Proper 20C Sermon (2016)

Proper 20 (Sept. 18-24)
Texts: Luke 16:1-13;
Amos 8:4-7; 1 Tim 2:1-7


Imagine a world which operated according to mercy and compassion. Could you call up your Mastercard rep, for example, and say, “I made a mistake and overextended myself this month; I can’t make a payment.” And the rep would say, “Oh, that’s O.K., you’re forgiven. Don’t worry about it.” That would bring a new meaning to “Forgive us debts as we forgive our debtors,” wouldn’t it?!

Or what if you really made a huge mistake at work that cost your company millions of dollars, and you boss simply said, “Tough break! These things happen. You’ll do better next time.” In the real world, there wouldn’t be a “next time,” would there?

No, our world doesn’t operate on mercy and compassion, does it? We’ve talked in recent weeks about a spirituality based on getting what one deserves vs. a spirituality of grace, gift. Our world generally operates according to the spirit of debt-keeping, a spirit of reward and punishment, win and lose.

Today’s parable seems to be about exactly that usual work and business world of reward and punishment, a world where debts are kept — a world that doesn’t often operate according to mercy or compassion of debt-forgiving. A manager who works for a rich man is caught in some kind of incompetence. Jesus tells us that he has squandered his master’s property. In other words, he’s made some goof that has cost his company millions of dollars. So what’s the consequences? He’s fired. He’s told to settle up accounts and to get lost.

But the master in this parable, the CEO, hasn’t learned the procedure of modern layoffs, where the person fired walks into an already cleared-out office one morning, gets handed the pink slip, turns over any keys, and gets escorted out by the security guard. In this “dog eat dog” world a fired employee can’t be trusted to not get even. Apparently, this CEO in Jesus’ parable hadn’t learned that yet, so he makes the mistake of letting the guy stay on to settle up his last accounts. And this shrewd manager makes the most of his opportunity. You might say he pulls a bit of a sting operation. He makes some friends with his CEO’s clients by writing off substantial portions of their bills. Smart guy! He gets even with his old boss and potentially wins himself a new boss. These clients of his old boss will owe him a favor. The sneaky manager has pulled a fast one.

What comes next, though, is a surprise ending to the parable, perhaps a glimpse of the world of compassion breaking into our “dog eat dog” world. The manager apparently doesn’t get his just desserts this time. For his incompetence, he got fired. For his dishonesty, his behind-his-boss’s-back dealings, one might expect him to get thrown in jail. Instead, Jesus simply tells us, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” No jail. No retribution of any kind. Rather, a commendation. What’s going on here? Are we getting a glimpse of mercy?

Let’s step back a moment and look at the bigger picture in Luke’s Gospel story of Jesus. What Jesus is trying to get us to imagine, to glimpse, is exactly what we began with this morning. Jesus wants us to imagine a kingdom of mercy, a reign of compassion. Because that’s the kingdom he came to bring into this world from God, a kingdom whose reigning power is that of compassion. But God’s world, God’s reign, of compassion will clash with this world’s powers that makes for winners and losers, the survival of the fittest. Jesus himself will embody that clash. God sent Jesus into the world to essentially be one of the losers, branded a criminal and hung upon the cross. Yet even from the cross Jesus refused to play the game of tit-for-tat. Instead, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Can you imagine anymore mercy than that? It is the same power of mercy and compassion that raised Jesus from the dead and promises to transform our lives, if we are only faithful to it even a very little.

So Jesus’s parables give us a preview of this clash between different ways of reigning, a reign based on reward and punishment, winning and losing; and a reign based on grace and forgiveness, where even the losers are shown compassion. Today’s is now the fourth parable in a row where we’ve seen this clash, sparked off by Jesus’s confrontation with the leaders of his day, the scribes and Pharisees. We are told that Jesus tells these parable for them. There’s a shepherd who unwisely, by this world’s standards of sacrificing the losers, leaves his heard to search for one lost sheep. There’s the woman who seemingly wastes time looking for one lost coin, when she has plenty. There’s the father who welcomes back his Prodigal Son. And then there’s this CEO who commends his fired manager for acting shrewdly behind his back. Four parables in a row that give the same glimpse of a world of mercy breaking into a world where losers are simply sacrificed, cut loose. And this last one might be most important, since it moves us into the heart of our world, namely, the business district. Can the reign of compassion even break into the “dog eat dog” world of economics and business?

I’d like to end with some extemporized reflections on globalization and faith in God’s reign of compassion. Isn’t globalization another sign of God’s kingdom breaking into the world? Jesus came to help us understand that all human beings are part of God’s family. The movement of globalization brings us to the brink of realizing this. But will it happen in ways that sacrifice losers, or will we find ways of compassion, along with the working of God’s spirit, that move us toward everyone flourishing — just like we strive to do in our own families?

Extemporize ending, introducing the book I’m currently listening to: Miroslav Volf’s Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. Main illustration: the I-Phone and it evolution toward more just ways of producing it (on pp. 32-36 of the book).

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, September 17-18, 2016

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