September 22, 2013
18th Sunday after Pentecost
"What Is Right"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
The preparations for today's sermon lead me to some interesting places: the worlds of entertainers and their performance requests, which is code for the worlds of - dare I say - weird, odd or at least unlike the world in which many of us live.
Singer Christina Aguilera requests real coffee mugs for her java, along with soy milk, soy cheese, Echinacea, vitamin C and Flintstones chewable vitamins. British hip-hop artist, M.I.A., requests an organic cheese tray featuring cave-aged Gruyere, Swiss and sharp cheddar, along with organic berries, fresh – not canned – olives and Ferrero Rocher chocolates. (Cave-aged Gruyere.) Hip-hop-soul queen, Mary J. Blige, demands that a brand new toilet seat be installed at any venue she plays. Apparently, singer Ben Kweller is really into fishing, so he requests bait on all his buses. (Okay, maybe that one's not so strange.)
What got me to all of those idiosyncrasies was what the rock band Van Halen demands. Each contract insisted that a "bowl of M&M's be provided back stage, but with every single brown M&M removed." If the band arrived and saw that the bowl had any brown M&Ms in it, they were free to cancel the concert and receive full payment. I'm sure that that demand has been waved as extraordinary by a wide variety of writers and venues.
But here's the deal. Van Halen used so much gear, where most bands used three 18-wheelers, they used nine. More gear meant the possibility for more errors - whether it was the girders couldn't support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren't big enough to move the gear through. As a test, buried somewhere in the middle of the rider, would be Article 126, the no-brown-M&Ms clause. If there were brown M&Ms, it meant that no-one read the contract, so it was likely that other safety features would also have been ignored, and they could be life threatening. At one venue, the band found that the local promoters had failed to read the weight requirements and that the staging would have fallen through the arena floor.
By many accounts, this morning's scripture passage is not one of the easiest to decipher, so I've asked Molly to read it from Eugene Peterson's translation called, "The Message." It happened over the dinner Jesus was eating with the disciples, tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and teachers of the law - when he was in the parable-telling mood: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost - or prodigal - son - and then this one, the one that is sometimes called the Parable of the Shrewd Manager and at other times the Parable of the Dishonest Manager.
Luke 16:1-13 The Message
16 1-2 Jesus said to his disciples, “There was once a rich man who had a manager. He got reports that the manager had been taking advantage of his position by running up huge personal expenses. So he called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? You’re fired. And I want a complete audit of your books.’
3-4 “The manager said to himself, ‘What am I going to do? I’ve lost my job as manager. I’m not strong enough for a laboring job, and I’m too proud to beg. . . . Ah, I’ve got a plan. Here’s what I’ll do . . . then when I’m turned out into the street, people will take me into their houses.’
5 “Then he went at it. One after another, he called in the people who were in debt to his master. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 “He replied, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ “The manager said, ‘Here, take your bill, sit down here—quick now—write fifty.’ 7 “To the next he said, ‘And you, what do you owe?’ “He answered, ‘A hundred sacks of wheat.’ “He said, ‘Take your bill, write in eighty.’
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.”
10-13 Jesus went on to make these comments: If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; If you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things. If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store? No worker can serve two bosses: He’ll either hate the first and love the second Or adore the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and the Bank.
Thank you, Molly. Does anyone else have a bit of confusion about this passage? I think most people get the last part, about being honest in all things and the reminder that we don't serve God and the bank, but we serve God thru the bank. But I can't be the only one that wants to scratch the noggin when it comes to what Jesus is trying to say about this rich man and his manager.
It seems that the "hero" Jesus is holding up is an anti-hero. It seems that he's a crook, a swindler, a cheat. It seems that there is making "honor among thieves" a virtue. In the discomfort of this passage, I, like many who "preach," find it easier to avoid the hard part, and settle for the easier part. But sometimes, life ain't so easy to avoid.
