Monday, September 23, 2013

The dishonest messiah

Ok, so I admit, the Gospel passage (Luke 16:1-13) for this week is a toughie.  Most of the times, Jesus' moral message is pretty clear, and his parable are not that difficult to understand.

Bit every once in a while, he throws us a curve ball, and sometimes I wonder if, hours after having had delivered a certain speech, Jesus himself had not lain awake at night wondering if he could have come up with a better analogy.

The problem with this Gospel passage is that it uses phrases like "Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth" and it portrays the manager as the hero of the story, essentially for having committed embezzlement.

A parable is, by definition, a metaphorical story, which means that we as readers or hearers of the story cannot afford to get hooked up on the details.  It means that we must often step back to see the wider meaning of the story.  Granted, for some parables we need to step waaaaaaay back, and this is one such case.

To understand the passage, we might have to look at the broader context of the Gospel narrative in which it is situated.  It is found back to back with the parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son, all of which are essentially indictments against the behaviour, attitude and religion of the Pharisees.

The Pharisees followed the Law to the letter, but with no love for God or neighbour in their hearts.  They excelled at legalism, but failed miserably at faith.  This was Jesus' overarching criticism of the Pharisees.

Certainly, the God of the Old Testament and the Pharisees were a reflection of one another: rule-bound, judgmental, vengeful, angry, fear-inspiring.

Not so with the God of the New Testament that Jesus revealed to us.  The NT God is one of generosity, forgiveness, love, compassion.

How could the rich man possibly be please with the manager?  One possibility is that if we assume that the rich man is God, then prior to his managers' disobedience, his debtors only knew one side of him: the side that was penny-pinching, legalistic, unforgiving of debts.  Then the manager comes along and slashes their bills.  He was actually showing another side of the rich man: one who was generous, forgiving, flexible.

If you were the rich man, how would you rather be seen by the people?  And by extension, how do you think God would want to be seen?

Now, this theory falls down slightly, as the rich man had no idea the manager was doing this, and presumably Jesus was acting in the knowledge and wisdom of God, but as I said, sometimes we need to step waaaaaay back and forget some of the details to get at the meaning of the story, but I still think the meaning is there: God wants us to know that He is a God of love, compassion, forgiveness.  God is a God of bounty who had gifted us with all creation.

This passage also begs an important question: if God is not stingy with His gifts, with creation itself, do we need to reevaluate our own stinginess?  In view of the disparity of wealth on this planet, of the great rift between the haves and have-nots, are we really managing creation wisely?

To download the podcast of my sermon, click here.

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