Sunday, September 22, 2019
WHAT MASTER DO YOU SERVE?
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
You know you have a challenge when you open up your commentaries and they each say something to the effect of “this passage causes great problems for the preacher.” Today’s parable of the dishonest manager has bothered people for centuries and in fact bothered Luke for the end of this passage is probably an addition by Luke to try to make some sense of this.
To understand this passage one needs some background on how the economic world worked in the first century. The peasants worked land owned by wealthy landowners. The peasants or farmers owed the landowners a portion of the crop as payment and then the peasants then could sell what was left. In between these two was a class of managers who oversaw this transfer. These middlemen would take their own share of the crop for their use and profit. What often happened was the manager would charge a very high price for his services. As long as the landowner got his cut, he usually didn’t care what the manager took.
Now it is also possible that these were not peasants that the manager was dealing with, but merchants since they could read and write. That is something the average peasant could not do. Also, there is the fact that we are talking about 1000 gallons of olive oil and 1100 bushels of wheat. This would be more than one peasant would produce. It is also possible that these merchants would be willing to talk to the wealthy landowner about how they thought they might be treated unfairly.
Tax collectors of the era worked in a similar fashion and it should be remembered that this set of stories is being told to the Pharisees and Scribes who were criticizing Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners.
Several commentaries mentioned that it was entirely possible that the manager was a slave. Slaves especially those captured during a war might be highly skilled people and this manager might have been a landowner in another country or as a member of some other tribe that had been conquered and put to work managing the affairs of someone who bought him.
Now it is important in the case of the manager to know that he was violating the Torah by charging what was illegal interest in violation of the laws about usury. When he reduced the oil to 50 jugs he was not going to short the landowner, but what he did was reduce what he would have been paid. Cutting 100 jugs down to 50 gives you an idea of just how outrageous his price gouging behavior was.
The other piece in all of this is that the merchants may not have known that this was being done by the shrewd manager by himself and could be thinking how generous the wealthy landowner was being. This now means if the wealthy landowner is viewed very favorably by the merchants that would make it difficult for him to dismiss the shrewd manager.
In his effort to ingratiate himself with the merchants he was bringing his business in line with the Torah. In other words, he was going to stop sinning. This, in the sight of Jesus, is a good thing. No matter the reason he had stopped violating the law of the Torah. This offers one possible reason for being praised for what seemed questionable behavior.
I find myself asking some I wonder questions just like we do with the children in Godly Play. I wonder if the manager kept his job after his master praised him? I wonder if he then ran the business according the rules in Deuteronomy and Leviticus? I wonder if he changed or after this narrow escape, did he go back to the way things were possibly with another master?
Now you can ponder all of those on your own and there is no right or wrong answer. And at this point in writing the sermon I felt much like the Tuesday bible study did at the end of the hour. What in the world is Jesus or possibly Luke trying to teach us
As it happened a brief reflection on this ending section appeared in my inbox from Pastor Steve. Pastor Steve spent a few short verses on the idea of serving more than one master like in verse 13 “No slave can serve two masters.” This takes this story in an entirely different direction but one that is important in today’s world.
God I admit: so often
I am trying to look good.
I’m serving the master of being right.
I’m loyal to the boss of my ego.
But I can walk away from that master.
I am free to serve you,
to belong to your grace alone,
to seek only to receive and give love.
Faithful in small things, to be faithful in great,
I submit to your grace.
Help me each moment to examine my loyalty
and serve only your love, absolutely devoted.
Your love … alone.
Serving the master of being right set in conflict with the master of love. That really stopped me in my tracks. How many of us fall into this little trap? I certainly do. How many times do we do things that fudge around so that we come out looking good? Some may rationalize it as making the best of a bad situation, but often we get hung up with the need to be right.
How many problems in the world come down to a confrontation over who is right and the lengths people will go to, to prove that even when it is clear even to them that they are wrong. I think we could say this is a major sin of the Pharisees. They had a lot invested in their being right. Their power was all supported by being right, the right interpretation of the law. The right way to behave and think. Their power in being the ones who determined what was all right and wrong. Jesus confronted them, challenged them and they just could not admit that they might be wrong. The shame in that honor shame society was too much. We see this in multiple ways in today’s world.
There is a huge power and gift in the ability to say, “I’m sorry, I’m wrong.” Admitting to being wrong can defuse a tense situation. I see this in family arguments all the time. And you might not even have to say I’m wrong, but by being open to hearing the other person out a bridge can be built. Sometimes in talking the situation out you may discover that you are upset about something that the other isn’t even aware is a problem.
As I go through my early times here as your rector I know there will be those oops I was wrong moments. Without knowing it I step on a landmine, a custom, a tradition, that I didn’t know existed. That is unavoidable when you are a new person in a new culture and believe me, there is a lot to learn about Texas culture. However, this takes all of us being willing to step back and say, “I might be wrong” or “maybe I don’t understand what is going on here.” In all of these the call is to talk, talk to me, talk to each other.
Being stuck serving the master of being right puts us in tension with the master of grace and love. So many people are on the outside of church looking in and so often as I reflect on why it is. Only to discover it was because someone in the church was serving the master of being right and a person was hurt, walked out the door and has never returned. Every time that happens, we as the Body of Christ are diminished.
Being faithful in small things in order to be faithful in great. Caring about the little things, the little misunderstandings so that we can be about the bigger job of spreading the gospel in our world. Being willing to set our ego aside in the name of love. What a sea change that would be in today’s world. Listen to yourself this week. Listen to the news, listen to others and see if I have a valid point. I may be wrong, but I think I may be on to something. AMEN