We can rule out the obvious: Clearly the point here is not that any form of theft, cheating, swindling, or dishonesty is a good thing. Jesus just wouldn't change horses - and then back again - for such a brief moment in the middle of his ministry river.
When I started looking at the first two verses, I wondered if there might be a piece about "things that happen without our being able to defend ourselves" in this passage. After discovering the fraud, the landowner fires the manager, and the manager doesn't get a chance to defend himself - except through the audit that he's to make. Yes, this is a parable, but we all know real people to whom "things happen," and they have no recourse to undo the damage. An untrue accusation - once released from the lips - cannot be rescinded, and if the accusation is bad enough, it can hang on a person like a mold and/or stink that just won't go away. But then there's the rest of the story.
So I wondered if there might be a case for the idea of "taking realistic stock of what I/we are able/capable of - vs. life as pie-in-the-sky. My mom's health has been deteriorating a lot, so says my sister and brother-in-law - and her doctors. But if I or any of you were to ask, she's doing just fine, thank you, very much! At least the manager had the ability to realize his reality: calling his pride what it was and not over-estimating his strength. But the rest of the story doesn't really support such a stretched thesis.
Remember the mention about this passage being the continuation of the dinner party with all the folks - the "in" and the "out" crowd? Maybe there is something here about seeing people - only what they look like on the surface - and those that do what seems "wrong" can be easier to dismiss as the kinds of folks with whom we don't care to associate. Perhaps the larger issue has to do with realizing that God gives us all those around us, that we might become richer in our own being as well as in the body of Christ. While that point may be relevant for someone today, just like all Jesus' parables, there is more to it.
It wasn't uncommon for powerful business folk to hold a monopoly on resources to manipulate their books to make it appear as though their debtors owed more than they actually did. Incidentally, few people know that our manager's name was N. Ron. Anyway, in order for a wealthy businessman to pad his pockets for an extra profit here or there, he would need a business manager that was also less than scrupulous. Who wouldn't understand a less-than-honest steward of a less-than-honest business being inclined to make a little nice padded landing for himself as well? Realizing that he had been out-gamed by a gamer, the landowner had to begrudgingly respect the guy for it. And after all that, Jesus points out that none of this earthly wealth mattered all that much anyway. How much money we have means nothing to God. How we conduct ourselves around money, however, that is different. And you know the rest.
I wonder if part of the lesson in this story is about being uncomfortable - especially with some people. One of the analogies that made some sense came from the movie, Schindler's List. It's about the heroic efforts of a German business man named Oskar Schindler, who bought Jewish people to work in his factory - a factory which was supposed to be part of the military machine of Germany. On one hand, he was buying people. I believe that is called slavery in some places. On another hand, each Jewish person that Schindler bought was saved from the concentration camps or death. (In the end, he was able to divert over 1,000 Jewish people from Auschwitz. When the Germans surrendered, he told his workers they were free to go.) Oh, and he deliberately sabotaged the ammunition that was produced in his factory. Entering the war as a financially wealthy industrialist resulted in bankruptcy at the end of it. To accomplish such a thing, Mr. Schindler had to act in ways that were not what any of us might call "upstanding." And yet, we applaud the end result.
When you get past what Jesus said about being like the manager, and see what he said after that - well now we begin to see a horse of a different color. He said, "I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival.
By and large, we know what is right. Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm apple crisp and cold whipping cream are good for you. Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some. And draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work everyday some. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
Let us pray. Gracious God of Mercy and Compassion, we thank you for giving us minds - that we might understand you and the world you've given us - just a bit more. We thank you for the things in this life that make sense and breed a feeling of rightness. And for whatever reasons, Lord, there are things in this world that seem to whittle away at us, complicated things, grey things, sometimes even people. We know that we cannot change the world all by ourselves, so help us find those that can help us use every adversity to stimulate us to creative survival - not just for our sakes, but for your glory, too. For all your provisions and blessings, all your people say, Amen.