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Pentecost 15 Proper 20C September 22, 2019

Jeremiah 8:18—9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

In our opening reading from the prophet Jeremiah, God’s people have reached a low point in their corporate life. Earlier in Jeremiah’s ministry, King Josiah had put into place reforms that brought a new life and breath into the society.  The king encouraged his people to return to sincere faith and worship and to follow the law faithfully.

But Josiah was killed in battle. His son Jehoiakim had become king, and all the progress had been unraveled. There was little justice in the land. The clergy were not preaching God’s truth. The rich were growing more and more wealthy, and the poor were barely surviving.  Jeremiah’s lament is also God’s lament for the people.

Our gospel for today raises more questions than answers. Why does the rich man believe the charges he hears against his manager? Why doesn’t the landowner investigate the charges? Why does he simply fire the steward on the basis of these charges without giving him a chance to explain? Most of all, why does the master praise the shrewdness of the manager he has fired? Is Jesus trying to tell us that we should be shrewd? That’s strange, because shrewdness isn’t listed among the great Christian virtues.

Scholars remind us that the rich man was very rich. R. Alan Culpepper notes that, though our translation mentions “a hundred jugs of olive oil; the actual measure was 100 baths of olive oil, which would equal nine hundred gallons. Culpepper says that in this parable we are dealing with “large commercial interests.” (New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 308.) Other scholars point out that landowners were typically extremely wealthy while the tenant farmers who raised the crops had to pay exorbitant commissions to the landowners plus extremely high taxes to the Roman authorities.

In reducing the debts of the tenant farmers, the manager is in a sense leveling the financial playing field by increasing the income of the tenant farmers and decreasing the income of the already wealthy landowner. Sharon Ringe says that the original title of the manager in Greek is “manager of injustice,” and that in redistributing wealth the manager is doing justice.

 Ringe writes, “For the disciples, this provides a ‘management model’ for their own role as leaders….instead of urging upon them a lifestyle or even an ideal of poverty,…it challenges them to manage wealth in the direction of justice. In the process, they will be creating new communities and relationships that will allow their mission to go forward and that will support the enjoyment of abundant life by all people.” (Ringe, Westminster Bible Companion: Luke, p. 214.)

Herbert O’Driscoll also has a very interesting interpretation of this parable. He points out that in Galilee at the time of Jesus, there were many large estates often owned by absentee landlords and managed by stewards. He says that we humans are realizing that we haven’t been very good stewards of God’s creation. Like the manager, we are facing a crisis because of our poor stewardship of God’s creation. The worldwide climate strike emphasizes the immediacy of this crisis.

O’Driscoll points out that we, like the manager, are asking what we can do? Bill McKibben has an article in the current Time magazine in which he envisions looking back from the year 2050 and describes what we did to save the earth.

The manager in the parable asks the tenant farmers how much they owe the master. And they give their answers. O’Driscoll writes, “This is exactly the question being asked of all sorts of huge enterprises today. It is a very tough and unpopular question that no one wants to hear. But answers must be found. New attitudes have to be adopted, compromises made, profits reduced. The consequences are enormous.” (O’Driscoll, The Word among Us Year C, Vol, 3, p. 115. 

The point is that the manager acted quickly. True, he was acting in his own interest. But we, too, will be acting in our own interest as we take the actions necessary to create the just and loving shalom of God and to save our planet. It is not so much the shrewdness as the ability to take action that is being praised.

What actions is God calling us to take in order to be good stewards of our planet? What actions is God calling us to take in order to create a more just society?

There are two statements in this passage that we can easily imagine our Lord as saying. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.” We know that is true. Our faithfulness in small tasks prepares us for being faithful servants when the big decisions and the major tasks come along.

And finally, No one can serve two masters. We cannot serve God and wealth. Wealth is not in itself a bad thing. We are called to be wise stewards of the wealth entrusted to us. We are called to share the wealth and the gifts given to us by God. But God must always come first. If we let Mammon be our god, if we allow anything to take the place of God, we will not be following the way our Good Shepherd would lead us, and we pray that, if that happens, we will listen to the voice of God calling us back.

As Paul or his faithful disciple says, “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”

May our loving God help us to “love things heavenly,” to “hold fast to the things that shall endure,” and to act decisively to be responsible stewards of God’s creation and to help God to build God’s shalom of justice and peace.  Amen.

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