The Gospel according to Deeds and Scrooge

(sermon 9/29/19)

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

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For the past several weeks, the Lectionary has focused on this section of Luke’s gospel, which is a series of Jesus’ teachings that deal directly or indirectly with wealth and possessions – how to prioritize them, and how to use them. This theme starts in the 11th chapter of Luke, but it really ramps up in chapters 15 and 16, where we’ve heard about risking what we have safely in hand to do the good of saving something that’s lost, in the stories of the shepherd’s lost sheep and the widow’s lost coin; and even though we skipped over it, immediately after that in the gospel is the parable of the prodigal son; then comes the parable of the dishonest manager, which we heard last week; and now this parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the rich man’s torment in the afterlife because of the way he kept his wealth to himself and ignored the suffering of Lazarus. Apparently in an attempt to drive his point even further home, Jesus names the suffering man in this story – actually the only time he gives a character in his parables any name at all – Lazarus, which literally mean “God helps.”

This whole extended section of Luke can be troubling for Western Christians in general, and us American Christians in particular, because it offers some harsh assessments and warnings for affluent people, and we all recognize that even the least financially secure among us are actually wealthy by global standards.

And this particular story can also be a bit troubling for most of us Protestants in traditions that originated in the Protestant Reformation, who profess that we’re saved by grace through faith, and faith alone, and not by works – but the only two times that Jesus offers any detail about what the final judgment would be like – in Matthew 25 and here – what we do in this life seems to be a major factor, if not the only factor, in that calculus.

Taken together, these stories remind us that while we should all strive for a reasonable amount of comfort and financial stability, each increasing level of that that we attain comes with increasing moral expectations, and an increasing potential for us to develop skewed priorities. We all know the old saying, the more you have, the more you want. We strive to achieve some level of wealth and possessions that we think will make us happy, and if we’re fortunate enough to achieve that goal, we immediately reset the goalposts and think that if we only reached that *new* goal, then we’d be really happy. And at every level that we achieve, we become more concerned about protecting and preserving what we have, and not necessarily using it to help others – and there is the real risk that Jesus hones in on in this parable. The rich man saw Lazarus, and his suffering, every single day, and he had the means to do something about it, but didn’t. He was too interested in using his wealth strictly for himself and his own priorities.

This gradual ratcheting up of working to preserve our wealth, our stuff, isn’t any real surprise to us. In fact, we’ve all experienced it in our own lives, in one way and at one time or another. Still, it is worth reflecting on, and examining ourselves from time to time, and asking ourselves if that attitude of overvaluing our wealth, and our comfort, and our stuff, over the lives and well-being of others has crept into our mindsets.

In this parable, Jesus frames the issue in terms of judgment and eternity. But eternity dwells in the present, too, and that judgment that Jesus refers to deals not only with whether you treated others well in this life, but whether you treated yourself well, too – and by that, I don’t mean in terms of material comfort and enjoyment, but rather, if you lived a life of spiritual wellness and shalom that God designed you for, and intended for you to enjoy and be grateful for.

It doesn’t matter if you believe that God has laid out a specific, detailed path for your life, or if you believe that God gives us a bit more agency than that, but then guides us and helps us after we’ve decided on our path. In either of those options, it seems pretty clear that God wants us to live that path, whatever it is, in a certain way, a way that’s best for others and is best and most fulfilling for ourselves, too. Just as racism, or any other -ism, hurts both the oppressed and the oppressor, living life in a way that’s best for others ends up being best for ourselves, too.

In 2002, Adam Sandler starred in the movie “Deeds,” a remake of the old Gary Cooper film “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” Sandler plays a simple, good-hearted small-town guy who suddenly inherits a controlling interest in a huge multinational corporation, and he’s forced to swim in those unfamiliar, shark-infested waters. It was a silly, lightweight movie, some feel-good cotton candy for the brain, and while it had its funny moments, it wasn’t nearly as good as the original. But in one scene near the end of the movie, Sandler’s character is speaking to a roomful of rich, powerful, and cynical stockholders at the corporation’s annual meeting, and he asks them to think about their lives and how they’d turned out. He asked them to think about what they’d always wanted to be when they were a kid – what they wanted to do with their lives, before they’d allowed themselves to become consumed by just making a lot of money. One by one, they shared their real life’s dreams, of what they wanted to be, how they wanted to do something good and meaningful and constructive in the world, independent of the money they might earn from it. Of course, it was just a sappy movie, so everyone had a change of heart and they all voted the way Sandler wanted them to.

