Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity 18.09.16
I must admit that when I first looked at the readings for today, I saw the opportunity for a real tub-thumper of a sermon denouncing the powerful and corrupt. Visions of Philip Green, Donald Trump, Robert Mugabe, and countless other rich men who keep getting away with it flashed before my eyes. I was practically rubbing my hands at the thought of trying to be a latter-day Amos. What fun it always is to denounce the wicked from the standpoint of the righteous.
But then I recalled Miriam’s powerful sermon last Sunday. Do you remember when she said the Pharisees did – and then she paused, and changed it to the Pharisees DO – such and such? In the light of the atrocities of 9/11 and the years that have followed, it is all too easy to see sin on one side and innocence on the other. But we are all guilty. The Church of God is a church of sinners, and that includes you and me.
The week before last, several of us went to St Paul’s Cathedral to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber talk about finding God in the all the wrong people. Nadia has even more tattoos and piercings than Timothy and is a Lutheran pastor. She has founded a church in Denver called the House for All Sinners and Saints. The church’s website says that it is “a group of folks figuring out how to be a liturgical, Christo-centric, social justice-oriented, queer-inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent, ancient / future church with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination”. One thing Nadia is very clear about is the shockingly generous grace of God. In her talk she pictured a heaven where she would be sandwiched between Donald Trump and a racist, and said how she hated the very thought of it. But God doesn’t respect our squeamishness, and God refuses to give up on any of us. God seeks us out, without waiting for us to become perfect.
The other day at Morning Prayer we read a letter of Bishop Cyprian of Carthage in the 3rd century. He spoke about accepting the gospel as something not laboured over and learned but simply “inhaled in one gulp by a sudden act of grace”. So given that we are all sinners who have inhaled this good news and find ourselves, perhaps greatly to our surprise, as citizens of God’s kingdom, what do we do with these difficult readings today? I have to acknowledge that the Bible stories are once again, as usually seems to be the case, aimed not at my enemies but at me.
Let’s start with the letter to Timothy, which is pretty straightforward. We are told to pray “for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Perhaps it’s not welcome, but it is a perfectly clear instruction. No getting up on one’s high horse and condemning the people whose politics we don’t like. No post-Brexit recriminations in either direction. No demonizing the voters who support someone we regard as beyond the pale. We are to hold everyone, including our political masters and our opponents, in love. We don’t have to agree with them, but we do have to pray for them. We ask God to help those in power to seek the common good, another phrase for a quiet and peaceable life with godliness and dignity. And we then have to do our bit as good citizens to be involved and active in the service of that common good. So I know that I personally must put on one side all that enjoyable carping at Donald Trump. After all, as Nadia Bolz-Weber said, one day I may meet him in heaven.
What about Amos, then? A couple of years ago I stood beside the threshing floor of the little village of Tekoa, where this trimmer of sycamore trees was called to be a prophet of God, and what a colourful preacher he turned out to be, flaying the rich who defraud the poor. Well, I can get on board with that. Except that when I look at my own circumstances, I have to realize that in a global perspective, I am one of the rich he is talking about.
You don’t have to own a London property or have a massive pension fund to be part of the richest 10% of people on earth. A joint household income of just over £50,000 puts you in this bracket. And anyone in this country with an education, a roof over their head, free health care, enough to eat, clean water and the prospect of a state pension is unimaginably wealthy compared to at least half of the global population.
Well, that certainly includes me. So Amos is talking to me. Do my consumer choices swallow up the needy? Do I feel I’ve done enough if I buy fairly traded products and sign some online petitions? Or do I need to do more? We have spent a lot of time in this church learning about the financial quandaries of many people in our own incredibly rich and fortunate country. Unmanageable debt, reliance on food banks, benefit cuts, insecure housing are daily realities for our neighbours. This parish is halfway down the national deprivation index, a reality that it is easy for us to overlook if we are comfortably situated. And on a wider scale, the world is failing to adequately educate half of the younger generation. If we were wise stewards, we would not allow that situation to continue into the future, with all the frustration and resentment that are bound to follow.
That brings us to Luke’s puzzling story of the unjust steward. And this needs a bit of background information in order to make any sense of it. It’s an example of how we can’t immediately claim to understand the literal meaning of a story that is told in a very different context from ours.
The rich man does not represent God or Jesus. He is an absentee landlord, the kind of person no one likes very much. In the Holy Land today you can see the effects of this pattern of distant ownership. There are houses in Jerusalem where Palestinians have been living for generations that have been sold without their knowledge to Israeli settlers by fellow Arabs who have prospered and moved to other countries.
So the rich owner has gone away and left things to his manager, who is expected to make a tidy profit for him and increase his wealth. The manager does this by hiding the interest charged on loans, interest which is forbidden by the Jewish prohibition of usury. Debt was recorded in terms of wheat and oil, rather than money, to get round the rules. A debt of 80 gallons of olive oil is written up as 100 gallons, and the merchant who has incurred the debt will have to pay this hidden interest. So when the manager changes the IOU back to 80 gallons, it is his master who will lose the dishonest profit. Strangely enough, the manager gets away with it. It seems that his shrewd and decisive action is admired even by his boss, who loses financially. Perhaps, say some commentators, the owner was able to use his manager’s action to demonstrate what an ethical master he was, keeping to the rules about not grinding the poor. He could preen himself and take all the moral credit for his employee’s shrewdness. It was the manager who restored justice to an unjust system.
But there is another option for reading this story – indeed, there are many, as this story has been called “the prince among the difficult parables” and has kept biblical scholars going for centuries. It may be saying that the values of the kingdom of God are not like the values of this world. A master who is cheated by his manager would normally punish him, not commend him. But in this story the outcome is surprising. Forgiveness, love and acceptance seem to be the fate of cheats rather than the punishment they deserve.
Textual criticism of this difficult story is fascinating. But at the end of the day, it is not just a text to study but a message to me and to you, sinners all, and we have to try to find what it is saying to each one of us. It is material for meditation and reflection.
My personal hunch is that for me, the take-home message is about not being fearful, like the Pharisees who were Jesus’ audience. I can learn from the manager to be shrewd and responsive to difficult situations, and to take decisive action that will help someone in need rather than hide behind the rules of an institution or the fear of offending authority. It may say something rather different to you, depending on your own personality and situation.
This is not to say that scripture can mean just anything we fancy, but that it is something with which we have a dynamic and personal relationship. I am glad that there are puzzling and difficult stories in the Bible. If it were a book of glib and pious clichés, like some of the more sentimental greetings cards, it would not force us to engage with it. And it’s quite all right to throw up our hands and say we have no idea what we are supposed to learn from a particular passage. Another time in our lives, the same passage may shake our foundations or bring us hope and comfort.
If the Unjust Steward has grabbed your attention, you may like to come to Preaching & Pints at 6 pm tonight when Timothy will be wrestling with it at greater length. But whether you come tonight or not, I encourage you to spend some time puzzling over this strange passage, and the other two rather more direct readings from this morning. Remember that they are not an academic exercise but a dialogue, and they are addressed to you and me.