[Kara Slade] This sermon is not (only) about money
ALH asked me to post this sermon, so here it is. – Kara
Proper 20 – Luke 16:1-13; 1 Timothy 2:1-7
Goodson Chapel, Duke Divinity School, September 25, 2013
The Rev. Kara N. Slade
O, Thou far off and here, whole and broken, Who in necessity and in bounty wait, Whose truth is light and dark, mute though spoken, By Thy wide Grace show me Thy narrow gate. Amen.
Let me be frank. The parable we just heard from Luke’s gospel offends my sense of propriety. I suspect I’m not alone in that assessment. All the commentaries I consulted – and I consulted quite a few – contained the Biblical Studies equivalent of the warning on ancient maps: Here be dragons. This passage is hard to interpret. It’s a parable that reminds us of the importance of rightly interpreting these stories, of resisting the urge to turn them into universal moral imperatives. And, while a lot of people seem to think this morning’s parable is about money, or about networking your way into heaven, I’d like to suggest it’s about something else entirely.
This tale of a shifty middle manager and his overdramatic boss begins on a decidedly ominous note. The manager is accused of squandering his boss’ money, and he’s summarily fired. No chance of appeal, no severance pay, no nothing. We can imagine him considering his future as he packs up his office, filling two battered boxes full of trade-show coffee mugs and desk accessories. Quite understandably, he panics. His words reek of the sort of middle-class status anxiety that Barbara Ehrenreich called The Fear of Falling: “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.”
But he comes up with a cunning plan, to fiddle the Accounts Receivable, ingratiate himself to the customers, and arrange a safety net for himself by means of creative bookkeeping. And then, things get really weird. The parable ends with a lucky escape – and with what sounds like Jesus’ endorsement of all the shenanigans: “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.”
Remember, this is not a moral object lesson. Our sketchy steward gets this much right: Life as he knows it has come to an end. The economy of Mammon, of scarcity, self-sufficiency, and competition, will grind him under its heel like anyone else. Just as it always has, just as we heard in the reading from Amos: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.” But there’s a different economy on the way: an economy of gratuity, friendship, and grace. And the steward is freed by the death of his previous self to think possibilities he couldn’t have thought before. From the bottom of the heap, he becomes the unlikely agent of life for everyone else in the story.
One way I think we can start to make sense of this parable is by reading it alongside the passage immediately before it. At the end of Luke 15, Jesus tells the much more familiar story of the prodigal son. Here, too, we hear about a man who squandered everything he had – the Greek verb is the same in both stories. Here, too, the possibilities of a new way of thinking and living emerge only on the other side of a kind of death. And here, too, we find ourselves in the middle of an offensive economy of extravagant love and abundant mercy.
As several commentators have suggested, we can read Jesus figuratively as both the Prodigal Son and the Unjust Steward. As the Prodigal Son, he enters into our greatest humiliation and reconciles humanity with the Father. As the Unjust Steward, he enters into our all-too-ordinary sinfulness, and forgives our debt. And from a place where con-men scheme and thieves gamble, on a hill outside the city walls, Jesus ushers in the age to come.
He becomes, as Karl Barth writes, “the one great sinner, with all the consequences that this involves, the one who penitently declares that He is the lost sheep, [He is] the lost coin, [He is] the lost son, and therefore as the Judge he is judged. His day – the day of the divine judgment – [is] the great day of atonement, the day of the dawn of a new heaven and a new earth, the birthday of a new man. . . . He is sinless not in spite of, but just because of his being the friend of publicans and sinners and His dying between the malefactors.”
Now, I admit, this all seems very unseemly. But I think I agree with Robert Capon when he says the unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is just this: “grace cannot come through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, and winning – not the grace that works by death and losing. Which is the only grace there is. To save a world that respectability would only terrify and condemn, he became sin for us sinners, lost for us losers, weak for us weaklings, and dead for us dead.”
This is a grace that works only on those it finds dead enough to raise.
Hear the good news today from the first letter of Paul to Timothy: “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”
It really is that easy. And it really is that hard.
Because in the abundant economy of grace, this, our infinite debt to Jesus, is the starting balance of all our own accounting. This is the fixed point from which we begin, and begin again, in our grateful work as disciples. And our goal can never be the perfection of our striving, but instead “the deep recognition of the imperfection of it, and precisely because of this a deeper and deeper consciousness of the need for grace, not grace for this or that, but the infinite need infinitely for grace.”
And it’s for this reason that I’d like to suggest today’s Gospel ultimately points us towards the mystery of the Incarnation. The Word became flesh because of, in spite of, the utter failure of all our attempts to save ourselves, to secure our own future in the eternal homes. The Anglican poet Denise Levertov puts it this way:It’s when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart: not to a flower, not to a dolphin, to no innocent form but to this creature vainly sure it and no other is god-like, God (out of compassion for our ugly failure to evolve) entrusts, as guest, as brother, the Word.
 Wendell Berry, “To the Holy Spirit,” in The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, http://friartucksfleetingthoughts.blogspot.com/2009/02/to-holy-spirit-poem-by-wendell-berry.html.
 Luke 16:3, NRSV.
 Luke 16:9, NRSV.
 Amos 8:4, NRSV.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, p. 259. and II.1, p 157.
 Robert Farrar Capon, “The Hardest Parable: The Unjust Steward,” in Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 302-309.
 1 Timothy 2:5-6, NRSV.
 Søren Kierkegaard, J. Pap. X3 A 784 n.d., 1851.
 Denise Levertov, “On the Mystery of the Incarnation,” in The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes (New York: New Directions, 1997), Kindle location 156/672.