Thursday, September 19, 2013

Reflections on the Parable of the Dishonest Steward – Luke 16:1-13

Read the lesson here: Luke 16:1-13

Keep Your Eye on the Ball!
Of all of Jesus’ parables this one is perhaps the most difficult to understand.  A quick reading of this parable gives us the impression that Jesus is calling on his disciples to act more shrewdly even to the point of dishonesty!  So, what is this parable about?  It all seems so straight forward at first: A steward gets in trouble for “squandering” or mismanaging and is told he will be terminated.  The steward, recognizing his complete unsuitability for physical labor comes up with a ruse to ingratiate his master’s debtors to himself.  So he reduces the amount of the debts, collects the remainder of what is owed and earns the appreciation of the debtors.  We expect that when the master finds out what he has done the steward will get punished in the end.  But no, the master commends the shrewdness of the steward and Jesus finishes up by talking about the dangers of focusing life on wealth.
To begin with we need to remind ourselves that Jesus’ parables in general are never straightforward.  Jesus always turns the tables and what we expect to happen doesn’t happen.  Unlikely heroes emerge, like the Good Samaritan; radical forgiveness is offered, like to the prodigal son; the good and righteous do not get the reward they expect, like the older brother or the rich man in the rich man and Lazarus; Grace and love of others takes precedence over self-righteousness and tradition, like in the unforgiving steward or the unjust judge.  And I could go on.  Suffice it to say, Jesus parables always have an element of shock and the shock is usually that God’s beloved human beings are more important than anything else, that God is about forgiveness and grace and love, and that this is also what the Kingdom of God is about!
So bearing this in mind let’s then turn back to this parable and begin by making some general observations.  First, we should not just assume that the master is God.  In fact, the master is most decidedly not a stand in for God in this parable.  This master is not the good guy in this story.  He fires the steward at the beginning on the basis of hearsay.  There is apparently no evidence.  And the hearsay consists basically of the accusation that the steward is “squandering” (the same word that is used in the Prodigal Son parable) the master’s property, which means that the steward is accused of feathering his own nest at the expense of the master.  And at the end he simply acknowledges that the steward has acted in a very shrewd and clever way, that does benefit him.
Second, the context of this parable is immediately following the Prodigal Son, where relationship and forgiveness are more important than wealth and tradition and where the good and righteous older brother is left outside because he refuses to forgive.  Then comes a series of sayings and parables about the idolatry of money.  When the purpose of life becomes solely about the accumulation of wealth then that life has become hollow and purposeless and lots of people get hurt.  Remember the issue is how are wealth and possessions pursued and used?  If “greed is good” and life is focused on wealth and others (those without) are pushed aside and made scapegoats, their lives are destroyed because they are the “have-nots.”  If the meaning of life means being a have – then you are not serving God, you have, in fact turned your back on God and have become a slave to the emptiness of the world.
Third, the debt is extraordinary.  “How much do you owe” asks the steward? “100 jugs of olive oil” comes the first answer – that is equivalent to 900 gallons of oil! “And how much do you owe?” the steward asks the 2nd debtor.  “100 containers of wheat” – that is equivalent to 150 bushels of wheat! Who can survive under the weight of that kind of debt?  The debt will destroy the lives of the debtor, whether that debtor is an individual or (more likely) a community, like a village.  By reducing this debt the steward has not only saved the debtor some money, but has reduced and eliminated a huge burden, and at the same time collected the debt and put his master in a good light.  For, like it or not, once he learns of the actions of the steward, the master could not very easily renege on the bargain, especially since he has the payment in hand!
When the master discovers the extent of what the steward has done the response is, “well played.”  I don’t get the impression that the master is thrilled or pleased, but he acknowledges that what the steward has done has gotten him some benefits: renewed respect from the community, an enhanced position and a chunk of the debt in cash. The ploy has also provided the steward perhaps a reprieve on his firing (though we don’t know that) or at least strengthened relationships with the debtors in a way that would help him to re-establish himself.  Well played, indeed!
So what are we to take from this parable? Well, Jesus makes it clear that if we define our lives in terms of our wealth and possessions, if we are totally and completely focused on possessions and wealth then we have lost our way.  This is certainly a timely lesson.  Hearing this parable comes at a time in our history when a tiny percentage of people in this country possess more and more of the wealth, and there are more and more people who are in terrible need; large numbers of people who are homeless, hungry and suffering, through no fault of their own.  At the same time there are more and more political moves to eliminate programs that help to house, feed and clothe those who are in need. Jesus is unambiguous here!  We have a responsibility.  People are more important than things and wealth.  Those who worship wealth, those whose lives revolve around the accumulation of wealth have placed themselves outside the Kingdom of God.
Another important lesson which comes through this parable is this: Relationships are important that anything else.  And when in doubt, when we are struggling or in difficult situations the first thing we need to do is to establish, or re-establish or renew our relationships with others.  For it is through our relationships with others that we experience God’s presence in our lives.  A life that is filled only with things and no relationships will be an empty life indeed.
Finally, this shrewd steward may not have been completely honest, but he had a vision for what was important in life and what he needed to do to accomplish this.  And he kept his eye on that throughout the story and in the end he accomplished his goal – that is, the de-centralizing of wealth and possessions and the establishment of renewed relationships at the center of his life!  I think there is a lesson here for us as well!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Reflections on the text: Luke 15:1-10 (32)

