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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How Jesus Calls Us to Disappoint

Luke 16:1-3
          We are in that place in the gospel of Luke, where we are awash in the parables of Jesus.
You might remember that the thing about parables is that they frequently begin with every day, recognizable situations for the people of Jesus’ time. They begin with life as they -or we- know it, and end with visions of life as God intends it to be, the life that is, even now, coming to fruition through Jesus. But due to their peculiar nature, parables can be challenging to interpret and understand.
Such is the case with the Parable of the Unjust Steward, known as the most difficult parable to understand. I’m sure you can see why. 
The parable begins with a common scene in the world of Jesus and his friends. There is a manager who works for a rich man. This manager, or steward, is responsible for managing the affairs of the rich man.
Somehow, justified or not, charges have been made that this manager is not only not doing a good job but that he is in fact “squandering” the rich man’s property. Squandering means not making the most of the resources; it sometimes involves failing to either protect or grow the value of the investment.
The rich man, who does care about his investment, lets the guy know he’s going to sack him. “You need to turn over the books and leave.”
There are a couple of things to remember about the social world of Jesus’ time. The first is that by and large there are two classes. There are the very rich and there are the very poor.
The second thing to know is that this is an honor/shame society, meaning that a hierarchy existed that undergirded all of life, and within this hierarchy, honor was the currency of the time. Honor was as real a commodity as gold or silver or the most valuable spice, and was treasured at least as much. The higher the status you had, the more honor and therefore the more power you held.
A system of patronage operated, where people of higher status, like landowners and merchants, could act as “patrons” to those lower down the ladder of status, like craftsmen, by hiring them to provide goods and services; they could choose to act charitably on those on the lower rungs, thus earning both honor and favor. Everybody owed somebody something and a delicate balance of favor and reciprocity was maintained.That's an important point to remember: everybody owed somebody something.
In his role as manager, the main character in this parable has benefited from this hierarchy. But that is all about to change. “What will I do now that my master is taking the position away from me?”
This isn’t a simple, “will I be able to collect unemployment?” kind of question.
It’s more like a kind of, “how will I live?” kind of question.
Because there is no aid for the unemployed, there is no subsidy, there is no cushion. He is about to fall, and fall fast.
So, he thinks to himself, "I'm not about to do manual labor!" And he sure as heck doesn’t see himself begging. He knows that with the loss of his job and therefore his status, there go his “friends.” How will he live? What future will he have?
So of course, he develops this scheme to mark down the amounts owed by his boss’ debtors. This serves him in several important ways – he avoids the shameful options, like needing to beg; he maintains status - he transfers the debtors’ gratitude and favor to himself; he develops a system of reciprocal hospitality between himself and the merchants, and finally, unbelievably, he wins the approval of his master who sees his shrewdness and approves his ability to assess his situation and act on it to preserve his future.
Jesus tells us this story and we are confused, because he seems to hold the actions of this man as being of some kind of twisted example of virtue.
As I was thinking about this puzzling story and why Jesus would a) tell it; and b) approve what the manager has done, it came to me. It makes perfect sense. The reason that Jesus “likes” this story of the unjust steward who many of us see as a crook, is that at the heart of it all, Jesus is a crook!    
I’m not being irreverent or disrespectful here. The truth of the matter is that our controversial, subversive, scandalous Lord Jesus is, himself, a crook! He consistently disappoints our expectations by revealing that those things we value most have absolutely no value in the kingdom of God.
Robert Capon writes, “The unjust steward is nothing less than the Christ-figure in this parable, a dead-ringer for Jesus himself. First of all, he dies and rises like Jesus. Second, by his death and resurrection, he raises others, like Jesus. But third and most important of all, the unjust steward is the Christ-figure because he is a crook, just like Jesus.” [1]
This parable is offensive, and it tells us what the life of Jesus showed us. Jesus was scandalous, not respectable;
·        he frequently acted counter to secular, cultural or religious Law and mores.
o   he broke the Sabbath
o   he robbed us of our expectations, coming as a helpless, vulnerable baby, and not a sword-an-power-wielding king.
Further, Jesus demonstrated his criminality when, like Robin Hood he reversed the fortunes of the people.
At the very beginning of Luke’s gospel, Mary warns of the reversal God is about to bring: “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Jesus robs the status quo when he promised that the “last would be first and the first would be last.” Further,  
·        Jesus took away our right to judge others when he normalized eating and consorting with sinners
·        Jesus took away the power of demons and
·        he defeated Satan

