Sermon for St. Dunstan's, Madison. These are the lectionary readings: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
So, this is a difficult parable. Even before we get to the difficulty of what the parable may or may not be asking Jesus’ followers to do and whether we think we can do that, whether we’re willing to do that, this is simply a hard parable to understand. If you say it’s not, you’re lying because part of the difficulty is that the parable concludes with four separate interpretations, four different things the parable tells us it’s about. It’s trying to be difficult! It’s not just you.
I do think this difficult parable has become slightly less difficult in recent years. Specifically, after 2008 and Occupy Wall Street and thousands of protesters flooding the capitol, it is easier to imagine the possibility that the rich man with which the story begins is someone other than God. And that begins to open things up, imagining that the rich man is someone other than God.
So let’s start with that groundbreaking hypothesis: God is not a rich man. I know, it sounds obvious when we say it that way, but most of the time, when we read the parables, God is the owner of the vineyard or the head honcho in charge or whomever else, but that information does not always come from the story, right? Sometimes, in some stories, we supply it. We make assumptions. It’s called projection. Something to talk to your therapist about.
So, to say the obvious again: Jesus doesn’t call the rich man God. In fact, since one of the four interpretations says you can’t serve both God and wealth, and since the story that follows this story is about a poor man, Lazarus, and an unnamed rich man being licked by flames in hell, let’s go out on a limb and say with some certainty, at least for today, this rich man is not God. This won’t be a September stewardship sermon about extracting wealth for God, whether from yourself or others.
But let’s also say, since we’re out climbing limbs, that the confession God is not a rich man, even when it sounds absurdly obvious, is still not easy for us to believe, all the way. We can tell we don’t believe that the rich man isn’t God when we, from time to time, take wealth to be a sign of God’s favor in our own lives and in the lives of others; when we regard people according to their dollar value or the position we think we stand to get from them.
I want to give an example of what I mean:
I was watching one of the countless presidential debates back a few months ago. And a commentator was stacking up pictures of all of the candidates’ heads on a sharp looking graphic, and you’ll remember there were a lot of heads to line up, at the outset at the election cycle. And next to each of the faces of the candidates was a number: the estimated net worth of each face. And part of the commentary involved whether the candidates in question were actually worth the numbers next to their faces. But implied in that commentary was the evidently undebatable and bipartisan assumption that a higher net worth equaled greater qualification for office. Wealth was assumed to be a sign of leadership, success, and suitability, even as the politicians were pushed hard to defend the authenticity of their faiths, and none of this was staged ironically. No moderator asked the candidates to defend their suitability for office in spite of their wealth, in light of their faith. And I thought, Christians know better!
If God is not the rich man, it follows that the rich man is something or someone other than God. The manager, then, is a person caught up in a system, a structure, that has him serving someone or something other than God. In return for accountability to this someone or something, the manager gets status, a position. And then he loses it. It’s gone. Over. The gig is up.
What will our hero do next? That’s the question on which the parable hangs. It’s also the question on which Israel hangs. It’s the kind of question that takes on existential stakes in light of Israel’s history played out over hundreds of years - a history of exile, return, and now Roman occupation. What will you do when you’ve lost, when it’s gone? is also a question that haunts most of us, even if the “it” that we stand to lose is different for each of us. Of course it’s a question about life and death, but it’s also a question about Alzheimers and memory. It’s a question about physical strength and career aspirations. It’s a question about reputation. It’s a question about life with those whom we love. It’s a question about wealth. It’s a question about legacy and self-importance. It’s a question about the day after failure and the truth that the only thing worse than failing, for those who haven’t failed, is the paralyzing question of when. It’s a question that cuts like a knife through the illusions we keep about the things we can’t keep and who we are, really.
So, what does our hero do next?
In Jesus’ parable, what our hero does next is begin to undo the social isolation he had previously self-inflicted out of loyalty to the rich man and his understanding of what maintaining his position required. What our hero does next is pick back up some of the relationships he had been told to sacrifice in order to maintain his standing. As he does so, he uncovers the extent to which he had entangled questions of worth and identity with his work and ambitions. What our hero does next is honestly name for himself how he had allowed the promise of his position to enslave him. What our hero does next is counter the ruthlessness of the rich man with a mercy and generosity the rich man’s world says isn’t the manager’s to give. In short, our hero gives up making himself a hero of anything.
Theologian Stephen Colbert one time told a bunch of college grads that they could not win their lives. Sometimes losing can save your life, especially if it ends the charade and gives you permission to return to what was most important in the first place. No more posturing over-against or harboring hopes of defeating the others through threat or violence or sheer strength of will. Just the good stuff. Nothing to lose, because you've already lost it. Love without fear. And this isn’t just good advice. In fact, if it’s just good advice, it isn’t true advice. But this is more than good advice, it is the beginning of the way of Jesus:
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas one time wrote
…if there is anything to this Christian “stuff,” it must surely involve the conviction that the Son would rather die on the cross than for the world to be redeemed by violence. Moreover, the defeat of death through resurrection makes possible as well as necessary that Christians live nonviolently in a world of violence.
In today’s parable, to live non-violently is the beginning of friendship, as position and power are exchanged for vulnerability and new possibilities; is to enter into a world in which we belong in true ways to God and one another. And it is, finally, to show up in the only way Jesus has promised to meet us. For we follow one, says St. Paul
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).
So this is the promise: fear replaced by forgiveness, mercy, and unexpected friendships. Because God in Christ has unexpectedly made us of friends of God and one another. God, give us courage to believe all the way.