A sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 18, 2016
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
Today’s gospel reading is well known among preachers as one of the hardest of Jesus’ parables to interpret and preach on. Part of that is because people often think that Jesus’ parables are allegories where one of the characters is God; and another piece is that we often expect Jesus’ stories to be moralistic and tell people how to behave. Today’s parable proves that those things aren’t always true. Jesus’ stories are about the real world of human experience. There is nothing particularly moral about anybody in this story and the rich man is definitely NOT God. Let’s step back a bit and just listen to the story as a story. It’s easy enough to retell this in a contemporary idiom:
There was a CEO of a very large company, a national or international concern that makes a lot of money in many ways. It came to his attention that one of his regional or divisional managers was not doing so well. The manager had been there a long time and had a very good salary, but unlike the rest of the company, this manager’s area of responsibility was on the decline—accounts were being cancelled and going to competitors, market share was declining, revenue was down while at the same time expenses were up. Something was wrong. It probably wasn’t criminal—an embezzler would cover his tracks better. The CEO sends a message notifying the manager that there would be a Special Review of that division’s performance. The manager in question didn’t just fall off the turnip truck—he knew what that meant. In this company, a Special Review meant the end for the manager. And usually those Reviews were used to document how to justify eliminating most of the severance and bonus eligibility for the manager on the way out. He still had kids in college, lots of expenses and it was way too early to retire. And the job market at his level for people his age was none too good, especially because his most notable achievements were years ago.
So our manager considers his situation. And he comes up with a plan. He finds the most important of the accounts that his division oversees and he goes to see the person in charge of each one. I can’t say the specifics of what he worked out with them. It may well have involved criminal actions—it certainly violated the terms of his employment arrangements with his company. In a few days, he had made personal and professional arrangements that were so advantageous to the clients that they made consulting arrangements with him that guaranteed enough income for his kids to get through college and for him to reach retirement with at least as good a situation as he would have had if he had served his time with the company without being fired.
When it came time for the Special Review, the CEO could see what had happened, at least in outline. In all likelihood, the company would decide not to get investigators involved in the details of its operations and finances, and its attorneys would simply work to contain the damage and keep the manager from expanding his advantage. They wouldn’t necessarily be pleasant, but they weren’t going to be able to recover much either.
The CEO shakes his head, and says to the manager, “Wow! If you had been this creative and aggressive for the company for the past five years, I would have put you in charge of a lot more!”
That’s how I read the end of the parable when it says, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” Jesus tells a realistic story about his time, which is exactly parallel to this modern story. Nobody in the story is a moral exemplar—each person was out for his own advantage.
Jesus is talking to his disciples. He says, look—even out there, the unrighteous find ways to adapt, they find ways to get done what is important, when to take a risk to achieve a goal. The manager who had been indolent and wasteful and complacent was not shrewd or commended by either the CEO or by Jesus. The children of light are sometimes just that complacent thinking that the life of faith is a passive thing; that loving sisters and brothers can be done by just letting someone else do it; that somehow being forgiven takes away all responsibility for being resourceful and performing our best for the Kingdom of God.
There’s a word in today’s Gospel that occurs a couple of times and is translated as “wealth,” or “money.” It’s actually a Hebrew word that is nonetheless used in the Greek gospels: Mammon. Mammon is a word that doesn’t appear in the Old Testament but it’s found in several other Hebrew texts. It means property, or assets. It has a neutral connotation in itself. Of course when you look at the dealings of this manager, you are looking at “unjust Mammon.” The priorities of the CEO and the manager were indeed Mammon. They were shrewd and efficient in how they dealt with it, and obtained it—the point at which the CEO decided to call in the Manager to discipline him was when he was not shrewd and efficient with the Mammon entrusted to him. His later faithfulness to Mammon was what got the CEO’s admiration.
Jesus is bringing the Kingdom of God, the love of God, the fellowship of God. And his expectations of his disciples with regard to what is entrusted to them—that is to say what is entrusted to us—are not less than the CEO’s expectations of that divisional manager of Mammon, Inc. Jesus’ expectations are far higher, to serve the Kingdom of Love with shrewdness and single-minded commitment. To live, without counting the cost for ourselves, but rather the benefit for the children of God.
At the end of the lesson, Jesus makes it clear that the priorities of the CEO and the Manager are not those of the Kingdom of God. We are the slaves of God, not of wealth: “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 Mammon.”
There is a collect from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, that brings this all together. Let us pray.
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who declarest they glory and showest forth thy handiwork in the heavens and in the earth. Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men; for the sake of him who came among us as one that serveth, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.