An Unsettling Story

The Sermon starts at about 6:45


As I’ve told you before, I love parables.  If I wasn’t tied to the assigned readings in the weekly lectionary, I would almost certainly preach a sermon on a parable every time I stepped into a pulpit.  I love how simple they are.  How Jesus relies on common images from his time and place to share deep truths.  I love how impossible they are.  How the simple message that we think we take away from Jesus is never what are actually meant to learn.  I love how they rattle around inside my head for days and weeks on end.  I love how, even two-thousand years later, I can still find ways to enter into many of the parables that Jesus told.

I’ve long been a fan of Eugene Peterson’s description of parables as narrative time bombs; only exploding with meaning sometime down the road.  Recently, I’ve found another way to describe them that while less grandiose, is certainly equally true.  Jake Owensby, the Bishop of Western Louisiana, in his book A Resurrection Shaped Life, defines parables as “unsettling stories that invite us to rethink some of our basic assumptions.”  Today’s Gospel lesson, commonly called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is meant to be just such an unsettling story.  The basic gist of it seems fairly straight forward.  The younger son tells his dad that he wishes his dad was dead.  He takes what would be his inheritance, leaves town, and wastes it on women and whiskey.  One day, while dreaming of eating the slop he was feeding to the pigs, he has something of a come to Jesus moment, repents, and returns to his father’s good graces, only to have his older, more responsible brother, look down his nose at the whole situation.  In this parable’s most simplistic reading, the older brother serves as the lens through which Jesus seems to challenge our basic assumptions about what is right and wrong, fair and unfair, but in its most simplistic reading, I’m not sure that this parable is truly unsettling.  What’s really makes this story uncomfortable requires us to pay careful attention to three things: to whom Jesus is telling this parable, what really happened in that pig pen, and how the story ends.

The parable commonly called the Prodigal Son is the third of three parables Jesus tells back-to-back-to-back.  The lectionary skips over the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, but does give us the context for the stories.  Jesus was hanging out with tax collectors and known sinners.  Not only that, but he was eating with them.  They would have dipped their bread into the same bowl of oil and smeared it across a common plate of hummus.  The clean and unclean didn’t share meals in that way, and the Pharisees, whose job it was to interpret what was kosher and what wasn’t, made sure he knew about it.  In response, Jesus told them three parables about things that had been lost being found.  One sheep out of a hundred was lost, and the shepherd searched the ends of the earth to find it.  When he did, he threw a massive party to celebrate.  One silver coin out ten was lost, and the woman overturned her whole house to find it.  When she did, she threw a massive party to celebrate.  One son out of two was lost, and the father kept scanning the horizon searching for any sign that his boy might return home.  We he did, he threw a massive party to celebrate.  The first unsettling lesson we learn from this parable is that no matter who might want to be the judge of who is in and who is out, God is ready to throw a massive party in heaven for every stupid sheep, every seemingly worthless coin, and every ingrate child.

In each of the first two parables, Jesus is quick to mention that the lavish parties are representative of the joy that is experienced by God and all the angels each time one sinner repents.  In our parable, however, the word repentance is never mentioned.  Here, when the lost one is actually a human being who has some agency in his own return, we hear nothing about repentance.  Instead, the unsettling truth of that pig pen is that the younger son might still be a gigantic jerk.  In fact, I think this is the most likely reading of the text.  Notice how it all plays out.  After squandering all of his inheritance on “dissolute” living, the foreign land to which he had moved fell into a famine.  Not only did his funds run out, but the bottom fell out on the economy at the same time.  Everybody was hungry, so begging didn’t do any good.  The best job he could find was working on a swine farm feeding the pigs.  Can you imagine how awful life must be when you are looking longingly at the food that pigs are eating?  Jesus doesn’t say that the younger son repented, but rather in that moment of desperation, the younger son “came to himself.”  He returned to his senses and remembered that back home there was a farm full of food and even the hired hands had more than enough to eat.  So, he concocted a plan in which he would return home, say all the right things, and even if his dad would only take him back as a slave, at least he’d have food in his belly.  This, to me, is where the story becomes truly unsettling.  Is it possible that what Jesus is saying here is that God will throw a party even for those whose return to relationship seems to come with questionable intentions?  Is it possible that God is perpetually scanning the horizon, waiting to welcome home even those who are still stuck in their sinful ways simply because they’ve come searching for something more?  Given the crowd Jesus is accused of hanging out with, perhaps the second unsettling lesson we learn from this parable is that God is always ready to welcome us home, whether or not we’re here for the right reasons.