Read the complete text here: Luke 15:1-32
Come, Join the Party!
“… But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  Luke 14:13-14
Who doesn’t like a party?  Who doesn’t like a time to relax with friends, eating and drinking and having a fun time?  Jesus certainly seems to love to party.  In the Gospel of Luke he seems to go from one party to the next.  In fact, Jesus will accept an invitation from anyone – Pharisees, Scribes, tax collectors, sinners of different kinds, people of differing classes and backgrounds (see quote above from Luke 14).  Jesus will party with anyone!  And that is one of the things that gets him in trouble.  The good and respectable people don’t like it!  Maybe it’s jealousy or self-righteousness, but when Jesus accepts party invitations from THOSE other kinds of people, the RIGHT kind of people don’t like it very much.  They grumble and complain.  After all, Jesus needs to set a good example.  Why would Jesus even want to party with people whom God has rejected?  “Aye, there’s the rub,” says Hamlet.  Who determines who God has accepted and who God as rejected? 
In our Gospel text for this weekend – Luke 15:1-10 – Jesus is partying, again.  This time he appears to be partying with tax collectors and sinners, having just left a party with a respectable Pharisee (Luke 14).  The Pharisees and scribes do not like it at all!  So, tired (I suppose) of all the grumbling and the fact that they don’t seem to get the point Jesus tells not one - not two - but three stories or parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son (otherwise known as the parable of the “Prodigal Son” which is not included in our text for this weekend, but is really the climax of this sequence of stories).  In each of these stories something important is lost.  But the value of what is lost does not seem to warrant the response and the excessive efforts which are undertaken to find the lost.  For example, in the first story, the shepherd looses ONE sheep out of 100.  Now that is too bad, one sheep is worth something.  But to leave the 99 un-lost ones unattended in order to look for the lost one is just crazy.  It is an extreme reaction.  It is a recipe for economic ruin.  As valuable as one sheep is, why would anyone take the risk of loosing 99 in order to find one. 

In story 2, the coin is of some value, but the woman goes to an excessive extreme in order to find the coin and then when she finds it throws a party that probably cost at least what the coin was worth!  And in the final story – the Prodigal Son – the son, who has debased himself and dishonored the father, is welcomed back with open arms.  In fact the father’s welcoming is so extreme that Jesus’ audience would probably have found his behavior offensive – running to meet him and embracing him WITHOUT an apology or period of penance and then throwing a fatted calf party for the wayward looser son and his, presumably, wayward, looser friends.  No wonder the older brother is so livid!
God will never stop to look for and reclaim the lost!  That is the dominant theme that we all usually take from these stories!  And quite frankly the tendency of preachers and writers is to stop here.  God loves us all madly and passionately.  God’s love for us is so extreme that God will go to great lengths to seek us out and God never will let us go.  This is certainly the heart of the message, especially for us 21st century Christians.  It is an important word of grace that we all need to hear from time to time. These parables remind us that we cannot chase God away and that God’s love for us is excessive and unconditional! And God will never let us go!
But - I don’t think that was the only or even the most important message Jesus was trying to convey to his original audience.  Surely some of them may have gotten that message, but remember Jesus is telling these stories to the exclusivist and grumbling Pharisees who don’t like Jesus partying with the lost.  These are men (and women?) who are very sure of their found status and do not want to share it with anyone.  To them Jesus has a very direct message – and it is not what you might think.  The message is not – surprise you are really the lost and rejected and those you think are lost or really this found and most beloved.  No - Not at all, Jesus is saying to them, “Hey guys you need to make room and order more chips and sodas, because the party is going to be a lot bigger than you originally thought!”  “God’s guest list of those whom God loves madly and passionately is a lot bigger than your guest list and we are going to have one heck of a wonderful party!”
So, there it is.  Whether you see yourself as one of the lost or one of the found – whether you identify with the younger or the older brother – God is throwing a party and you are invited too! Are you going to come? Do you exclude yourself because you don’t feel worthy?  Or will you be like the older brother in the Prodigal Son story, who absolutely refuses to come into the party because “that son of yours” doesn’t deserve a party; because THOSE other partygoers are sinners, they are lost and should remain lost.  THOSE others are of a different race, or believe different than we do, or don’t believe at all, or live a sinful lifestyle, or … and you can fill in the blanks.  We are way too inclined to put people into categories and then label them.  We see this all the time in the media, and (if we are honest) we do it ourselves!  But, guess what, God’s guest list is a long list, for God’s love extends beyond our petty categories and prejudices.  In fact, not only are all of THOSE people invited to the party – but so are WE, so are YOU!  So, come to the party!  The table is set!  All are invited!  God’s love is showering down upon you!  Come!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Reflections on the text – Luke 14:25-33

