Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Two Tax Collectors
Marinus van Reymerswale

This is one of the more difficult parables that we hear.
It is hard to work out what Jesus is getting at.

Are we supposed to agree with the dishonest manager?
Are we supposed to agree with the master?
Are we to think of ourselves as the debtors?

It is very confusing.
It is made all the more confusing by our lectionary system, which takes it out of the order it is in in Luke’s Gospel. If we were following the order, this would follow the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a parable not without its own difficulties.

However, if we do place the two side by side,
we can come to some understanding of what is going on.

‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 

The manager has been misappropriating some of the money,
The master is placed in a difficult position: his honour is at stake.
He can’t control his employees.
His status is in danger.
By firing the manager, he can save face.

Then the manager said to himself,
“What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?
I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.
I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager,
people may welcome me into their homes.” 

The manager is also in a difficult position, one even more precarious than that of his master.
Not only will he lose face with the community, he will also lose his livelihood.
Being a manager is all he knows, and if everyone thinks he has been dishonest, no one else will employ him, and no one will want to associate with him.

He works out a scheme that both restores his master’s honour,
and salvages his reputation as a manager.
He forgives a portion of each debt.
All the debtors assume this is the masters doing, therefore he looks generous.
Because the manager has made the master look good,
he is no longer in danger of losing his job, and his reputation is kept intact.

All done, hunky dory.
So what?
What are we to take from that?
Where is God in all of that dishonesty and protecting of status and worldly honour?

If we put this parable next to the Parable of the Prodigal Son,
we might get some insight into what Jesus is getting at.

Not only are these two parables placed side by side in Luke’s Gospel, they both share some linguistic and structural similarities.

In both, the main protagonist, the son and the manager, squander their possessions.
Both talk to themselves into a way of sorting out their difficulties:
the prodigal son decides he will ask his father if he can be a hired hand,
the manager works out the scheme of reducing the debts.

A difference between the two is that the prodigal son works out his trouble on his own.
The dishonest manager is caught out by his master.

The prodigal son wishes to return home, even if it means being a hired hand instead of as a son.
He hopes his father will have enough compassion to welcome him back even at this lowlier status. We remember the father shows greater compassion in that he welcomes him back as a son, and celebrates his return.

The dishonest manager however cannot rely on mercy from his master.
So, he works out a scheme that if he cannot receive mercy from his master,
he may be able to receive it from the master’s debtors.

The end point of both parables is that they both find a way to receive mercy, and both are welcomed home.

It is how this mercy is worked out with the dishonest manager that is a difference.

He shows mercy to his master’s debtors.
He reduces their debt payments.
It seems he is attempting to buy mercy for himself by showing it to others.
This is not a gracious mercy, but one that is part of a deal.

This makes sense of Jesus comment after the parable:

And I tell you,
make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone,
they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

He is saying show mercy, forgive all.
Even if you are doing it for what may not be completely selfless reasons.

I am not suggesting that our forgiveness be hollow, or our mercy meaningless.
But what this does suggest is something greater.

What harm can ever happen by showing mercy?
Can we ever get it wrong by showing forgiveness?

The dishonest manager’s scheme could be seen as a way of getting back at his master,
because he is reducing the amount of money the master will receive, like “that’ll show him.”

But rather it ends that because he showed mercy to those who were in debt, he was shown mercy.

Because what does he actually do?
He forgives debts.
He has no right or authorisation to forgive them.
He does it for the wrong reasons; looking after his own status and to try and redeem himself for his dishonesty.
But the action he takes is forgiveness.

So, forgive.
Forgive for any reason, or no reason. But, forgive.

So, rather than the parable being about money and honesty, debts and masters, it is really about forgiveness.

And the forgiveness it speaks of is even more pointed than with that of the prodigal son.

In this parable Jesus is telling us to forgive anyone, in anyway we can.
Even if our motives may be less than pure, he is saying forgive.
There is no wrong reason to forgive.

By forgiving, even when we don’t feel like it, we show the kind of grace God shows to us, and by doing so, we put ourselves more in touch with God’s grace.

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