As the party unfolds, the fatted calf is slaughtered and the finest wines are poured.  The older brother returns from a day of hard work in the field only to find that his good-for-nothing brother is back and his dad is wasting more money on a party for him.  You can feel his indignation as he stands outside, listening to the festivities inside, and sneering his complaint to the old man. “I’ve been working like a slave for you, and you’ve never given me so much as a young goat to have a party.  But this son of yours.  He treated you as if you were dead.  He made you sell our land, lay off our workers, and lose our prestige in the community so that he could go off and waste your money, and for him you’ve killed the fatted calf?”  Just as he had done for his younger son, the father tried to bring the older son back into relationship.  He begged him to understand what it is like to lose something so valuable and find it again.  But, as the story ends, Jesus doesn’t tell us if the older brother ever relents and enters the party.  The parable fades to black with the older brother still outside, arms crossed, glaring into the house.  Is it possible that God would restore a jerk like the younger brother only to leave one who was seemingly faithful on the outside looking in?  Can we fathom a God who desires deep, real, perfect relationship who will also allow us to be our own worst enemies when we refuse to forgive and be reconciled? The final unsettling lesson I think we can learn from this parable today is that God is desperate to be in right relationship with everyone, but it is our own expectations, prejudices, and lack of grace that can leave us on the outside, looking in.

The more comfortable reading makes the Prodigal Son a top-3 parable of all time, but when we let parables be unsettling, when we allow them the space to challenge some of our basic assumptions, we stand to learn a lot about the Kingdom of God.  The Prodigal Son story should make us wonder just how willing we are to enter the party God is throwing for all those who were lost but are now found.  The Pharisees couldn’t imagine such a party.  The older brother was indignant about it.  God’s grace is often surprising, upsetting, and even little unsettling, which, now that I think about it, is maybe why Jesus felt the need to use parables in the first place.  There are deep lessons to be learned, if only we have ears open to listen and hearts open to learn.  Amen.

Advertisements

Making ourselves gods

Last year, I had the pleasure of leading a real-life Draughting Theology study of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I had read it several times.  I had walked Romans road.  I felt like I knew the lessons embedded in Paul’s letter pretty well, but until one spends time really digging into a text, commentaries in hand, with the goal of being able to teach it, one can not even begin to fully comprehend the complexities of a Biblical book like Romans.  One of the key lessons that I learned early in my study came from Jay Sidebotham’s commentary on Romans from the Conversations with Scripture series.  The thesis, or at least one of them, of Sidebotham’s commentary is that, for Paul, the core sin of humanity is the sin of idolatry.  There are a myriad of ways in which we offer worship to something other than God, but more often than not, the focus of that attention isn’t work, money, sex, or power, but ourselves.  The most common idol that distracts our attention from God is the idol of self.

This sin is no more evident than when we judge one another.  When we judge our neighbor, we put ourselves in the place of God.  This is why, in Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, hoping to escape a famine and full of lies, Joseph essentially cannot treat them harshly.  Instead, he makes it clear that judgement is not the purview of a faithful human.  “Am I in the place of God?”  This theme shows up in the New Testament lesson as well.  The lesson is from Romans 14 (hence the introductory paragraph to this post), and in it, Paul’s seems to wonder aloud why it is that human beings, all of whom stand under the judgment of God, work so hard at passing judgment on one another.

giphy

This all leads to Peter’s question to Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”  Jesus’ answer, which he expounds by way of a parable about an unforgiving slave, seems to broaden the expectation that we forgive rather than pass judgment beyond members of the church to all, who like us, are slaves, either of God’s grace or of the power of sin.  Forgiveness is the antithesis of judgmental idolatry because to forgive is to obey the command of God.  We don’t make the choice to forgive, which means we are not trying to control our own surroundings.  Instead, we obey by forgiving, allowing God to be God.

It seems that every year on or around the 11th of September, these lessons come back around.  Some sixteen years after the day on which terrorists attacked America, it is still tempting to put ourselves in the place of God and make judgments, not just on the men who planned and carried out these attacks, but on the entire religious system which these men perverted for their own selfish ambition.  It is hard to talk of forgiveness on September 11th, which is precisely why leaders of the Christian faith must do so.  We must warn our people of the temptation to make our country or our way of life the idol of our worship.  We must caution them against the more insidious sin in which we act as judge, thereby making ourselves as gods.  We must repeat the refrain that because we have been forgiven so much, we too must forgive, for it is not our choice to make, but the commandment of God that we humble ourselves and offer forgiveness to all who have sinned against us.

