Archive for September, 2013

Luke 16:1-13

September 22, 2013


Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, `What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?’ He replied, `A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, `Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

“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? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”<!–

This reading from the Gospel of Luke has sown a lot of confusion over the years. If Jesus means the rich man to represent God, and surely he does, how is it that God commends dishonesty?

Let me run down the story again. The rich man learns that his manager was “squandering” the rich man’s property. In Greek this is a dramatic verb, calling to mind one who throws something to the winds, not caring at all where it lands. To give an extreme example of what that might look like, think of Kim Kardashian’s ten million dollar wedding followed by her two month marriage. We would accuse such a person of carelessness with their assets, even naiveté, rather than deliberate wrong doing.

Next the rich man learns that his manager has actually and intentionally done wrong. In that short period of time while the manager still had authority — between when he had to hand over his account book and when he would actually leave office — the manager, in essence, robbed the rich man of 35% of his accounts payable.

He did this, of course, in order to prepare a place for himself in the community. Knowing human nature as he did, he was counting on the hand-washes-hand principle: I’ll take care of you, you take care of me. When the rich man learned of this latest transgression he commended him; or the word can also be translated “praised” him. The rich man may also have had him arrested; but he could not help admiring the manager’s ingenuity.

Many details are missing from this story. For instance, Jesus doesn’t say if the manager was arrested; nor whether the manager’s scheme did, in fact, earn him a place in the community. Put this down to Jesus’ great economy as a story teller. He only gives the details that will support the underlying point he wants to make.

What is that point? What I will suggest seems to me to be the only way to pull all the parts of this passage into one coherent whole. Also, it is consistent with Jesus’ statement of what he was put on this earth to do. He said, “I have come that they may have life and life more abundantly.”

If the rich man in the parable represents God, then the manager must represent you and me and everyone. God gave us life and put us in charge of it. To say God gave us life means that we came into being, because God shared God’s divine life with us. We have it in trust, so to speak. The trouble is, we are careless, spendthrift even, with that life. Not wicked, just heedless, spending it any old which way, not keeping accounts.

Jesus’ story says to us: you cannot go on forever this way. You may not be keeping proper accounts, but one day God will ask you to account for how you managed the assets entrusted to you.

In the story the manager impressed God, not by being dishonest, but by being ingenious. It reminds me of a news article I read years ago. On New Year’s Eve, several banks on the San Francisco peninsula were robbed. How? The thieves had replicated the front of the night deposit box — the same metal, same design: identical! They positioned the false fronts directly before the actual depositories. So all night long bar and restaurant owners were dropping huge sums right into the thieves’ pocket, so to speak. Before dawn the thieves collected their deposit boxes and drove them away. You have to admire their ingenuity, even as you would happily put them in jail.

There can be no doubt that Jesus is chiding his disciples here. He draws their attention to the manager’s ingenuity and the energy the manager invests in using that ingenuity for his own ends. Jesus is looking for this same energy and ingenuity in his disciples, us! But with two differences. First, the manager was driven by fear, while we have nothing to fear. We must be driven by love. Second, we are not to direct our energy and ingenuity toward our own limited ends — what he calls “dishonest wealth” — but toward our eternal ends — what he calls “true riches.”

This should not sound as if we are meant to earn our place in heaven. Putting it that way makes life into a matter of straining after an external reward that will come in the great by-and-by. In reality, God simply intends for us to enjoy, to the fullest extent possible, the divine life within us, our true riches, right here and now.

Let me go back to the story of the two bank depositories, one real and permanent, the other contrived and temporary. You could say we spend our day to day lives making deposits. We manage our assets — our time, our minds, our abilities, our health, and all we possess — and we deposit the profits. The question is what is the nature of those profits?

Suppose the profits look like self-indulgence in its various denominations? Those profits can only go into the contrived and temporary box; and in time a thief will wheel them away. Suppose the profits go into the real and permanent box? What would they look like? They would look like finding joy in each moment, being grateful for all that life brings, the good, yes, but also the bad and the ugly. They would look like care for the sick, the friendless and the needy. They would look like time spent in prayer and worship. They would look like a heart open in forgiveness.

In short, with this parable Jesus is not saying, “Work harder.” He is saying, “Use the same energy and ingenuity the manager used, and open yourself to the joy of your God-given life, right here, right now. And keep opening. You have no idea how deep you can go, what joy you can find.”

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Luke 14:1, 7-14

September 1, 2013

We prayed in today’s collect that God would “increase in us true religion.” If a religion is truly doing its job, it should be pointing and prodding and luring us to a place of unbridled joy. Jesus sometimes called that place the kingdom of heaven and the church is fond of calling it eternal life. The Dalai Lama calls it genuine happiness and the Hebrew Scriptures call it the Promised Land. Whatever metaphor we use, it refers to a state of inner freedom that we can enter here and now and that is not interrupted by death.

