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15th Sunday after Pentecost — September 22, 2019

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
Ordinary 25C; Proper 20

God calls to account those who abuse their power and use their authority for personal gain and at the expense of others.

Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

Luke’s Gospel gives us two managers, administrators, stewards to help us understand the nature of discipleship — this shrewd one in chapter 16 and a hypothetical one in chapter 12. In Luke 12:43, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent manager that the master will put in charge?” His answer: “The one who is awake and at work when the owner returns at an unexpected hour.” Alternatively, which manager will be punished? The one who abuses the others and uses the owner’s resources for self-indulgence. The one who wastes the owner’s possessions, like the one we encounter this week.

Jesus continues his lesson about faithful stewardship and Christian leadership with this week’s parable, but what an odd story it is. The manager gets caught in incompetence at best and corruption at worst. Someway, somehow, the manager wastes the rich owner’s resources. The manager recognizes that the jig is up. No point trying to deny or dodge. He, like the Prodigal in chapter 15, recognizes the desperation of his current situation and acts in ways he might not otherwise. The Prodigal humbly returns to his father; the shrewd manager starts slashing the debts owed to his boss. Both seek to garner goodwill and mercy in the hopes that will rescue them from their plight. Both understand that their options are limited and not good. Both know they need the grace of others in order to avoid the full, catastrophic consequences of their own actions. Both, in fact, receive a reprieve and a second chance.

Perhaps that’s a way to get at this strange story that on the surface appears to condone the very dishonesty that got the manager in trouble in the first place. When we recognize the real mess we have made through our own exploitive and self-indulgent actions, and come to ourselves and make a change, God is merciful. That point should not be lost in the struggle to unpack the rest of the story. One of the bottom lines of this tale is the fact that the ultimate authority figure reverses course and extends grace.

One of the mysteries of this parable is the nature of mismanagement is not given. We are told the manager “wasted” the possessions entrusted to his care. The same word is in the story of the Prodigal, translated as “squandered.” The literal meaning is “scattered.” Somehow, someway, the manager did not steward well or rightly that which was under his care. This, too, is a recurrent theme in the Gospels. Those of us who follow Jesus must be good stewards, prudent managers, trustworthy, alert, working, kind to our fellow workers, always mindful that we do not really possess anything and our loyalty is to the One who put us in charge until he returns. Jesus closes this story with the phrase: “You cannot serve God and money.” The question then, for us, is whom do we serve and what, really, matters most to us? This question is perennial and ought to be a part of our daily consciousness, our regular accounting. Whom are we serving at any given moment — knowing that at any instance, we might be called to account for our management?

But what of the commendation here for shrewdness and wealth dishonestly obtained? How noble is it to be generous with that which is not really ours? Well, in God’s economy, such radical slashing of debts is standard practice, and when we participate in freeing others of their burdens, we are truly being stewards of the mysteries of Christ and faithful administrators of the kingdom. All of those debtors know to whom, ultimately, they owe the debt. When the manager marks it as paid, they know who really pays the price. They may be grateful to the middle manager, but they recognize the largess of the owner who allows the cancellation to stand. Thanks to the owner, grace abounds in this story: for the manager and for the debtors. To whom, then, should we be loyal?

Jesus’ parable calling us to loyalty and service to the One who is merciful and abounding in steadfast love, teaching us to scatter grace, not squander our gifts, is bookended in the lectionary with a lament from Jeremiah and a call to prayer in 1 Timothy. This placement offers us a means to come to our senses and recognize the dire consequences of our own wrongfully placed allegiance and our resulting sinful actions. We, too, must lament our predicament, the one largely of our own making. We have exploited those for whom we ought to have cared. We have wasted and abused God’s good gifts. We have loved money and stopped at nothing to amass it. We have forgotten that all we have belongs to God. We have aggrandized our status and power, neglected others and worshipped idols. There are not enough tears to shed for those injured as a result of our mismanagement. What else can we do then, but pray?

Pray for leaders, kings and presidents, public servants, policy makers and those called to enforce the policies. Pray for everyone from the least of these to the Pharisees. Pray for ourselves, until we come to ourselves and our senses and seek God’s mercy. Pray until we see the error of our ways and know we must make a change — a change that causes us ask God to forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. Pray until our selfish squandering of God’s possessions transforms into magnanimous scattering of God’s goodness.

If we practice being faithful, even in little, our discipleship management skills will be honed and maybe God will commend us and entrust us with much. The truth is, however, that we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve God and money. Thankfully, we are enlisted to be loyal to the One whose grace in Christ has freed us from the otherwise catastrophic consequences of our own actions and we have the joy of extending that debt relief to others.

This week:

  1. When have you recognized that you truly needed God’s grace and mercy? What did you discover as a result of the recognition?
  2. Look at other texts in the Gospels that feature managers or stewards. What makes for a good manager or a bad one? Are we being good managers with what God has entrusted us to steward?
  3. After reading Jeremiah’s lament, what is yours? What do you think God is weeping over this week?
  4. Take seriously Timothy’s call to pray for everyone. Pay attention to those for whom you pray, and notice if there are people or places you neglect to pray for. Pray for the local leaders in your community, for leaders in our country and our world. Use the headlines as your guide.
  5. Read the parable from Luke 16 using lectio divina and consider where you see yourself. Notice what words or phrases stand out to you.
  6. In reading this parable, could you argue that sometimes the ends justify the means? Why or why not? Consider if motive matters or only the outcome.

 

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