Not an Easy Parable – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times, but it remains true: Parables are tricky beasts.  Eugene Peterson called them “narrative time bombs,” and he was right. Jesus plants them in our minds only so that they can explode with meaning several days later.  This is a problem in a world of soundbites and smartphones as our attention spans continue to shrink.  According to a 2015 study by Microsoft, the average attention span of an adult has fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015.  Keep in mind that scientists think that the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds![1]  Back when there weren’t eleven million things clamoring for our attention, it was easy to keep a story like the Pharisee and the Tax Collector bouncing around in your head for a whole week, but now-a-days, we’ve often forgotten what the Gospel lesson was before the opening paragraph of the sermon is over.

banner-goldfish-chedder_v4

It is impossible to plumb the depths of meaning in stories like today’s parable when we are fundamentally incapable of focusing on anything for longer than a goldfish.  So, we settle for simplistic readings, and make this parable a fable about humility.  We break the story down into its simplest parts: the tax collector is good because he is aware of his sinfulness while the Pharisee is bad because of his arrogant prayer.  Then we say something like, “Lord, thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee who is an arrogant jerk and that I am so humble.  Amen.”  Do you see the problem with that reading of the story?  It leaves us no better than the Pharisee we are so quick to judge.  It is an easy reading, but it is not the best one.  Instead, if we give this lesson time to mature, time to float around in our brains for a minute or two, we’ll start to notice details that we might otherwise miss.

First, we should note the audience to which Jesus told this story.  He told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  That is, he told this parable to people who would hear the parable in the way I just described.  He told this parable to us.  When things are going well in our spiritual lives, it is really easy to forget who should get the credit.  Pride has a tendency to grow the more we pray, the more scripture we read, the more we give to the church, and care for the poor.  It is easy to say, like the Pharisee did, “I pray, I fast, and I give,” but the reality that it is only because of the Holy Spirit at work within us that any of that is possible.

The ugly side of thinking our righteousness comes from our own abilities is that we then tend to look down on those who aren’t quite at righteous as we are.  If only they could pray like me or care like or be as humble as me, they might be righteous too.  As we get comfortable with looking down on our neighbor for not being as righteous as we’ve made ourselves to be, eventually we begin to treat them with contempt: literally, we treat them as if they were worthless nothings.  We label them as sinners or liberals or closed-minded and dismiss them – ignoring the fact that they human beings worthy of love.  I Christianity, righteousness means being in right relationship with God and neighbor.  It is therefore impossible to treat others with contempt and be righteous.  Jesus tells this story to those who think they are righteous because of their own personal piety, but are not because of how they treat their neighbor.

The second detail worthy of note is the prayer of the Pharisee.  As off putting as it is to us today, his prayer might not have been that uncommon in the days of Jesus.  The Pharisee’s job was to be righteous and to help others lead righteous lives according to the Law of Moses.  He was, at least according to the teaching of his own tradition, totally in the right to think of himself as righteous.  In order to be in right relationship with God and with neighbor, the Pharisee was required to abide by the Law, and he followed it to the smallest detail.  He prayed, he fasted, he tithed, he didn’t steal, he didn’t lie, and he didn’t cheat.  He was a model citizen, and it was only right that he should thank God for that.  As much as we’d like God to smite this man right there in the Temple Court, or at the very least we might question how one can be considered righteous who so brazenly puts down others, the reality is that he went home just as righteous as when he arrived; having faithfully fulfilled what was required of him in the Law.

The third thing we need to notice is the tax collector who so often gets painted as the hero in this story.  Tax collectors were despised by just about everyone.  They were Jewish men who conspired with the Roman government to extort money from rich and poor alike.  Their livelihood depended upon how much extra money they could shake out of the tax payers.  I always picture this man as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Disney version of Robin Hood.  There is a scene where he barges in on a blacksmith who has a broken leg and can’t work.  Friar Tuck had just given the blacksmith a few coins from Robin Hood’s stash that he hid in the cast, and the sheriff promptly and painfully shook them loose.  Nobody likes the Sheriff of Nottingham, and nobody liked the traitor tax collectors.  It seems that the tax collector in our parable didn’t even like himself.  In his guilt and his shame, he knew better than to come right on into the Temple.  Instead, he stood a safe distance away, wouldn’t even look up to heaven, beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  And then he left.  I can’t help but wonder how our reading of this story changes if he came back and did the same thing the next day?  And the day after that?  What if he had been asking God for forgiveness every day for 20 years, but had no real interest in changing anything about himself.  What if he went to work, shook down his fellow Israelites, asked God for forgiveness, woke up the next day, and did it all again.

