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Pentecost 15C

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15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

In the name of the Father and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Since my children aren’t back from the Youth Retreat yet, I can say this: I really [hate] don’t like to floss my teeth. I brush my teeth, but flossing… It goes back to when I had braces as a kid and couldn’t get the floss around the brackets, and it’s just a hassle, and I have never liked doing it.
So of course, when I sit down in the dentist’s chair every 6 months, I dread the questions: “how often do you floss? When was the last time you flossed?” The last time? Doc, you were THERE. And they always do that very polite shaming thing that dentists seem to have a real knack for.
In recent appointments, I’ll see the appointment coming up on the calendar, and now it’s like I’m cramming the night before a test. Go find the floss, do that, brush a couple of times the day before, and then a couple of times the morning of the appointment. I’m no dentist, but I know this isn’t fooling them. They can tell I haven’t been flossing regularly. So why do I do it?
It’s kind of like the dishonest manager, isn’t it? I’m not taking care of my teeth, and the dentist knows it, and he calls me out on it. This dishonest manager (what other English translations call a “steward”) hasn’t been dealing properly with his master’s property, and someone tattles on him. He gets called to appear before his master, and he had to know what that conversation was going to be about. So, the master fires him.
Now, as bad as this sounds to our 21st Century American ears, in 1st century Judea, it would have been much worse. Even though this is a parable, there were certain things that we can know about it. First of all, in any situation like this, a manager would be living on the property of the master. As a manager, he probably lived quite well. From the way Jesus tells the parable, it appears he lived a little TOO well…but it certainly would have been better than other servants, and much better than any of the slaves. But to be fired as manager would mean he would have to move off the property.
He would lose his house and his job. He would be instantly homeless and penniless. A truly awful situation, and this dishonest man recognizes that. As we hear his inner thoughts, he seems to have only 2 choices: dig or beg. Digging - whether it was for agriculture or construction - was largely considered the most difficult work there was. He knows he’s not got the physical strength to do it. And having lived in a wealthy environment, he’s too proud to beg. The culture of that time was known for the phrase “it is better to die than to beg.” (Sirach 40:29)
This means he must do something with what he has before he loses it. So he tracks down everyone who is in debt to his master. We only hear about 2 of these debtors, but it’s clear that he tracked all of them down. Of the 2 we are told about, this manager allows them to re-write their bill. In this era, when a debt was written down, it was written in the hand of the borrower, and 2 copies were made: one for each party. It’s clear that the manager had his master’s copies, which we know from verse 2 (“Turn in the account of your management...”). So he is able to take it to the borrowers, and they are able to re-write the bill in a lower amount. And these are no small amounts of money. A “measure” of oil comes to about 10 gallons, so he owes the rich master about 1,000 gallons of olive oil. That’s a huge amount, and it gets cut in half. The “measure” of wheat is about 11 bushels, so this is 1,100 bushels of wheat owed. Also a great amount of wheat, which is reduced by 1/5th. What a deal - could I get my mortgage cut in half? Or one of my car loans reduced by 20%?
Now, Jesus doesn’t tell us much about these debts. Some think it might mean that either the master or maybe this manager was charging these people interest, which is illegal according to Jewish law - they were forbidden from charging interest in any loans. Perhaps the manager knew about some interest and reduced the debt to just the principle. Or, perhaps he’s just getting some revenge on his master for firing him. We simply don’t know.
What we *do* know is that the dishonest manager is trying to gain favor with these borrowers. He’s trying to make some quick friends. Why? Because they could take him in after his master kicks him out. He needs a job. He needs a home. Hopefully, one of these people will remember this act of generosity and return the favor.
So what happens? Well, the master has no choice but to respect the shrewdness of this dishonest steward. “By the time [the master] comes on the scene, all those who had had their debts reduced would have been grateful to him, and would have applauded him for his generosity if and when he ever appeared in public or in their presence. If he would tell them then, or send notice to them, that the transactions done by his manager are null and void, he would have faced tremendous ridicule and anger.” [Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, ed. David Noel Freedman and Astrid B. Beck, The Bible in Its World (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 151–152.]
And the steward’s actions are really quite shrewd, very wise and clever. He has really prepared himself well for the future, even in the shadow of his utter failure at working for this rich master. These borrowers are now actually indebted to this steward…enough so that he could well live off of them for quite a while.
What Jesus says next seems quite unusual for him. He seems to be speaking well of the shrewdness of the “sons of the world”. First, it’s important to remember that Jesus uses the word “sons” here because he is referring to the social “station” that a son is the heir of his father’s wealth. Sons of the world will inherit what the world has to offer. Sons of light will inherit what God has to offer.
The “[sons] of this age,” that is, persons driven by secular values, are clever in arranging things for themselves, and they are prudent in their dealings with one another. Generally the “[sons] of this age” are wise and resourceful enough to get on in life quite well. Unfortunately the “[sons] of light,” that is, persons committed to the light that Jesus and his proclamation bring, do not begin to match them in their wisdom and resourcefulness in relationship to God and to one another. They do not commit themselves in the same way, and above all to the same degree, as though their well-being and future depend upon those commitments.
What Jesus is saying here is that the dishonest manager recognized the seriousness of his situation, and he reacted to it cleverly, wisely. The sons of this age share this characteristic; they are wise to their situation, to the rewards and consequences of their choices. At the same time, Jesus says that the sons of light are not this wise or clever. “In other words, although they stand in an emergency situation before God and the final judgment to come, they do not take their situation seriously.
The children of light, no less than the children of this age, give attention to many matters. But no matter is as important, or as urgent, as their relationship to God. That relationship is sound when there is daily repentance, followed by selfless service to others.” [Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, ed. David Noel Freedman and Astrid B. Beck, The Bible in Its World (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 153–154.]
As we have decided to be more deliberate, more focused in our own stewardship as a church family, I think this parable is very timely. Not to say that we have been dishonest stewards…only to use this parable as a caution for us, that we are caring for all that our own Heavenly Master has blessed us with, and using it for the purposes that He wills. We have the best chance of following His will for us and our resources if we grow in our relationship with Him and with one another. In other words: discipleship.
There is one huge assumption that Jesus has made in all of this passage: he is addressing his own disciples. He has taught them and guided them, so that they know this is not instruction about how to earn salvation. That is not what Jesus is addressing here. The assumption is that all of these listeners know that salvation comes from Christ alone, that none of us can earn it.
What Jesus has done for us - taking away all of our sins, so that we are no longer captive to the ways of the world…so that we are no longer stuck as children of the world - he has given us a choice. We actually now have the choice to be children of the light. We have heard the Gospel, and the Holy Spirit is working on us, to bring us into God’s light and truth.
With this great gift, Jesus now sets before us something of a challenge, and it couldn’t be more timely for our church family. We have identified Stewardship as an area where we need to grow…and that means in all areas. But yes, it means in our monetary giving as well. This is a perfect opportunity to reflect on what we give to God as an offering of thanks for what He has blessed us with. We need to reflect on this as individuals and households, but also as a church family. What is God calling us to do with the blessings He has entrusted to us? How do we need to grow our stewardship so that we can grow our outreach? How does our stewardship contribute to how we can be a Great Commission church?
These questions are what we can be asking ourselves as we look inward and discern the way forward for our church family. All of those generations who came before us for the last 182 years have brought us to this point. How then can we carry our congregation forward for the generations who follow us? What does God want us to do so that they, too will be a Great Commission church?
I hope that you will all commit yourselves to praying about these questions, and how we will answer them as we seek to follow God’s will.
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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