Well, Jesus’ words in this parable are a warning, but they’re an invitation, too – an invitation to look at our own lives, no matter what stage of life we’re in and no matter what level of wealth we have, and to ask if our current priorities are the ones that we believe would please God – priorities where we love God, show compassion to others, and proper stewardship of creation – and that, in the process, will lead us into that life of shalom for ourselves. And if the answer that we arrive at is that no, we don’t have the priorities that we should, we can have hope, because with God’s help, we can fix that. The script of our lives isn’t finalized yet. Borrowing from the storyline of a much better known story than Sandler’s movie, our lives are like Ebenezer Scrooge learning that the images that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come showed him aren’t images of what will happen, but what *could* happen if things didn’t change. Maybe call it the Gospel according to Scrooge – things weren’t cast in stone; he could rewrite them. And so can we.

So sometime, maybe today, maybe later this week, I invite you to do that exercise. Think about your life. Have you allowed the pursuit of wealth, of security, of comfort, of stuff, to cloud your vision, your sense of purpose, your understanding of what a truly fulfilling life would be?

If you conclude that it has, don’t worry. God has promised to help you; you can make the changes you might need to make to have that fulfillment in life. In some cases, it might not be easy. In some cases, it might take courage. But don’t be afraid to try to make that change, because Christ himself has promised to help guide you through that, to give you the strength and courage you need to pursue that life of fulfillment, contentment, shalom, both in the here and now, and in the life hereafter.

Thanks be to God.

The Awkward Moment

(sermon 9/22/19)

awkward

Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

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We’ve probably all been in a situation where we’re in some social gathering and someone is talking, maybe telling a story, and you’re pretty sure you know where the person is going and what they’re going to say before they even say it – but then there’s this awkward moment where they say something completely different. It isn’t at all what you expected; it catches you off guard, and sometimes, depending on what it is that they said, you really aren’t sure how to respond to it. I’m pretty sure that that’s exactly what happened to the people who had gathered around Jesus when he told them this parable, what’s become known as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. Jesus’ audience was almost exclusively people who had grown up within the Jewish faith, and Jewish traditions, and one of the fascinating recurring themes in the Hebrew scriptures, and therefore, of our own, is the concept of the Trickster – usually, the trickster is someone who has been the victim of an injustice, who uses their wits and their creativity to come up with a way to get justice from their oppressor through deceit and trickery. As just one example, Tamar, in the Book of Genesis, would be an example of the trickster in the way she used trickery to get justice from her father-in-law, Judah. Jacob played the part of the trickster in a number of stories; so did David, and a host of others. Whoever it was, and whatever the circumstances, there are many biblical stories of a trickster obtaining what they want over against an opponent who was more powerful and unbeatable using conventional means. In these Even when they were seriously breaking the rules and norms or society, the trickster was always highly regarded, the hero or heroine of the story, because they provided validation. They offered the hope that a powerless person, or a powerless people, as the Jews have been many times in history, could still triumph over their more powerful oppressors.

So Jesus’ listeners were totally familiar and comfortable with a story that would be about a trickster who used deceit and intelligence to correct an injustice. But as Jesus tells this trickster story, his listeners heard something very different. They had their own awkward moment. In this story, we hear about a manager who uses trickery and deceit for a very different purpose.

In the way that most of us have heard this story, and we’ve all heard it many times, it seems really jarring. Unfair. Completely at odds with what we’ve probably been taught to expect Jesus to say.

Let’s take the story apart for a moment. The characters in the story are the rich man, his manager, and a group of people who are in debt to the rich man. When we think about the story from the viewpoint of the rich man – and as people of relative financial comfort and well-being ourselves, we often do – the manager’s actions were obviously, clearly unfair and unethical. The manager was giving away debts that people owed to him; how could that be right? Many biblical commentators have suggested that the rich man was dishonest, and was cheating his debtors, so when the manager cut the bills, he was only adjusting them to what they should realistically have been. Other people have suggested that the manager essentially worked on commission, getting a percentage of each of the transactions, and that he wasn’t really giving away any of the rich man’s money, only the money that would have been his. There have been any number of similar explanations to get the manager, and by extension, Jesus, off the hook for what he says in the story. Personally, I like looking at stories from multiple angles, and using imagination to fill in gaps to come up with creative ways of looking at and understanding them. But I’ve got to say that as valuable a tool as that can often be, I don’t really buy any of those explanations in this case. And I’ll be honest; I’ve preached on this text before offering up explanations similar to the ones I just mentioned. But for some reason, when I read the story this time around, I heard it differently. As I read it again this time, I thought that those explanations were a stretch with little of no evidence to support them, and that I think end up denying or at least obscuring a couple of points that I think Jesus was really trying to make.

