Sunday, September 18, 2016

Proper 20 C - Sep 18, 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC 
Proper 20 Year C- Sunday, September 18, 2016

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

The shrewd manager
 Today’s collect contrasts being “anxious about earthly things” with “loving things heavenly.” It would be simple to imagine that “loving things heavenly” means some kind of ethereal, spiritual experience. However, the stories Jesus has been telling in Luke’s long narrative of the journey to Jerusalem are earthy, everyday stories that connect to human lives. It’s one of the central ironies of the Christian life that in order to “love things heavenly,” we must turn toward the dust of which we are made, and from there try to envision and build the reign of God. What better way to make the point than with a parable, that grassroots lesson connecting the ordinariness of life with the extraordinary nature of God? None of the parables have baffled interpreters quite like the story of the Dishonest Steward, or perhaps better called the Shrewd Manager.

The story in Luke that comes immediately before today’s story is that of the prodigal son, with the older brother, and the forgiving father. Today’s story may well highlight the same situation: someone in trouble stumbles into grace practically by accident. In the story of the prodigal, the younger son makes very selfish choices that offend nearly everyone, and only comes to his senses when he realizes something must change so that he can survive. Continuing to act in his own self-interest, he returns home, with his speech prepared, only to discover that grace and forgiveness have been waiting for him the whole time, and we have a sense that he may finally get what it means to be loved.

In today’s story, the dishonest manager is in an equally bad situation, and for the same selfish reason. Both son and manager squander the goods of a father and an employer. There was no concern for how their actions would affect others, just for their own gain. When the manager’s employer figures out what he’s done, he continues to act in his own self-interest by cutting deals with his employer’s debtors. His survival depends on them owing him something, because he is sure that manual labor and begging are not options for him. What’s so disturbing to us is that it works! It works even better than he had planned; not only do the people who owe money to his boss get a better deal, the manager himself has regained some status with his employer because of his shrewdness. It’s his shrewdness, not his dishonesty that is commended. He understood how to use what was entrusted to him. In order to be where he wanted to be in the future, how he handled the present counted.

This is crazy, upside-down grace. We who hear this story want him to pay for his dishonesty. What Jesus seems to be highlighting, is not a moral example, but the ridiculous nature of God’s grace, and our call to live in it. Jesus commends the shrewd manager as an example, not for his dishonest dealings, but for his clever solution. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says that if this manager – who is “of this world,” meaning someone whose values are entirely self-oriented – has managed to find his way into a better situation, how much more might his followers do, with the grace of God behind them?

People today are no less lost than they were in the time of Jeremiah,  Jesus, or Luke and many times their quandary is precisely the same. Self-interest blinds people to the harm done to themselves and others. Greed flourishes because insecurity reigns. Fear drives people into rigid defensive postures. No one recognizes their role in turning away from God toward their primary concerns that have replaced God. Being prophetic is more than a matter of speaking truth to power. It is also a matter of speaking truth to suffering, to weakness, to laziness, and to failure to take responsibility.

In the Book of Proverbs, we read: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).  This is the crisis Jesus, Luke, and Jeremiah address in our readings. The chosen people and the children of light, have lost the vision of God. This parable is a call to reclaim who we are and to renew our vision today for the kingdom of God beyond and among us. What Jesus thinks his followers are capable of is what he himself has been busy doing: healing, reconciling, truth-telling, and proclaiming the kingdom. We must be as clever as the manager in today’s gospel, with a different goal: not serving our self-interest, but the best interests of the world that God loves. When we lose sight of the goal, the vision, when we have no idea where we are going, the riches we possess have no larger value than our need for them. In monastic life it is especially easy to lose the vision, the goal, and to slide into complacency.

Today’ gospel is a reminder, for those inside and outside of monasteries, that when we get anxious about and obsessed with money, status, power, and control, we end up using our best skills for ourselves alone. It’s also a reminder that in spite of ourselves, we are bathed in grace and forgiveness. We are called to be shrewd about recognizing grace and forgiveness and sharing it. We are called to love things heavenly, by loving God’s whole creation.

Forgiveness – which is an act, not a feeling – has positive consequences for everyone. We can get hung up on the undeniable fact that the person in the story, or in our lives, is acting dishonestly or manipulatively. We’d like to distance ourselves. But Jesus chooses his story carefully, and this one sticks in the memory precisely because it’s outside the boundaries of any conventional morality tale.

Forgiveness and its consequences are central to the Gospel. No matter who does the forgiving, it’s going to create ever-widening circles of positive consequences. This cycle is initiated by God’s grace toward us. It precedes our entire existence, and if we choose to be kingdom-builders, we begin by accepting God’s grace, and extending forgiveness to others. There is really no other way to transform our limited sense of justice into the expansive sense of God’s justice and mercy. Forgiveness is the engine that drives our journey toward the kingdom, and we who receive it are called to share it freely.


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