Either way, Jesus tells us that he went home justified: that is he was made righteous by God’s action and God’s action alone.  Which seems to be what this story has been about all along: the grace of God to forgive us and declare us justified.  It is easy to consider the tax collector as justified given his obviously repentant language.  It is less easy to consider him justified by God if he did the same thing day after day after day.  And it is next to impossible to think of the Pharisee as anything close to righteous or justified, but it seems that all of the above are true.  I’ll spare you the boring Greek details, but it is equally plausible that the tax collector went home justified “rather than” the Pharisee as it is he went home justified “alongside” the Pharisee.  See, whether we approach God trying our best to do it on our own, on our hands and knees begging for forgiveness, or bowed low for a moment, pretty sure we will do it all again tomorrow; it is God’s very nature to return us to righteousness and restore us to right relationship.  It might mean he has to humble the exalted before he can exalt the humbled, but one way or another, God is going to do everything he can to let us know that we are loved by him.

It would be easy to look smugly at the smugness of the smug Pharisee, but if we take more than eight seconds to pay attention and let this parable marinate a bit, the meaning is much richer.  Rather than a story that casts another line in the sand of us versus them, this is a parable about the love of God for all of us: whether we are first century tax collectors and Pharisees, sixteenth century Roman Catholics and Protestants or twenty-first century Republicans and Democrats.  God loves us all and his deepest desire is that we might be justified, made righteous, restored to right relationship with God and every one of our neighbors through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/03/12/humans-have-shorter-attention-span-than-goldfish-thanks-to-smart/

Thank God I’m not like those people

103584721-hillaryclintonvtrump-530x298

If ever the Christians in this country needed to hear a parable from Jesus it is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector during the waning days of the 2016 Presidential Election.  While it seems clear to me that one candidate is clearly more qualified to run this country for the next four years, both candidates, their parties, and their supporters have engaged in a form of dehumanizing rhetoric about which we as a nation should be ashamed.

Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, the 24 hour news cycle, or even my Junior High Youth Group this afternoon, it is impossible to find a safe place, free from anger, fear, and a whole lot of Pharisees praying about themselves, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like those people.”  Here’s the thing, as soon as we start to think that about someone else, we’ve been sucked in to sin.  As soon as we look down at another human being whether it be over their opinion on gun rights, their opinion on double predestination, or their opinion on mild or spicy chicken at Popeye’s, we are no better than the “deplorables” who rabidly attack “Crooked Hillary” or “Racist Donald.”

As we butter our popcorn, ready our bingo cards, and open our Crown Royal bottles in preparation for tonight’s “dumpster fire” of a Presidential Debate, we should pause for a moment and take stock of where we have allowed ourselves to be taken as the body of Christ in the United States of America.  Maybe we’d be better off turning off the TV, pulling out a rosary, and saying the Jesus Prayer five hundred or a thousand times.

“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This prayer, which is not unlike the prayer of the tax collector, has worked to calm the minds and hearts of Christians for more than 1,400 years.  It reminds us of our dependence on God alone.  It focuses us not on the other who stands outside of us, but the Lord Jesus who makes his home deep in our hearts.  Most of all, it brings to mind the one fact that every human has in common: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; all of us are in need of forgiveness; and it is God’s desire to restore us all to right relationship with him and with one another.  Resist the temptation to be like the Pharisee tonight and for the next three weeks and instead, focus on God who takes delight in our prayers, who longs to be at the center of our lives, and causes those who exalt themselves to be humbled and those who humble themselves to be exalted.

Open our eyes, Lord

The audio can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website.  Or you can read here.


I don’t remember much about the first few months of life for either of our girls. As many of you are aware, life gets complicated with a newborn in the house. Between washing bottles, never ending loads of laundry, being generally in awe of the miracle of life, and a total lack of sleep, it is hard for the human mind to create long term memories in those moments. They say that is why women decide to go through childbirth more than once, they honestly can’t remember how bad it really was. All joking aside, one of the random things I do remember from those early days is the pediatrician telling us that babies have to learn to see much like they have to learn to walk. It takes time for them to learn how to use their eyes: how they move side to side and up and down; how to make them focus on something close; how to be translate what they are seeing into near and far. It takes almost two full years for a baby to learn to really see the world around them. As I read the Gospel lesson for this week, I couldn’t help but think that maybe the process of learning how to see the world doesn’t end at age two. In fact, I am more and more convinced that learning to really see is a key piece of spiritual development. I think that is what Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees in this parable about Lazarus and a rich man.