That being said, doesn’t today’s Gospel strike you as odd? Listen to these tips for success in life. See if you can spot the one that is NOT by Dale Carnegie.

1. Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.
2. Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.
3. The Person who succeeds is generally the one who is willing to do and dare.
4. When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.

The last was from Jesus, which is strange, for we don’t usually think of him as teaching how to “win friends and influence people.” Typically, Jesus teaches how to get ahead in eternal life.

Actually, that is just what he is doing here, but in an artful way. Jesus watched his fellow guests at the dinner party, and could see that they were not free. At that crucial choice point in life, where we have to choose between success and genuine happiness, they had chosen success. It’s a fatal choice, spiritually speaking, because success depends on outside forces, external events, other people, things we cannot control — my place at the banquet table, for instance. In short, by vying for the places of honor, the dinner guests opened themselves up to humiliation. Bondage, not freedom, followed — bondage to fear or anxiety.

Jesus has compassion on the dinner guests and wants to show them the better choice, but he has to put it in terms that will mean something to them. So in his little parable he makes it sound as if God, the eternal host, also has a banquet table, also sorts the more successful from the less successful. God’s yardstick for success differs, of course, but Jesus’ story suggests that some of us will be of greater value in God’s eyes than others. Jesus has God say, “Friend, move up higher,” which implies that some must sit lower.

Jesus is luring them, using their own values. He used ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ language, because the dinner guests are still in bondage to other peoples’ opinion. To change their behavior he has to promise them a reward they would understand, such as, “then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” Public opinion being the fickle thing it is, that’s a dubious reward, but it mattered to the dinner guests.

Next he adds something that must have left them scratching their heads. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” It is the opposite of what they used to believe, but at least they now have the security of knowing what it takes to get ahead, what it takes to succeed: act humble.

Jesus takes this paradox even further in his instructions to the host. “When you give a banquet,” he says, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Again, Jesus motivates them out of their own set of values: an external reward, something to earn, a token of success.

Shall we take this at face value? That some of us will receive a warmer welcome from God than others? The more good works we do in this life the greater success we’ll earn in heaven? Jesus certainly makes it sound that way.

Thinking about that question, I recalled how Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, made the news this summer. I wonder: could that be what motivated him when he challenged Wonga — a reward in heaven? Wonga is England’s leading payday lending company, which dominates the market, and charges an annual 5,000% interest. Welby plans to put Wonga out of business by offering legitimate credit unions, which charge only several percentage points of interest, free office space in the thousands of churches of the Church of England. Was Welby motivated by the hope of keeping his mitre, his staff and his exalted position when he gets to heaven? I’ll come back to this is a moment.

If Jesus means what he seems to be saying, Welby’s action would put him miles ahead of the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind at God’s banquet table. What chance do they have of doing something grand for God? Intuitively we reject this idea; we know that cannot be right.

So what might lie behind the things Jesus has been saying to the dinner guests? We need to look at what he says when he is finally speaking to them straight: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This has nothing to do with external rewards, even from God. It has to do with our own, inner freedom. If I am busy pushing my way to a higher place at the banquet table — it could be called the table of ‘my standing in the community,’ or the table called ‘my reputation,’ or the table called ‘my assets’ or ‘my credentials’ — if that is what I am doing, my thoughts must be about my self and the threats or challenges that self faces. I’m about as free as an armed guard. Whereas, to be exalted, as Jesus means it, is to reach that pinnacle of unbridled joy. This is the only and true reward, one which is not bestowed, but rises up from within; and one which cannot be taken away, and which we can only reach with free hands.

What does humbling ourselves have to do with reaching that pinnacle? Think of the Beatitudes, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Those who are poor in spirit are not full of themselves, not stuffed with set opinions; not self-certain, like a former governor of California who once famously said, “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.” Rather, one who is poor in spirit is open to the present moment, open to learning, open to new possibilities and free to create. Small children, for instance, are poor in spirit. In other words, to be poor in spirit, as Jesus means it, is to be humble.

Have you ever tried to press like poles of a magnet together? It cannot be done. So too with genuine happiness and success; if you chose the one you cannot have the other. On the other hand, if you choose genuine happiness you will be drawn to humility. Let me show how this works with a final reference to Justin Welby.

God gave each of us gifts for love and service, gifts that never before came together in this unique configuration in the history of the universe. When I am not worried about success, I am like an orchestra conductor and I can freely choose how to use my gifts to serve the world. Think of the exaltation in that! The unbridled joy!

When Archbishop Welby learned of the loan sharking, he brought to that moment a background in banking, he brought his position of power as the head of the Church of England and a peer of the realm; he brought tremendous courage and a strong passion for justice; and he brought a sense of identity with the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. He used it in a way that brought him unbridled joy; and that joy did not come from his worldly power or position. Any of us can share that joy.