a sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20C)
What can we learn from a dishonest man? In this parable, Jesus explains that it’s not what we have, but how we use it that matters.
Note: The first minute or so of the recording for this sermon has some technical difficulties. The sound quality improves considerably after that.
Three contractors were visiting the White House on the same day. One was from Florida, one from South Carolina, and the third from New York. At the end of their tour, the guard asked them what they did for a living. Upon discovering they were all contractors, the guard said to them, “Hey, we need some work done on the fence around back…care to take a look and give me an estimate?”
The guy from Florida stepped up first. He took out his tape measure and pencil, whipped out a pocket calculator, and after a few moments replied, “Well Sir, I figure the job will run about $900. $400 for materials, $400 for my crew, and $100 profit for me.”
The guy from South Carolina was next. He took out his tape measure and pencil, did some math, and came back saying, “It’ll cost you about $700: $300 for materials, $300 for labor, and $100 profit for me.”
Without moving an inch, guy from New York whispers into the guard’s ear, “$2,700.”
Taken aback, the guard looked at him incredulously and said, “You didn’t even take measurement! How in the world did you come up with such an astronomical figure?!?”
“Easy,” the New Yorker replied, “$1,000 for me, $1,000 for you…and we hire the guy from South Carolina.”
The contractor from New York was shrewd.
We live in a world that runs on money. The news is filled with business results, stock market prices, mergers and acquisition. The government reports on interest rates, jobless counts and housing starts. Our politicians argue incessantly about the best way to stimulate the economy: tax cuts or spending stimulus? And in just a few weeks, we’ll get to decide whether we want a billionaire for our president, or the one who’s only worth 80 million.
It’s a times like these when we can take some comfort in the teachings of Jesus, the one whose always telling us to give to the poor, to not store our riches in warehouses but in heaven. The one who told the rich man to give up all his possessions and follow him. Surely, this Jesus would have some strong words about a conniving man who’s caught cheating his boss, right?
Well, maybe not.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us about a rich landowner who fires his hired hand for stealing from him. Now you need to understand that farming in Jesus’ day wasn’t the kind of business we know today. In those days all of the land was owned by only a few very rich families. The actual labor was done by tenant farmers, what we would have called here in the South “sharecroppers.” They would farm the land and all they produced belonged to the landowner, save a small amount to survive on. The rich man would have a hired hand, a manager or steward, who took care of the details of running the farm and would keep the tenant farmers in line. This is the one who the rich man had just fired. Without a steady job, the hired hand, or steward, becomes very concerned about his future. He can’t do manual labor and he’s too proud to ask for help. So he decided to go around to all the tenants who farm the land for the rich man, hoping to scratch out a meager living for their families. Like Robin Hood, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, the steward cuts deals with tenant famers. “You owe $1000, make it $500. You owe $100, just pay me $80.” And what do you supposed happens to this guy?
For most of us, the answer seems pretty simple. We expect the guy to be arrested, or at least kicked out of town. But the kingdom of God is upside down and backwards. Instead of condemning the man, his boss praises him. He calls him “shrewd.”
Now before I go any further, let me tell you that there are as many ways of interpreting this parable as there are bible scholars; and I am no bible scholar. At the same time, we do know a few things about the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims. We know that people are more important than stuff. We know that God forgives the debts of a sinner. And we know that we are called to be stewards of God’s abundance, not of our own scarcity.
First of all, our stuff. All of us enjoy having nice things. I happen to enjoy watching my big screen TV and playing with my smartphone. Things aren’t necessarily bad. But when my relationship with my stuff gets in the way of my relationship with people – when I pay more attention to my smartphone than to the people sitting next to me – something is wrong. Whatever the motives of the hired hand, he understood that his relationships with people were more important than money – that no matter how much stuff we have, it can be gone in an instant. But when we invest our time, our energy, and yes, even our money into helping our neighbor, we are investing in relationships that last far longer than any of the stuff we have.
This brings us to the second thing we know about this story: that God forgives our sins. Regardless of the hired hand’s relationship with the rich man, he forgives the debts of all people who farmed the land. In fact, you might think the hired hand as the Christ figure in this parable. We’re told that he was caught stealing from his boss. But Christ was also considered a criminal for his so-called crimes; he was crucified between two other criminals. And yet by his sacrifice we have been given new life. I wonder, is it possible that we might give new life and new opportunities to others by sharing all that we have – by giving of “ourselves, our souls and bodies” to the mission of Jesus Christ in the world?
The third thing we know about this story is that we are the hired hands, the stewards, of God’s kingdom. Nothing we have belongs to us; our health, our jobs, our homes and our families, all these are gifts from the one who created everything that is. We are the stewards of God’s abundance, and we are called to use these gifts for the benefit of all in God’s kingdom.
Our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, recently released a video explaining that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are part the new Jesus Movement, following the teachings of Christ “with a spirit that embodies the love of God in our lives and in this world. A way love that seeks the good and the well-being of the other before our own unenlightened interest. A way of love that is not self-centered, but other-directed. A way of love grounded in compassion and goodness and justice and forgiveness. It is that way of love that is the way of Jesus. And that way of love that can set us all free.”
No matter how confusing this or any parable might be, God assures us of these three things: that people are more important than stuff, that God forgives the debts of a sinner, that we are called to be stewards of God’s abundance, not of our own scarcity. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. This what it means to be a part of the new Jesus Movement. This is what it means to be children of the light, called to share the light of Christ with the world.
Thanks be to God.