Jesus the crook has confounded our expectations time and again as he has turned our worldly expectations upside down through his words, by his actions, with his love and mercy toward all, and finally, at the cross.
Jesus was a crook.
·        He died a criminal crucified between two other criminals.
·        But he stole power away from the cross by making it the instrument of his glory
·        He stole away the sting from Death.
·        Through the resurrection he robbed death of its power to hold us
·        And just a minor thing after all of that – but, in the ascension, Jesus even robbed earth’s gravity the ability to hold onto him.
The dishonest manager cleverly took in the larger picture. He understood what he wanted for his future – security – and he used what was entrusted to him to serve this larger goal. He understood that in order to be where he wanted to in the future, what he did today mattered.
King Solomon wrote in his proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Pr.29:18)
Jesus understood the larger vision of salvation he was committed to. He did what he had to do to secure it. In commending the actions of the steward, Jesus invites us to think about the vision for the kingdom of God, and to use the resources God gives us in faithful service to the same. This is scary. It is unsettling. It’s just like a crook to lay this on us.
Helen Montgomery Debevoise writes, “We are not only entrusted with a vision of the Kingdom of heaven; we are given the treasures of the King! Even in the present age, with the imperfect treasures of this world, we are stewards of God. However we use what we have before us, we should use these gifts in light of our eternal relationship with God.
“The parable warns that the children [of the light] have lost that eternal perspective of who God is and who we are in relationship to God. Too easily we separate life as it is now from life in the future kingdom. Not long ago we shouted, “He is alive!” but already we are whispering our faith because we do not quite believe it anymore.
“Somewhere in our journey we stopped living for Christ. We stopped believing that Jesus died and was resurrected and that life was made new. Somewhere along the way it became easy to serve all those pressing demands: of people, of schedule, of money. Somewhere along the way, the vision for God’s call became cloudy and muddled. We stopped hearing God’s voice and joined the crazy survivor-takes-all mentality….This is the crisis Jesus addresses in his parable. The children of light have lost the vision of God. It is easy to grow complacent about responsibilities God gives us. The parable is a call to reclaim who we are and to renew our vision today of the kingdom of God beyond us and among us.”[2]
Jesus became a crook so that the kingdom of God would be formed in the image that God intended, a kingdom where God’s mercy, grace and love are known by all people. Jesus became a crook so that he might take away the sin of the world.
No doubt this parable will still make us uncomfortable. You may even be peeved that I called Jesus a crook. But, when you think about it, it’s true. Jesus became a crook for the sake of the world.
With this parable in mind, we ask ourselves: how might God be calling us to creative, shrewd use of the gifts and talents God has entrusted to us? God owes us nothing, but we owe our very lives and our salvation to God. How will we respond? What difference does it make to our lives and to the world to understand the depths to which God went to bring about this subversive, scandalous, kingdom, ruled by Christ the crook of all creation?

O Lord, you call us to kingdom work in a world that belongs not to us, but to you. Grant us the vision and the wisdom to see this kingdom as you see it, not as the children of this age tell us it should be. Inspire us to participate in the scandalous story of the cross and to careful stewardship of all you have given us to use, for the sake of Jesus, our marvelously crooked savior and Lord. Amen.

[1] -Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, (Eerdmans, 2002) pp 307-309.

[2] [2] Helen Montgomery Debevoise, contributor, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, p. 96. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2010

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