Proper 20 – 9-22–2019 – St. Paul’s
What a confusing parable. Really, it is definitely up there in the top five of weird parables Jesus tells. I am sure that much of what makes this parable seem so strange to me has to do with where I, a middle-class, English-speaking white male, am reading it from, the 21st century United States. I honestly don’t think I could have more things working against my ability to relate to and comprehend this particular message from Jesus. I mean, those are serious stumbling blocks on the road to understanding. I could just throw up my hands and leave it there. Most would probably be okay with that. But then there’s that last paragraph—the paragraph where Jesus says something that sounds like a definitive instruction to his disciples. And it is actually kind of, I mean totally, clear. We are all *gulp* slaves. We cannot serve two masters. I think there is an impulse within us that immediately wants to argue with those two statements, even though they are the clearest in the whole passage. I can hear it now. Slave is just a figure of speech. And, I’m not serving two masters, I’m multi-tasking.
Ultimately, Jesus’ summary of the parable is an indictment of his listeners, a harkening back to the Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, The Lord is One. We have one God. We serve the One God. There are no other gods but our One God. This is a truth that extends not just into our individual beliefs and personal life, but to the life we share in community. When we forget, ignore, or put something/someone else in place of our One God, the community is affected. When something or someone else takes the place of God, our life together shifts and changes in posture, practice, and accountability to one another.
Applying this truth to a life of faith in our world today is not simply a matter of putting God back in our schools or printing In God we trust on our money. Speaking of money, Jesus clearly refers not only to money, but to wealth, saying, You cannot serve God and wealth. This phrase is stated immediately after referencing a slave’s inability to be loyal to two masters. With these statements, we cannot deny that Jesus fully understands the power of wealth and our susceptibility to become slaves to it. What happens when a community shifts from serving the One God, our Creator, and instead serves wealth? What does the administration focus on? What policies and laws take shape?
When we say we believe in God, we harken back to the words of the Shema, that we are a people of the One True God. This powerful, counter-cultural commitment simply does not make sense to most people today. So maybe this strange-mess-of-a-parable has nothing to do with context and everything to do with the fact God’s wisdom is foolishness to us. (I Corinthians) We have bought the message that wealth, belongings, prestige, and beauty deserve our worship. We have bought the message that it is our wealth, power, and rhetoric that make our community strong. Rather than putting our faith in a God of covenant and promise, we put our faith in wealth—the accounting of ever-changing green, black, and red flickering numbers. The more we buy into that message, the more God’s wisdom is convoluted and foolish to us.
Jesus’ strange and startling parable illustrated both for his disciples who were listening and for the eavesdropping religious establishment, that there is a definite distinction between a life lived fixated upon the needs to survive in this world, and a faithful life lived focused on the promises of the kingdom.
The dishonest servant so honed his energies to save himself, on saving his earthly existence, that he didn’t care at all about the fiscal fallout he left behind. The well-heeled master grudgingly congratulated his bad boy on figuring how to manufacture the first century version of a golden parachute.
Jesus’ parable is not about figuring out how to work the system. Jesus’ parable is about how the system no longer works to reflect the new reality of the kingdom. Jesus’ parable is about the life-altering power of the reign of God, of the transforming new reality that is to come, and the necessity for Jesus’ disciples to get ready for it. The future is the primary time zone for the follower of Jesus. The world is shrewd about taking the future into account for selfish interests. Why can’t we be shrewd about taking the future into account for God’s interests? Or as Jesus put it elsewhere, why can’t we be as shrewd as a serpent, but as innocent as a dove?
You might even call this story the It Takes One to Know One parable. Just as it took a wily servant to appreciate and apply the wily ways of his master, so can followers of Jesus recognize and realize the signs of goodness of our Master and take them on as our own.
No matter what we do in this age, we are still living in brokenness, still living off other lives and others’ living. Jesus’ parable is about the limitations of this world, and yet how we work within those limitations and the world’s brokenness. There is no such thing as untainted wealth. All wealth is tainted. Even the wealth of the kingdom of God is tainted in our hands. The wealth of God’s kingdom is a dishonest gift to all of us in this world, because it is always and completely undeserved. It’s not something we’ve worked for, or can attain by works, but something we receive as a free gift of grace.
Will you grow in grace this week? To grow in grace is to grow in something we’ve already been given in never-ending supply. And to grow in grace is to rest in the security of a relationship that has already been substantiated and enacted on our behalf by Jesus’ redeeming our brokenness through his death and resurrection. Because of what he has done, our destiny is glorious, despite our damaged pedigree.
At the end of the passage today, Jesus leaves us with a choice. We can choose to follow the ways of the world and embrace a dishonest life, a self-serving life in which we believe that only we can be the masters of our own future through manipulation and guile. Or we can embrace the dishonest gift of God and be assured of a future full of life and grace.
Be shrewd about your choices. Which will you choose?
This is why we need to be reminded again and again who we are and whose we are. When we serve God, we not only love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, and strength, but we also live out a love for our neighbor and ourselves that transcends social status, abilities, differences, and all other categories we use to divide ourselves from one another. We live as individuals within a community that recognizes the divinity in one another. We live in celebration and support of each sacred life, rather than in competition with someone who might take what we think is due to us. We participate in dialogue for the purpose of understanding and compromise, rather than power and division. We call for laws that benefit the whole community rather than a select few. Above all, we serve no god but God, centering our lives through prayer and service to God’s will rather than our own, freed and empowered by the knowledge that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.
Thomas Merton once wrote: God places in my heart a yes to Him. And that is God’s secret. He knows my yes even when I am not saying it. My destiny in life…is to uncover this yes so that my life is totally and completely a yes to God, a complete assent to God.
Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.
Let us remember, the Word is made flesh and dwells among us. Every moment of every day, God is saying Yes to us. Every moment of every day, God longs for us to say yes back.
Let us pray:
We thank you, Lord, that you stooped to us.
Rather than insist that we somehow climb up to you,
you climbed down to us, got down on our level.
We are gathered here this Sunday
not on the basis of something we have done for you
but solely by the grace of what you have done for us.
You didn’t wait for us to get our lives in order,
for us to become obedient and faithful;
you sought us and found us in our great need.
Thus we praise you for loving, seeking,
for us, sinners all.
In loving us before we knew how to love you,
you really have brought out the best in us.
You have enabled us to cease our pitiful efforts
to make ourselves right for you
and instead enjoy and take comfort in your gracious relating to us, your embrace of us.
God of our hearts,
you are our Physician in times of hurt;
your balm heals our wounds.
You hear our prayers, intercessions and supplications.
Your presence is pleasing to us and we welcome you.
Together in your sanctuary
we rejoice in your embrace
and offer you our boundless praise
Children of a loving God,
our hope is that as we have been faithful with little,
we can be generous in our giving
so that St. Paul’s can be faithful with much.
May our continued work for God’s purposes
be enhanced by the gifts we offer now.
and continue to offer prayers and thanksgiving for everyone.
Be shrewd in dealing with the world around you
but do not be seduced into serving wealth.
Weep for those who suffer
and share faith and truth with all.
And may God welcome you with love;
May Christ Jesus give you knowledge of the truth;
And may the Holy Spirit lead you into all godliness and dignity.
As we go forth with the Blessing of God Almighty….