Sunday, September 22, 2013

Gospel Whiplash

My sermon for Sunday, September 22, 2013

In a week when as your priest I was working with our Budget Committee on thinking about the 2013 and 2014 budgets and our building committee working on the budget for our construction projects, and facing a Vestry meeting tomorrow night, I don’t think I could have asked for a worse parable to preach on than today’s Gospel. Be assured that your Vestry, Budget Committee, Investment Committee, and everyone else in parish leadership try to be shrewd and honest stewards of our financial life.

There’s a temptation to try to make today’s Gospel reading make sense, and come up with one single point that the whole thing is guiding us towards. I don’t believe that’s possible. Or at least if it is, I am not a good enough scholar or preacher to do it. But it is a good opportunity to just remember, briefly, how the Gospels stories were put together.

The person we know as Luke who “wrote” this gospel was really more of an editor. He took the Gospel of Mark and a group of Jesus’ sayings known today to scholars as “Q” and some other material about 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection and put it together and shaped it into a story that told the Good News of Jesus as he understood it. So if things seem disjointed or contradictory, it’s because they are. Jesus can tell a story about a manager who acts dishonestly but shrewdly with his master’s wealth and then Luke can combine that with some other sayings of Jesus on the topic of wealth that completely contradict what looks to be the point of the first story. So if you felt like you had theological whiplash by the end of listening to the Gospel today, it’s with good reason. There really is a story saying one thing followed immediately by some verses that say the exact opposite.

I did, however, read a great sermon on this Gospel passage online this week by Sarah Dylan Breuer, a lay Episcopalian in Massachusetts ( . She did an interpretation of this story based in its historical context that went something like this:

A very rich man lives in a big city with an income from the estate he owns in the country. His manager runs the estate, and all the work of the estate is done by the peasants whose grandparents might have owned the land but lost it in payment to a debt. So they work as tenant farmers, buying everything they need from a sort of “company store” owned by the landowner at prices far above what they’re worth. Since the harvest is never enough to pay their rent and their debts at the store, they slip further and further into debt. The manager collects the rents, enforces the debts, and is generally unpopular with the peasants—from whose ranks he probably came.

The landowner fires the manager because of rumors that he was squandering the landowner’s resources. The manager has made his fortune—such as it is—by unjustly supporting the landowner over the peasants, so he has no good place to turn—until he gathers all the farmers who owe the landowner money and declares that their debts have been reduced from an amount that would be impossible for them to pay to something that maybe they could actually do at some point. He doesn’t say he’s about to be fired and that this is his idea rather than the landowner’s idea.

So the farmers think the landowner is generous—and so is his manager. When the landowner returns to the estate he gets a surprise: the peasants are cheering for him. They love him and shower him with gratitude. He can’t really go back and fire his manager and tell them it’s all a mistake—that he’s not really generous, that he really does want to keep them in servitude. So he claps the manager on the back and says in effect, “well done.”

Well that makes it sound like a different story, doesn’t it? It’s still complicated—the manager is acting on the side of justice not out of a sense of compassion or out of some high moral claim but out of self-interest. But he’s also a little bit of a Robin Hood character, righting the wrongs of an oppressive system. Sort of. At the end of the parable, the peasants are still tenant farmers and are still in debt. But if the shrewdness of the manager is done—however unintentionally—in service of good, as a way of taking “dishonest wealth” and doing something honest with it then maybe we see that the manager is not serving wealth but serving God. It might make us ask ourselves, when is it more faithful to God to be dishonest than honest? Think Oscar Schindler, abolitionists who ran the Underground Railroad, and any number of other examples of people who used deception for good ends. Stories about people who break the rules for the greater good make great movies.

And then we get to the next verse, “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?” and then the whiplash happens. Didn’t we just hear a character commended for their dishonesty? Stop being so confusing, Jesus!

Well, one thing we might understand it are different strands of moral theology, or ethics. I’m no hard academic theologian, but because every one of us makes moral decisions every day—from what form of transportation we use to how we invest our money to how we relate to our co-workers and neighbors to how we raise our children—it’s good to have a grasp of some of what millennia of philosophers and theologians have written and where we fit on that spectrum.

One way of looking at our moral universe as Christians (or really, as anything—this isn’t just for Christians) is as an absolutist. Absolutists believe there are certain acts that are absolutely right or wrong in all circumstances. If it is a moral absolute not to kill anyone, then it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are—it’s never right to kill, even if it would save more lives, or be a just punishment, or be in self defense. The closing verses of this Gospel today sound more absolutist—you must always be faithful with wealth, no matter where it comes from and if it is honest wealth or dishonest wealth. Absolutism can be derived from two different sources: from rules or laws which must not be broken, or from consistent virtues within yourself. The gospel verses today seem to sound more like they derive from virtue—a person who has the virtue of honesty will always be honest; someone who can act dishonestly will never reliably embody the virtue of honesty. The advantage of an absolutist world view is its consistency and clarity; the disadvantage is the injustice it can create in the results when absolute principles come in conflict with one another. If it’s an absolute to tell the truth, and an absolute to love your neighbor, those conflict when you’re trying to hide runaway slaves, or rescue Jews from the Nazis.

Another strain of moral theology is called consequentialism. Consequentialists believe that it is the results of our actions that matter—so sometimes it might be best to do something wrong, if it has a good outcome. The reading of the parable of the dishonest manager that Dylan Breuer worked on is a good example of consequentialism: does the manager cheat his master? Yes…. But because the consequences are good it is justified. It appears that the landowner in this parable is a consequentialist as well, since he commends the steward’s dishonesty. Consequentialism has the capacity to be pragmatic and compassionate. But consequentialism can also slide into moral relativism, where there are no absolutes and people just make up their own rules to suit their circumstances.

Where do you fall, in your own moral life? Are you more of an absolutist or a consequentialist? If you have absolutes—what are they? And what challenges them? If you’re more of a consequentialist, what are the guides that inform which consequences you think are worth breaking the usual moral codes for?

I would say that the way today’s Gospel puts these two approaches to the moral life next to one another should provoke us into realizing that Jesus’ will always leave us always struggling in discerning which actions are right or wrong. Understanding the Gospel is not simple—or we would not have such contrasting words coming out of Jesus’ mouth. His hearers in the first century struggled to understand how to follow him, too—particularly around how to handle wealth, because it’s a topic Jesus spoke so frequently about. If there are too many absolutes, we are not being shrewd enough. If we leave aside all our absolutes then we may not be able to be trusted. We may serve wealth—or power, or ourselves, or fame, or evil, or any other idol—and try to point to a positive consequence to justify it.

The moral absolute for Christians is to serve—and love—God with heart, mind and soul. But how we see the world has such an influence on what we see—do we see our stories as more like the parable as we first heard it this morning, or as more like something with the interpretation of Dylan Breuer, with shades of history and motivation? That is the shrewdness I believe we are called to bring as Christians—most of us are not called to be shrewd in business dealings. But we are all called to be shrewd in how we see the world—in not taking things at face value but at looking for the real story at the heart. Because a story about how a manager stole from a rich man can turn into a story about how a rich man stole from a lot of poor people when you really listen to it. That kind of shrewdness is serving God faithfully, and hopefully leads to grace and to being what this gospel refers to as the “children of light.”

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