Twenty-Fifth Day of Lent

Luke 16:1-9
1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ 3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ 5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 “ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ 7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’ 8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

There is a very clear connection here with the parable of the prodigal. In both settings someone is responsible for squandering the wealth of someone else. The Greek word used in both cases is exactly the same and it literally means “they scattered it in all directions” (Luke 15:13; 16:1).

But there's a reason why this parable is not often preached, and it comes in verse 9. Jesus appears to suggest that we should be shrewd in using our resources to gain friends. It sounds a bit disingenuous doesn't it? The complexity of the parable means that there is no real consensus on how to handle it, and I certainly don't propose to resolve the challenge here. And anyway, it is the beauty of stories that they allow us a whole variety of ways of understanding the truths they tell.

One way into this story is to consider the fact that the news comes to the rich man from outside his household, “What is this I hear about you?” he says (Luke 16:2). It may suggest that the ability of the rich man to control the actions of those in his household is being called into question, and, in an honour/shame culture, to have others talking about you negatively is a far worse thing than to be losing money. So it may be that the master is on trial in this parable and not the steward. If he is not able to control his household, his family members, his staff, clients or agents is to incur serious stigma in society that no amount of money can compensate for.

The central issue is therefore the recovery of honour which of necessity means the sacking of the steward, whether the charges laid against the steward are true or not. In this way he can recover some of the loss of face. This is why the steward had to act quickly (Luke 16:3) for he knows there is not going to be an investigation. In Jesus’ time the actions of the steward are perfectly understandable, everybody would know that this is how a man who is about to be sacked would react. And his actions serve to heighten the threat to the rich man’s honour, for in trying to recover his status the man’s shrewd manager ends up making it worse.

The parable then swerves in a  totally unexpected direction. What should happen now is that the Master act again, at the expense of the manager to recover honour, but instead it’s almost as if the Master laughs at the manager’s actions. Indeed he praises the manager for his shrewdness and by doing so he scandalises the listeners who were primed to expect harsh action. Instead the Master praises his social inferior for how he acts and shifts attention from his damaged honour to the apparent success of the manager. In this way the honour/shame code is fractured.

In this way the parable is a close relation of the parable of the banquet in Luke 14, which we considered on Monday. There too, the rich man steps outside the social codes of the day to do the unexpected.

Jesus’s parables do this all the time. A Samaritan acts in a caring way. A father acknowledges his failures and humbles himself before his sons. A wealthy man throwing a party by which he will ensure the indebtedness of his guests ends up inviting a whole host of people who could never repay him.

The Gospel consistently refuses to match our expectations of social and cultural norms, in fact Jesus keeps breaking the social taboos of his day, making space for those who are on the outside and unseating those in power.

His stories serve to unsettle us with their unpredictability and downright inappropriateness. It forces us to think of how often in the practice of our faith as disciples we conform to social norms because that’s what’s expected of us. How often do we refuse to create a fuss over an injustice because it is unseemly. Seamus Heaney said it best in his 1975 poem "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,", speaking of the Troubles,

"The famous
Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the "wee six" I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing."

We hover, and maneouvre and dance around the things that must be said but fail to say it because to do so would be to bring the whole edifice of respectability down. So whatever you say, say nothing for fear of bringing the kind of disruptive change the Gospel brings.

So whenever we face a religious pressure to keep a lid on things, it's likely that Jesus would blow the lid off. It was not his way to "say nothing" for the sake of a quiet life or some veneer of respectability. Jesus was a profound disrupter of "the way things are done around here."

It is often said of Jesus that he came to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. In the light of this parable are there aspects of your faith life which have become comfortable, predictable and safe? What if Jesus were to come as a disruptive presence and tell you a story that shocked you. How would that story begin?

Lord Jesus
You are the great storyteller
Of unexpected twists
And surprising endings.

Forgive me when I seek
To control the narrative
To order the characters
And keep drama from their lives.

Open my life to more unpredictable storylines
To more bewildering turns
To more exciting encounters
And more unforeseen outcomes.

And teach me to look there for you,
Popping up in unpredictable places
In dazzling dress
And with confounding figures


Sixteenth Day of Lent

Luke 14:7-11
7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: 8 ‘When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this person your seat.” Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

12 Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

Once again Jesus’ teaching is shaped by what he notices around him. He’s not using the circumstances around him as sermon illustrations, but as lessons of how the inner drives of human beings can often be destructive of community and relationships, and ultimately of the thing we are most desperate to protect—our self-understanding.

Giving in to the need to be noticed, or surrendering to the inner drive to be recognised as a person of substance, often leads to humiliation.

On the surface though Jesus seems to be a bit disingenuous here. He seems to be saying you should fake your humility because this is way to get ahead (14:10). Like a  Hollywood Oscar winner, crying ‘tears’ in their acceptance speech and pretending this is for everyone else, when we all know they would prefer to be making the speech Father Ted made when he won the Golden Cleric award!

But consider the fact that first of all, the party Jesus is attending is being thrown by a wealthy Pharisee (Luke 14:1). This is unusual in Jesus day because generally speaking Pharisees were not rich, in fact they were barely a step above destitution. So this is unusual.

We should also know that food and hospitality was a hugely important thing. When you invited people for a banquet, you did so in anticipation of a return invitation. It was a way of climbing the social ladder. Get the right invitations, been seen in the right places and be sure that your status will rise accordingly. And so, as the guests are gathering, Jesus is observing the scramble for the best spots.

If you want to live by these rules, if this kind of status is what you crave then, Jesus seems to say, let’s be honest about how it works. And so he cruelly exposes the sham of this lifestyle. (I sometimes wonder why rich and powerful people never learned not to invite Jesus to their parties!).

Jesus exposes a certain value system that works by fakery and then challenges his host to the more authentic lifestyle of a disciple. Throw a party and invite those of no influence, and those who can’t advance your career or reputation (Luke 14:13).  You see, everyone knew that there was no sense in inviting the poor to your party because they would refuse the invitation because they couldn’t return the favour.

Jesus challenges them on their understanding of what it means to be blessed (Luke 14:14). You think that to be blessed means to be invited to the best parties and to be in the company of the best people. But to be truly blessed, reach out to those who can in no way repay you.

The central question of the parable is whether we are prepared to postpone blessing to the resurrection, or whether we want our blessing now.

So here’s a challenge for today, find a way of doing something kind and generous for someone, but do it anonymously. Do it in such a way that the action can never be traced to you. Find the blessing in a random act of kindness for a stranger and the confidence of knowing that God sees.