Proper 20C Sermon (2004)

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


Ever since the tragedy of September 11, 2001, that we remembered last week. it often feels like we’ve been in crisis mode. We’ve steadily been at war, first in Afghanistan and now in Iraq. It’s a major theme of this fall’s presidential election campaign concerning who will be the stronger leader in this time of crisis. What does it mean to be a strong leader in a time of crisis?

Jesus has a surprising answer to that question, I think, in this morning’s Gospel Lesson. The dishonest steward in Jesus’ parable faces a personal crisis. He’s been sacked. Fired. He doesn’t know how to do anything else but be a steward. Apparently, he’s too frail or weak or lazy to do hard physical labor. Yet he comes up with a plan and coolly executes it in the face of his crisis, and the shrewdness of his actions win him a commendation from his master. Not only that, but in even telling us this parable, and with some of the things he says afterwards, Jesus seems to approve of what this steward did. If we want to get at Jesus’ answer to how to face crises, we’d better take a closer look at what the steward did in facing his crisis.

The puzzling thing about this parable is that the steward is openly called dishonest. And to us in the twentieth century it sure looks like the steward is dishonest again in his solution to the crisis. He calls his master’s debtors in and forgives large portions of their debt. Isn’t he being dishonest again? How could Jesus be commending him? I have been among those who have really struggled with this parable, searching from many different angles to try to make sense of it. It seems like we need to find a way to make what the steward does in his crisis less dishonest. One way that has made sense to me, for example, is to understand that in Jesus’ day, and in his culture, honor was even more important than wealth. So if the steward had stained the honor of his master by acting dishonestedly, the dishonor that got him fired, in the face of his personal crisis he is now acting to give honor to his master by treating his master’s clients with mercy. Do you see? He had acted shamefully, besmirching his master’s honor, which got him fired. Then he acts with mercy toward his master’s business patrons to restore the honor. That’s why the master commends him. He has acted shrewdly in the time of crisis.

But I’m not sure we need to put a spin on the unjust steward’s actions in crisis, in the first place. Because Jesus hedges his bets anyway by immediately commenting, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” In other words, Jesus realizes that this guy isn’t honest, by contrasting him with the “children of light,” but he commends him anyway. Why? Here’s the crucial question: What, precisely, is it that the steward does, albeit without authorization and with apparent deception?

Answer: The steward forgives debts. The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that’s the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a position from which it seems he couldn’t be reconciled.

So what’s the moral of this story, one of the stories unique to Luke? It’s a moral of great emphasis for Luke: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.

Remember, Luke is the guy whose version of the “Lord’s Prayer” (which we had mid-summer) includes the helpful category confusion, “forgive us our sins as we forgive our debtors” (Luke 11:4). If you’ve wondered where those different versions of the Lord’s Prayer comes from, “sins,” “debts,” “trespasses” — Luke is at least partly responsible. When it comes to forgiveness, he seems to treat monetary debts in the same boat as moral offenses. I could point to at least a dozen moments off the cuff at which Luke raises this point: the arrival of the kingdom of God is no occasion for score-keeping of any kind, whether monetary or moral. Yes, this dishonest steward is commended because he forgives debts at his time of personal crisis.

The matter of forgiveness is central to Jesus. Why forgive someone who’s sinned against us, or against our sense of what is obviously right? We don’t have to do it out of love for the other person, if we’re not there yet. We could forgive the other person because of that whole business of what we pray in Jesus’ name every Sunday morning, and because we know we’d like forgiveness ourselves. We could forgive because we’ve experienced what we’re like as unforgiving people; and so we know that refusing to forgive because we don’t want the other person to benefit is, as the saying goes, like eating rat poison hoping it will hurt the rat. Refusing to forgive usually festers a poison inside of us. We could forgive because we are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus’ power to forgive and free sinners like us. Or we could forgive because we think it will improve our odds of winning the lottery.

It all boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena — financial and moral — can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace…. [Add your own ending]

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Atonement Lutheran,
Muskego, WI, September 19, 2004

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