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Music used for this service:
Voices United 951 “Santo, Santo, Santo (Holy, Holy, Holy)”
Anon., Argentina. Public domain.
Voices United 661 “Come to My Heart”
Words, Music: © 1981 Joe Pinson, 2320 Salado, Denton, TX 76201, USA.
More Voices 150 “Spirit God, Be Our Breath (Embracing Change)”
Words and music: Bruce Harding, 1997.
Voices United 960 “The Lord’s Prayer”
Adapted from a chant by R. Langdon. Public domain.
Voices United 346 “There In God’s Garden”
Words (Paraphrase): Erik Routley 1974© Hinshaw Music, Inc. Used by permission.
Music: © 1987 MorningStar Music Publishers, 2117 59th St., St. Louis, MO 63118, USA.
“Go Now in Peace, Never Be Afraid”
Words: Don Besig and Nancy Price, 1988. Music: Don Besig 1988. Words and Music – ©1988 Shawnee Press.
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, License # A-734863. All rights reserved.
present in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit,
moving within our hearts, making change in our lives,
inspiring within us a call to discipleship,
we pray for perfection,
one that we know is unachievable,
but which we strive toward nonetheless.
Teach us how to be perfectly good,
to love as you love us, to give as you have gifted to us,
so that we may be a more perfect gift of love
which you send to our neighbour,
to heal the brokenness of the world, and make a new perfection.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our saviour and friend,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and forever. Amen.
Okay, if there are any other preachers or ministers watching, I think I’ve done it. At least, maybe. I think I can make this parable make sense.
This sermon series has given me, and I hope it gives you, the opportunity to reflect on my relationship with the Bible. The stereotype of Christianity, built up by how it is portrayed in the media and the loud fundamentalist preachers who get famous, is that the Bible has to be taken 100% literally. Even when shown the progressive side of Christianity, I’ve had Atheist friends tell me, “You’re just not reading your own book.” I assure you I am.
Nowhere in the Bible does it say you have to take the Bible literally. Nowhere does it say that believing the truth of the 7-day creation story is an article of faith. Nowhere does it say you have to obey every rule at all times—in fact, there are several places where it says you don’t have to do that.
And when confronted with the nasty parts of scripture—the hate, violence, and bigotry that is present within these pages—we can, in fact, be “cafeteria Christians,” picking and choosing. What matters is how we discern, how we sort the grain from the chaff. Do we do so only to hold onto passages that are comfortable, which reinforce our preexisting beliefs, or do we make good faith efforts to wrestle with the uncomfortable passages, to see if there is still some good news within them, some piece of God’s grace revealed to us through the story?
As a protestant church, the doctrinal line is that the Bible is the first and best source of revelation—what tells us of God’s nature and God’s will. It may not be the only source of revelation, depending on just how Protestant you want to be, but it is the most important and anything that contradicts what is in the Bible is wrong (unless it’s also in the Bible, because the Bible contradicts itself a lot).
So what do we do when we get a story that is just confusing? With the sermon series I wanted to do the parts of the gospels that challenge our idea that the New Testament only shows a God of love and mercy, no judgement. But I’ve also extended into parts of the gospels that are just confusing, such as the fig tree two weeks ago, and nothing is more confusing than this parable. A manager, a hired accountant, realizes he’s about to be fired and so he goes around in his master’s name and starts forgiving debts, cutting them in half. He ends up costing his master a lot of money, all for his own gain, so that people will like him. Kind of embezzlement. Any banker or fund manager would be fired and possibly jailed for this. I think it counts as some kind of fraud. And then this manager is praised for this behaviour. If nothing else, this is a challenging passage for those of us who have held debts or investments; what if your accountant acted like this? This is why Bernie Madoff was thrown in prison.
I’ve listened to other preachers stumble over this parable, trying to find out what its meaning is, and I’ve tried to stumble over what its meaning is and gotten nowhere. But I think I’ve found something, after wrestling with it.
And it comes down to this: Is the master supposed to represent God? We would think so; in every other parable Jesus tells where there is a master and a servant, the master represents God and the servant represents us. The workers in the vineyard, the talents, the wedding banquet, the wicked tenants—in all of these, the master is God.
But is that the case here? We have to pay attention context, something that is lost when we keep hearing the Bible read piecemeal to us in short, self-contained passages in church, rather than, say, sitting down for an evening and hearing a whole book read out to us, which was how the first Christians would have heard the Gospel of Luke. And the more I think about it, every time I have dealt with a challenging parable or saying of Jesus, I find so much of it is clearer by just looking at the context. But that isn’t how church trains us to read the Bible, unfortunately.
If we look outside the parable, we see Jesus then get into an argument with the Pharisees, “who were lovers of money” as the text tells us, and Jesus says, “No servant can serve two masters; you cannot serve both God and money.”
The Bible cares far more about money, about its use and misuse, than it cares about sex, and yet Christianity and the church has earned a reputation for being a religion for prudes, that sexual morality is somehow more important than any kind of morality. Yet, Jesus is very insistent here, you cannot serve wealth and money.
So which master is the one in the parable, and which does the “dishonest” manager end up serving?
The master in the story is one who has made his wealth by exploitation, by holding debts with unfair interest. This master is money, power, things, and he will cast us aside as soon as he doesn’t find us useful anymore.
And the manager’s actions are to forgive debts, to be generous and kind. Does this manager sound more like God to you? At great personal risk, he is willing to be kind and forgiving. Even if it costs his master, even if it costs him everything and he gets thrown in jail for fraud. The manager’s act of desperation becomes an act of generosity, forgiving debts. The master cannot recall the debts then, because he would then lose honour in the community and no one would borrow from him again, regardless of what the manager did, the master would be seen as untrustworthy.
The master’s wealth was not really his to begin with. God can give it away if he wants. Flip the dynamic on its head; maybe the dishonest manager is God in this parable—we think that God serves us, gives us blessings if we’re good. But God can take it all away for the purpose of love and mercy, because it isn’t ours.
We hold debts of social niceties, we do favours expecting favours in return, we give only when we feel the other person “deserves” it; we charge social interest. We love only if we are loved in return, we forgive only if we will be forgiven. We treat love and respect and kindness as currency to be traded and exchanged. In who we give our money to—what charities and who we think deserves help—in who we allow refuge in our country, in who we allow into our churches and social circles. Only those we trust, only those we think are deserving.
But that isn’t how God loves. Instead, she forgives. We can withhold forgiveness, inclusion, help, but God will not. He will still love the unlovable, lift up the undeserving and we, in our human mindset of loving money and serving a different master, will say, “How dare you?”
That is, unless we wish to be faithful. In which case, we go and do likewise.
“If you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you?” If we do not use the things that we have—have¸ and not own—for love, then how will we be given forgiveness of our own? This is essentially “judge not lest ye be judged,” because God needs to know that we are trustworthy with Her love. We need to be faithful stewards of God’s unconditional love. The manager is, ultimately, because he serves love and not money.
So, that’s where I’ve arrived with this confusing, difficult parable. It is a parable about being faithful to God over the many masters society tells us to serve; the manager serves the cause of forgiveness, so he serves God’s love. Jesus tells us to make friends by means of dishonest wealth—give not to those who “deserve” but to those who “need”—so that we will be faithful not with money, but with God’s love.
Remember, Christians, our only job is to love. That’s it. Anything we do, if it is to be faithful to God, is to love. That’s another thing to remember with the gospels is that, even the most difficult parts, it’s always about love. Amen.