There was a rich man. Usually here I would try to remind us that compared to the rest of the world, we too are rich, but that isn’t what’s happening here. This guy wasn’t middle class American rich. He was Richie Rich rich, Warren Buffet rich, Saudi Royal family rich. Jesus tells us he wore purple clothes. These days, purple shirts are sold everywhere. You can get a purple polo from the Rescue Mission for less than $2. There was a time, a long time in fact, when purple clothing was exorbitantly expensive. The dyes used to make a purple shirt were hard to come by and the color was even harder to set. This man, who wore purple, was exceedingly rich, and more than likely a member of some royal family. Not only did he wear richly colored fabrics, but Jesus says this rich man had access to linen as well. Like purple dyes, linen was (and still is) very expensive to obtain. To say he was well dressed would be an understatement. Every day this man was dressed in a sixty-thousand dollar Italian suit while he feasted sumptuously. The Greek here literally means that he “made merry brilliantly”, or to use a more modern phrase, this guy partied hearty every day. Every day was Super Bowl Sunday and every meal was a Thanksgiving feast for this rich man in well-made clothing.

As he would go back and forth from his mansion, the rich man would pass through a large gate. Plopped down near the gate was a man who was exceedingly poor. Lazarus was his name, the only person to have a name in one of Jesus’ parables, it means “God has helped,” but it doesn’t seem like God had helped Lazarus very much. While the rich man wore purple and linen, Lazarus was covered only in sores. While the rich man feasted sumptuously, Lazarus coveted the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. While the rich man’s life was full of business partners, servants, and family, Lazarus’ only companions were the dogs who licked his sores. Back and forth the rich man would go. At the very least he had to have noticed the stench of Lazarus. Occasionally, he would have had to shoo the dogs away. He’d likely stepped right over him a time or two. The rich man knew Lazarus was at his gate, but he made the choice not to see him.

The rich man spent his life building a chasm between himself and Lazarus. One day, they both died, and suddenly, that chasm that had been growing for years became fixed. The rich man was stuck in Hades while Lazarus was carried to heaven. We come to realize the active nature of the rich man’s ignorance of the plight of Lazarus when immediately he calls out to Abraham and asks for Lazarus, by name. It wasn’t that he had never noticed Lazarus at his gate, but he chose not to see him. The rich man had seen Lazarus, he even knew his name, but instead of seeing Lazarus as a human being, the rich man saw a smelly, beggar who was covered in sores. Lazarus didn’t fit into the rich man’s well-manicured life, and so he ignored him. His sin wasn’t things left undone. His sin was a thing he did; he actively and purposefully chose not to see the poor man at his gate.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus defines his ministry during a sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. After his baptism and forty days of temptation in the wilderness, Jesus went throughout Galilee, empowered and encouraged by the Holy Spirit. He preached in Synagogue after Synagogue until he finally arrived back where he grew up. There, in the Synagogue at Nazareth, he preached from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In Luke’s Gospel, more than the other three, the ministry of Jesus is about seeing, about having compassion, and about caring for the poor. The rich man had failed at all three, and as the flames licked his heels, he realized, too late, the error of his ways.

“I beg you, Father Abraham, to send Lazarus to my father’s house – for I have five siblings – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Here, I think, is where we find our place in this story. We are the rich man’s siblings, still on earth, still making choices about who we see and who we don’t see every day. Because they don’t fit comfortably in our lives, it is easy to ignore the homeless children who make up as much as 10% of Foley schools. It is easy to bypass the poverty-fueled drug problem in the historically black neighborhoods around here. It is easy to disregard the modern day slavery that keeps our Latino brothers and sisters packed into trailers tucked deep in the woods. Alternatively, it might be those we do see that cause us the most consternation. When we see those people who challenge our comfortable lives, how do we choose to see them? When we see a black man with his hands raised on a road in Tulsa do we see a man who needed help, or, as the police helicopter pilot called Terence Crutcher, do we only see “a bad dude”? When we see protests over more unarmed black men dying at the hands of police officers, do we see a people crying for justice or thugs hell bent on violence? Jesus is very interested in who we see and how we see them.

