Friday, October 15, 2010

Reflection On Luke 16:1-13

I still remember the pictures that we would color in that small church classroom with the small chairs and the small table.  The pictures were drawn with thick black ink lines that popped up from the page, so as to help guide the preschooler from creating a world outside of the person drawn on the page. The person we colored the most was Jesus: Jesus smiling at the world saying, “I love the world;” Jesus smiling at the children saying, “I love the children;” Jesus smiling at Judas saying, “I love Judas;” Jesus smiling at the cross saying, “I love the cross.” I think that you get the picture. In each of these colored creations Jesus was very appropriate…appropriate and direct with his message of love.

Nothing in my childhood therefore prepared me for this morning’s biblical text, because in it Jesus is neither appropriate nor direct. The text is about as direct as the path from anywhere in the United States to Manhattan. If Jesus were preaching to you today, I guarantee that you would give up and go to sleep. Maybe, the only thing that would save you from an embarrassing slumber would be his inappropriateness. I lived in Omaha during the attacks of September 11th and there was a preacher who must have modeled his appropriateness of sermonizing from Jesus.

Before I explain, you have to understand that right after the attacks, we pastors were deluged with emails from the synod and churchwide and various other church related organizations asking us to be firm in denouncing the attacks, but at the same time being careful not to stereotype all Muslims because Muslims are also our beloved neighbors, literally living next to us. And, it was at our pastor’s text study was when we found out that one of our colleagues apparently did not ever check his email.

No, do not jump the gun in your thoughts; he was not going to preach a word about the "evil nature of Muslims and their religion." No, in fact his plan was quite the opposite. He had decided that he was going to ignore the council to firmly denounce the attacks and he was going to preach about how his congregation should be much more like the terrorists! 

No, of course he was not saying that they should not go out and kill.  Rather, he stated, “At least the terrorists had the courage to stand up completely for their beliefs, unlike many of you and many Christians in the United States today.” There is nothing like a gentle message of “you stink” to help you through your shock and grief.

We all emphatically counseled him quote, “to reconsider the contextual nature of an event like this,” which in realms beyond the pastoral and theological worlds translates roughly into, “you’re an idiot.” With that being clearly stated in the meeting, another pastor and I stood around, kicked rocks, and talked honestly in the parking lot after the meeting. We secretly admitted that, though it was inappropriate, we were not sure that we disagreed with him. Of course, his sermon was an inappropriate sermon, but in the affluent, “I don’t care if it doesn’t affect me” attitude of the days before September 11th, it seemed like a sermon that did need to be preached at some point. At least they stood up for their beliefs. What if we Christians stood up as strongly for new life, forgiveness, justice, protecting the poor, and peace as much as these terrorists stood up for “death to infidels”? It was inappropriate, but that does not mean that it was not true.

Sometimes Jesus also failed to “reconsider the contextual nature of events” and gave inappropriate sermons. In the one for today, the manager of a business squanders the company owner’s money. He uses his access to the company’s money as a blank check for himself, and as usually happens, is caught. When confronted by the owner, the manager uses the little time that he has left to go to each of the wealthy people who still have outstanding debts to be paid back to the company and slashes their debt.  In doing so, he makes himself and the company look good, and secures a future for himself elsewhere. After this act of “good will” to the wealthy debtors, he will no doubt be able to land another job, or at least land a place to crash for the nights ahead and some food to eat.

In reaction to this sly, sneaky, scoundrel, Jesus preaches a sermon that he did not run by his text study group first, and he tells his disciples to be just like the dishonest manager. What? Excuse me? Be a sneaky scoundrel? Cheat people out of their money? What? This is not clear? What happened to the simple, Jesus loves everyone picture? This is not clear!

I assure you, just as the pastor did not want his congregations to get into planes and fly them into buildings for their faith, neither does Jesus want us to cheat people out of their money. But, in the same way that the preacher held up the conviction and faith of the terrorists, Jesus upholds the financial savvy of the dishonest manager. Plenty of people develop financial savvy, but as you know, not all of them put it to good use. In the same way that we asked, “What if we Christians stood up as strongly for new life, forgiveness, justice, protecting the poor, and peace as much as these terrorists stood up for ‘death to infidels,’” Jesus encourages us to ask, “what if the children of the light were as savvy with our money as the dishonest manager; how much more would we be able to advance the kingdom of God that seeks to build new life, promote forgiveness world-wide, secure true justice, protect the poor, and create peace”? What if we were able to find a savvy way to make our money serve us for the good, rather than allowing our money to control us and be wasted on things that do not matter? For we know that we cannot serve both money and God.

This parable may be confusing and inappropriate, but what the gospel writer, Luke, appears to be saying is that there are people out there who understand how money works in the real world. Those people are gifts. They are gifts to the church, and gifts to God’s world as long as one thing is true for them: money is not their God. These wise people exist for much more than providing funding for the church budget or a building project. They are gifted people who actually can figure out how to squeeze water from a stone. They are gifted people who know how to navigate the children of the light safely and directly through the confusing streets from here into Manhattan. In more direct words, they are gifted people who know how to use money fruitfully for the sake of God’s kingdom both in the church and out in the world.

I am not a financial genius, I am not one of these gifted people to the world, but I do know one when I see one. These financially savvy kingdom people (how would you like that title: “Hi, I’m a financially savvy kingdom person,” I would totally do business with them)…anyway, these financially savvy kingdom people look a little like the small business man who struggled recently with the health care costs of his employees. The high costs and low benefits were ruining the business and the high deductibles were ruining his employees. Using his financial savvy, he decided that he would only offer health care that covered the major medical events of life; cancer, heart attacks, etc. His business could afford that with some money to spare. “How is that a good example Pastor Jira?” Just hold on, I am getting there.

With that extra money to spare, he did not take a vacation. Money is not his God. God, the God of love, the God of caring for others is his God. He took the spare money and put it in tax free health accounts for his employees to use on their normal everyday medical events, physicals, flu, etc. In addition, he took the time to compare prices amongst the local medical providers, and created a list where his employees could get the best care for their dollar. Now, I am not promoting this as the end-all solution to the medical finance crisis. I am not that smart of a person. However, I know a financially savvy kingdom person when I see one, and this guy was one.

God has blessed us with gifted people who are like the dishonest manager; shrewd and savvy people. But, they are different in one way, they do not let money control their actions, rather, they allow God to control their money for the good of the kingdom. Rather than being pushed down and degraded for their involvement with money, may they be held up this day as gifts from a loving God.

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