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple… none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.  Luke 14:26-27, 33  Read the full text here: Luke 14:25-33
Counting the Cost
Is Jesus serious?  What strong language – we are to hate not only our family but even our own lives and give up all our possessions?  That seems like a prescription for loneliness and homelessness.  Surely Jesus is not serious! He must be using those words for effect, to make a point – right?
That is the most common and comfortable way of looking at this passage – Jesus doesn’t really mean it – Jesus is talking to people who are really dense and he has to use these extreme examples in order to get the message through.  Well, perhaps, but I think we should be careful about discounting the intensity of Jesus’ word here.  Far be it from me to say that Jesus didn’t mean it.  In fact, I think Jesus did mean it!  But I also think that, as is usually the case, Jesus is also getting at something here that is deep, profound and life-changing:
Discipleship costs!
Discipleship requires commitment!
Discipleship is not a way of thinking – it is a way of acting – it is a lifestyle!
We Western Christians spend a lot of time THINKING about our faith. Christianity for many of us is little more than an attitude, an outlook, a way of thinking that may have something to say about our moral code, but otherwise is somewhat removed from our way of life and way of relating to others.  What Jesus is saying here is this in this passage then is this: your faith, your discipleship, your Christianity has to be more than just an attitude, it is a way of being, a way of living, a way of doing.  Faithful discipleship is a way of being in the world that impacts the choices and priorities we set and the way we relate to others; Faithful discipleship is a way of living, a lifestyle that calls for us to put the needs of others ahead of our own needs, that calls for us to give of ourselves in a variety of ways including how we spend our money, what we do with our time and how we utilize the talents God has given us; Faithful discipleship is a way of doing and acting in Grace and Love towards others that is not self-focused.
David Lose puts it this way: “That is why this passage -- this difficult and demanding passage -- has so much to offer. Because in this part of the story, Jesus asks his disciples, both then and now, to sacrifice. Actually, he doesn’t ask. He tells us that he expects, even demands, undivided loyalty ... This is why we are asked to count the cost -- because the Christian life is expensive, it demands our commitment in terms of our time, attention, and money. But let me be clear, I’m not talking about salvation. That’s done, over, finished and completed by God’s grace alone.” So we are talking not about justification, but about discipleship, and not only discipleship in general or in theory.  Jesus is getting to the heart of the issue by talking about the cost of discipleship.
I suspect this makes us a little uncomfortable.  We like to get bargains and deals.  We like to get something for nothing.  And when it comes to our faith, our discipleship, many of us think a lot about faith but we also go out of our way to make sure that our personal faith doesn’t impact our lifestyle too much.  It’s like we keep our faith in a special box that we get down from the shelf whenever we need it, but otherwise the box is stored safely on the shelf as we go about our lives unconcerned with matters of faith – until we need it the next time.  In this way our discipleship and our commitment to our community of faith becomes just another activity that has to compete with all the other activities in our lives.  And not only that, but we are also missing out.  Jesus promises those who follow him “abundant life.”  But by storing our faith away and being unwilling to take up our cross we are missing out on the fullness of the gifts that God is giving to you freely and abundantly.
This is what Jesus is talking about in this passage with his strong language of “hate” and ‘giving all.”  This is not rhetorical flourish!  Jesus means it!  Your faith, your discipleship must have something to say about your life, how you spend your time, set your priorities and relate to others.  There is a cost to discipleship which calls for sacrifice and self-giving!
So perhaps we need to spend some time in prayer every time we have a child baptized or before we commit to being confirmed.  As adults perhaps we all need to spend some time in prayer and study and discernment on a regular basis in order to ponder the discipleship that God is calling us to.  Does discipleship, church membership, faith in Christ mean that we can do what we feel like when it is convenient, or is God calling us to a deeper commitment; is God calling us to live our faith and discipleship in a new way? Is God calling us to sacrifice in some way?
So, this Gospel text is asking you to hear and seriously consider the implications of Jesus’ words.  I believe that this Gospel word is calling on all of us to look at the long arc of our lives in order to consider what is really important in life, what is it that we hope for most for ourselves and our families.  And where does our faith fit into this?  Jesus promises “abundant life,” but the abundant life and way of discipleship that Jesus both promises and announces takes sacrifice -- not in order to earn God’s grace but in order to live into the discipleship life that grace makes possible.  “This isn’t about our eternal destiny, God has already taken care of that. This is about the caliber and character of our Christian lives. And, like anything else worth doing, discipleship takes time, energy, work, and practice -- in a word, it takes sacrifice.”
This reflection was inspired by an essay by Dr. David Lose "The Cost of Discipleship."