Abraham denied the rich man’s request to send Lazarus to his brothers and sisters saying, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them, and if they don’t, they won’t even be convinced by a man who has risen from the dead.” We have Moses, we have the prophets, we even have one who has risen from the dead who calls us to have our sight restored – to see those who the rest of the world ignores as beloved children. Spiritual maturity comes as our eyes come into focus and we learn to see those who are inconvenient, those who are disturbing, and even those who might be frightening. We learn to see Christ in them. We learn to see them as beloved of God. And when we learn to see, we learn compassion, we learn to care, and we learn to love. Open our eyes Lord, and teach us to really see the world around us. Amen.

Who are you?

a2d3a31e255b1e22a9a61b5c96732922

There is a natural tendency to place oneself inside a story.  This is perhaps especially true in the parables that Jesus tells.  I suspect it is because they are both generic and hyperbolic, it is easy to read oneself into the story, to stay there for a while, and to feel what is happening.  Of course, who we think ourselves to be in the story will have a large impact on how we interpret it.  In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the meaning of the story can change drastically if you think of yourself as the injured traveler or the Levite, rather than everybody’s favorite Samaritan.

As we read the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man this week, I can’t help but think that the gut reaction of most listeners will be to place themselves in the role of Lazarus.  Very few people actually consider themselves to be rich.  It is very easy to push that title at least one tax bracket above our own, and given the erosion of the Middle Class and the ever-widening chasm between the haves and the have nots in the last 40 years, it isn’t too difficult to place oneself as a beggar, lying outside the gates of those who wear purple, and step over you in order to feast sumptuously everyday.

Very few of us will place ourselves in the position of the rich man, and to be Abraham would be awfully presumptuous, but this morning, as I read my usual preaching resources, I realized that I’ve always missed a character in this story.  Barbara Rossing, Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, points out in her commentary that maybe our place in this story is the brothers and sisters of the rich man.  We have Moses and the Prophets.  We even have one who proclaimed a ministry of compassion and rose from the dead.  Do we have ears to hear?  Do we have eyes to see?  Or, are we too busy making excuses for our lack of compassion; pretending  instead to be the sore-covered beggar by the gate?

Who are you in this story?  The answer seems to be of eternal consequence.

A Parable About Talents?

In Year C’s Parable Season, we don’t have the chance to hear the Parable of the Talents from Luke 19.  It is Matthew’s version that instead gets airtime in Year A.  Perhaps you recall the story of a master who gives three of his slaves portions of his wealth to watch over while his is on an extended trip.  To the first, he gives five talents – roughly 100 years worth of wages.  To the second, he gives two talents, and to the third slave, he gave one talent.  Upon his return, the first slaves returns ten talents; the second, four; while the third simply gives back the one talent to his master.  The Parable of the Talents isn’t really about money.  In fact, it is pretty convenient that the monetary unity is called a talent because that seems to be what it’s really about.  How are you using the gifts God has given you to the glory of God?

I’m beginning to think the Parable of the Unjust Steward is similarly about talents.  The story begins with Jesus introducing us to a rich man and his manager.  The manager is known to be squandering the rich man’s property.  Squander is an interesting word.  The only other time I hear that word used is in relation to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who squandered his inheritance on dissolute living.  It means to scatter, to throw to the wind, or to winnow.  It is the opposite of “to gather together.”  It wasn’t that his man was simply a bad manager, but he was wasteful with his master’s wealth.  His defining characteristic was that of a squanderer.

mi0001640220

Squanderer put this song in my head

When the manager finds out that he is going to be fired, he doesn’t panic, but instead he does what he does best.  He uses his skills at squandering his master’s goods to put himself in the best possible position once he is no longer employed.  He uses his talent, icky as it may be, to the best of his ability to further his own best interests.  When the rich man praises him for his shrewdness, we are shocked.  When Jesus suggests his followers should do likewise, we get squirmy and look for another text to preach, but what if this story is a parable about talents?  What if Jesus is encouraging us to use the gifts we have, to the best of our abilities, to further God’s best interests?  Preachers should preach for the up-building of the Kingdom.  Bankers should manage funds for the up-building of the Kingdom.  Lawyers should practice law for the up-building of the Kingdom.  Cashiers should engage customers for the up-building of the Kingdom.  No matter what gifts and talents we have, they should be put to use with shrewdness, for the up-building of the Kingdom.