empty handed - making nothing on the transaction. Likewise when he tells the customer who owes 100 containers of wheat to make it eighty, it is likely that the owner will still receive his full profit. Again, only the manager will go without payment. And so the owner commends the “dishonest” manager for his shrewdness; after all, the owner has received what is his.

This commendation for dishonesty and shrewdness is what typically throws modern readers for a loop. What are we to make of it? On the one hand, it is possible that Jesus’ point in telling the story is to condemn the manager for his financial dishonesty. The concluding line of today’s reading points in that direction: “you cannot serve God and wealth.”[iv] But, I think there is something greater here. The Rev. Thomas Brackett, the Episcopal Church Center’s Missioner for Church Planting, suggests an alternative reading. For Brackett, a new reading of the parable is available to us if we understand the facts of the story to be already familiar to the people of Jesus’ time - the equivalent of a local headline – “Dishonest Manager Fired by Rich Man.” Unfortunately for the contemporary reader, MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN have all gotten hold of the facts and each has put their unique spin on the story and now we have the story as it appears in Luke’s Gospel with facts, opinions, and multiple layers of meaning thrown in for good measure – all of which makes it difficult for us to figure out Jesus’ point.[v]  

But we do have some clues. In the first place, the story appears immediately after the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal sons.[vi] Each of those stories was told to answer the Pharisees and Scribes anger that Jesus had the audacity to forgive sinners, the audacity to take on himself a role – that of forgiver of sins – that only belongs to God. Today’s gospel begins by telling us that Jesus is talking to the disciples; however, if we read just one verse beyond today’s pericope we are told, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.”[vii] That one verse, in my mind, makes all the difference as it connects this story to the previous three suggesting that as those earlier stories were not about sheep and coins, so this story is not about money and its management.

All of these stories are about grace and forgiveness. Today’s parable tells the story of a manager who squanders the owner’s property showing dishonesty and shrewdness, acting without regard to social mores, without regard to laws. And, it is the story of Jesus who, in the eyes of the Pharisees and Scribes, is squandering what is God’s – that is forgiveness - without regard to social mores and without regard to religious laws. Mores and laws which would, in the first place, Jesus has no right to dole out forgiveness and, in the second place, would say that sinners - tax collectors and prostitutes, you and me – are most certainly not deserving of such forgiveness. It is a story of Jesus squandering forgiveness – showing reckless abandon - in showering all people with mercy, with grace, and with love.

Do you remember the manager’s response upon learning that the owner is about to fire him? He says to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg” - there is absolutely nothing I can do to earn my way.[viii]  And isn’t that the way you and I feel when we face God’s amazing love? For there is absolutely nothing you or I can do to earn our way into God’s heart, into God’s kingdom.

A couple of weeks’ ago, Pastor Mark Marius from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Wildwood introduced me to a song called “Mystery of Mercy” by Caedmon’s Call. The verses speak powerfully of our role in the salvation story:

I am the woman at the well, I am the harlot
I am the scattered seed that fell along the path
I am the son that ran away
And I am the bitter son that stayed.

I am the angry man who came to stone the lover
I am the woman there ashamed before the crowd
I am the leper that gave thanks
but I am the nine that never came
And, with the same conviction, the refrain speaks powerfully of God’s role in that same story of salvation:

My God, my God why hast though accepted me
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King?
My God, my God why hast though accepted me
It’s a mystery of mercy and the song, the song I sing.[ix]
There is absolutely nothing we can do to earn our way into God’s heart. We are not strong enough to dig and we are ashamed to beg. So, how can we respond? What can we do? Our questions go unanswered as we focus our hearts and minds on worshipping our God – a God who squanders love on sinners like you and like me with reckless abandon.

[i] In fact, parishioners at St. Mary's this morning did receive a $1 bill in their bulletins.
[ii] Luke 15:1-10.
[iii] Luke 16:1-13.
[iv] Luke 16:13.
[v] Thomas Brackett, “Jesus the Rogue Rabbi,” Day1 (a ministry of the Alliance for Christian Media) accessed here on 14 September 2010.
[vi] Luke 15.
[vii] Luke 16:14.
[viii] Luke 16:3.
[ix] Caedmon's Call, "Mystery of Mercy," Back Home (2003).