The first of those points has to do with Jesus’ comment to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” That might just be the most jarring comment Jesus is ever recorded as saying anywhere in the gospels. Unless… unless Jesus was speaking from the standpoint of understanding that in some way or another, *all* wealth is somehow inherently dishonest. Now bear with me here; I’m not losing my mind, and I’m not suggesting we all stop trying to earn a living or working for financial stability, far from it. But I don’t really think it’s a stretch to admit that, no matter how personally ethical or socially responsible we might be in how we earn and spend our money, somewhere in the grand, overall web of interrelated economic transactions that ultimately result in our income, our wealth, there have been, and continue to be, dishonest practices, unethical dealings, unjust treatment of people in order to maximize profit, at any number of places along the way, and in both past and present. And no matter how aware and careful we are, or what retail stores  we might not shop at, or whose chicken sandwiches we won’t eat, or what brands we avoid for unethical business practices, even though it’s good to do all of those things, none of us can ever really, completely avoid it. All of our income is ethically tainted in some way or another, and we really ought to admit it. It’s inescapable. Unavoidable. It’s just a reality of living life on this side of the gates of Eden. So now maybe Jesus’ words don’t sound so harsh, if those words are based on his presumption of that reality. Of course, then, we’re called as Christ-followers, to use that “dishonest” wealth to pursue the principles of the kingdom of God. So that’s point one.

As important as that point is, though, I think the second point is even more important. Maybe the biggest difficulty that we have with this parable is that we’re looking at the situation through the wrong person’s eyes. Maybe we need to have an awkward moment of another kind, one where we realize that instead of looking at it through the eyes of the rich man, or the manager, maybe Jesus intended the story to be heard from the viewpoint of the people who owed those debts to the rich man. I mean, really, the odds are that the people who were listening to him that day were a lot more likely to have been debt-owing poor people than rich ones. And if you’re one of the debtors in the story, wouldn’t it sound wonderful to have big chunks of your debt erased? Not because you didn’t really owe the debt, you did, but for some reason completely out of your control and not because you actually did anything to earn it, to just be taken off the hook for it? Imagine if you woke up one morning and discovered that somebody had just paid off half your mortgage, or your student debt, or your credit card bill, for no reason at all, and no strings attached – just because. A complete gift. Clearly, someone who’d had a person do that for them would be very grateful, and very loyal to the person who’d given them that gift, just as the debtors in the story were grateful to the manager. Well I hope it doesn’t seem too offensive, but I think that of we look at this story from that angle, the character that we’ve come to call the “Dishonest Manager” is actually a representative of Christ himself.

Simply put, I think that what Jesus is trying to teach in this story is the concept grace. The manager extends grace, unearned mercy, to the debtors, and for doing so, the rich man is pleased with the manager, in spite of the fact that it would seem illogical for him to do so. And Jesus extends a similar kind of unearned mercy to us, and God is pleased with him for having done so – causing reconciliation by way of unilaterally forgiving a debt owed. And Jesus instructs his listeners to extend that same kind of unearned mercy to others, and that it’s the extension of this kind of grace to others, through whatever means we have available to us – “dishonest wealth” or otherwise – and that that pleases God.

Now, I realize that looking at this parable in that way has its limitations. Like any parable, it isn’t a perfect one-to-one analogy, and it can certainly be stretched too far. I realize that God was never upset with Jesus, like the rich man was with the manager, and I know Jesus wasn’t extending grace to debtors in order to feather his own nest, like the manager in the story did. And I know that we don’t teach that Jesus came to take away fifty percent of the sins of the world, or twenty percent, like the manager in the story did, but all of them. Still, I think the most important thing we can all do is listen to this story, to really hear it, from the standpoint of the debtors. Because don’t we pray, every Sunday morning, that that’s exactly what we are in the eyes of God? “Forgive us our debts…”? And if we really think that we are debtors to God, then this parable shouldn’t make us feel awkward – in fact, maybe it should be our favorite parable of all.

Thanks be to God