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There Was a Rich Man: Part I
Dr. David Evans
September 18, 2016
A reading from the Gospel of Luke:
Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
The prophet reminds us that grass will wither and flowers will fade, but this, the Word of the Lord, endures forever.
You have just listened to the strangest story that Jesus ever told. I have to imagine that there was a lot of “wink, wink” going on as Jesus tells this story. In this particular community of the Body of Christ that we call Presbyterian and Reformed, we take this, the Word of God…even over the top parables like Luke 16…with upmost seriousness. We do not take the Bible literally as some of our brothers and sisters in Christ do for if we did we would go from here advocating that the way to be a faithful Christian is to steal and cheat and lie to those who employ us and to lie about it. Karl Barth once famously said that he takes scripture far too seriously to take it literally. And that is a powerful reminder how we approach scripture.
In fact, the early Reformers used a very powerful image that still serves us well. They said that as we come to worship we literally “sit under the Word.” We literally prostrate ourselves before the Word of God. In other words, the Word of God is what permeates our worship of God.
The fact that I sit “under the Word” is the reason that I preach from the lectionary on Sunday mornings. If I had my way, I would have run as fast and as hard as I could from Luke 16 this morning. I would have chosen a text more to my personal liking. Struggling with this text nearly wrestled me to the ground this week. In fact, Linda knows that I wrote two complete sermons on this text, one on Thursday that I didn’t like because I couldn’t sleep, and another on Friday morning. You’ll have to judge if I should sleep. If I had my way, I would have chosen another text. But the fact is, we do not choose the text. The text chooses us. We do not so much try to interpret and to make sense of the text in the sermon as much as we allow the text to interpret and shape and form and mold and transform us.
And that is why I have stalled as long as I can this morning, but can no longer avoid attempting to discover the Word that God is speaking to us today in what must be the strangest parable Jesus ever spoke. What is Jesus’ reason for telling the story of a dishonest manager of a rich man’s property; he is caught in the act of cheating his employer and he then is fired for his dishonesty? Then, instead of slinking quietly into the night, the manager cuts deals with the people who owe the rich man money, oil, and wheat. And in the final insult of this parable the lying and stealing and cheating and dishonest manager is commended by the rich man AND by virtue of telling the story, by Jesus himself. Why? Because he was so shrewd. Wink, wink.
That, in a nutshell, is the gist of this parable. So what would you make of it? What would you do if you stand in my place this morning and model for your children what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, using this story as your paradigm? I wish we had time to explore all the ins and outs of the parable, for it is fascinating to read the commentaries and see the theological gymnastics of trying to explain just what Jesus had in mind.
But for our purposes this morning, let’s just say that Jesus is not advocating teaching our children that the way to get ahead in life is by cheating, being dishonest, and taking what does not belong to you. Let’s cut to the chase and come to terms with the fact that Jesus has a sense of humor and Jesus is not above using hyperbole to make his point. He was using an extreme form of exaggeration to demonstrate what it means to be a faithful child of the Kingdom of God.
The manager was nothing if not shrewd and clever and resourceful. Think of it this way: populating our prisons are a lot of people who are there because they are not so bright. But many of them are there because they finally got caught after years of being clever and opportunistic and creative. And I think one of the points Jesus is making is, what if we could get all the criminals in our prisons to use their creativity for good, to work for the advancement of the Kingdom, instead of for themselves? That would make a great story. And in fact it is an old theme for novels and movies. The rogue and brilliant criminal who is recruited to save the world from people just like her or him.
So the question is: what does it look like for a devout Christian? What does it look like when a Christian is “wily for Christ?” What does it look like when a disciple of Jesus becomes shrewd for the sake of the Kingdom?
Some of you may have been to the Island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. Iona is the island that St. Columba used as his base of operations in bringing the Christian faith to Scotland. In the 1930s, a Scottish minister by the name of George MacLeod established the Iona Community on the island and set about the work of restoring the centuries old Iona Abbey, which is the landmark towering over the small island. George MacLeod was a devout Christian in the Presbyterian tradition, he had an incredible sense of humor, and he was a prolific fund-raiser for this cause about which he was so passionate. And he had a wicked sense of humor.
In the 1950s, MacLeod came to the United States to raise money for the restoration of Iona Abbey. There, in a chance meeting, he met a wealthy woman from New Harmony, Indiana, named Jane Owens. Jane Owens was a force of nature in her own right. A few years before she had commissioned a a famous sculptor to create a statue of the Incarnation. It featured the Madonna, the Virgin Mary, giving birth to the Lamb of God. And as you know this is not exactly at the heart of the Presbyterian faith, this austere “frozen chosen” way of being the people of God. She offered the statue to the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, but they didn’t want it. They were offended by it. They viewed it as far too sensual for the National Cathedral.
So, hurt by their refusal, she went to New York City to be consoled by a friend. And it was while she was there that she happened to meet George MacLeod on his fund-raising effort for the Abbey. She took an immediate liking to Dr MacLeod and on a whim she offered the statue to sit in the Iona cloisters in the center of the Abbey. She said: “I think the (statue) belongs on Iona.”
George MacLeod thought for a moment, then replied: “Well, we Presbyterians would find it difficult to put a statue of the Madonna at the center of our Abbey. However, if she were to arrive with a dowry, then I think she has found a new home.”
I don’t know if that’s an illustration of the way that disciples of Jesus Christ to be clever and opportunistic and shrewd in advancing the Kingdom of God. But Jane Owens’ Madonna now sits in the heart of the Iona Abbey cloisters. And the Madonna’s “dowry” money completed the restoration of the Abbey. Shrewd. Resourceful. Creative. Clever. Call it what you wish. But here’s the point that I think Jesus is making: we are to use every energy, every intelligence, every imagination, every bit of love that we possess to advance the Kingdom of God. If the ethics of the Kingdom are to take hold in this world, we must become as “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” So here’s your challenge: are you willing to use every resource at your disposal to do your part for the Kingdom?
To God be the glory.