Sermon: Forgiveness, Inc.

23 September 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
September 23, 2007

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Forgiveness, Inc.

Luke 16:1-14

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

The rabbis used to say that they enjoyed studying the Bible as much as a dog enjoyed gnawing the last bit of marrow out of a bone.  They loved a good, tough challenge.  So, no doubt, this very confusing parable of the “unjust steward,” or “dishonest manager,” in this translation, gave the Pharisees who were listening to Jesus a whole lot to chew on.  So much so, since Luke says they were moved to ridicule him at the end, they essentially spit it out and refused to even think any more about it. For us too, this parable is a pretty tough chunk of meat –  Jesus seems to be endorse some very questionable business practices, even dishonesty, or maybe even embezzlement. 

No preacher or commentator I could find seems very happy with this parable, from the Geneva Bible notes of John Calvin and his friends to modern pastors complaining about it on the internet this week.  One modern commentator, Brian Peterson, wrote, “Trying to find a moral in this apparently amoral story has embarrassed interpreters since the ancient church; perhaps it even embarrassed Luke, since he seems to add several conclusions, as though looking for a fitting lesson.” My favorite comment came from an anonymous pastor, who wrote in his web log, “There are too many things in that parable that can’t be said in church.  I’m preaching on the Psalm next Sunday!”

No one has time to write, or to listen to, a sermon that untangles all the knots in this parable’s twisted logic.   Even Luke has Jesus offer four slightly different stabs at moral interpretation, which most historical Jesus scholars are not sure Jesus actually did.  Jesus seemed to enjoy leaving the meaning of a parable hanging, with the open-mouthed Pharisees twisting in the wind.  So, is this about (a) “Whoever is faithful in a little is faithful in much, and whoever is dishonest in a little is dishonest in much”? Or (b) “If you have not been faithful with ill-gotten gain, who will trust you with true riches?” Or (c) “If you cannot be trusted with somebody else’s things, who will give you things of your own?”  Or (d) “No one can serve both God and wealth”?  In this sermon, we’re going with answer (e) “None of the above.” I want to make a case for forgiveness.

Here’s the thing:  We first need to look at this parable of Jesus in the context of Luke’s Gospel and in the context of the times – not in our own context.  We assume that the rich man that begins the parable is the good guy here.  Most of us are comfortable, law-abiding, middle class people.  We’re likely to feel sorry for the business owner, that he has this dishonest manager – we know it’s hard to get good employees you can trust.  And business fraud is, after all, a crime.  But remember the parable doesn’t provide any proof of the man’s wrongdoing.  Instead the rich boss takes a kind of high-handed approach, and essentially says “I demand you account for yourself, and by the way, you’re fired!”  It’s not very fair to the poor manager.  To understand Luke’s perspective, let’s look at this parable in its context – where did it appear in Luke’s Gospel sermon?

What follows immediately in this 16th chapter of Luke is the story of “Poor Man Lazarus,” the beggar that the rich man ignored.  When Lazarus dies, he goes to heaven; the rich man goes to Hell.  We had an old Vacation Bible School song about him: “Dip your finger in the water, come and cool my tongue, for I’m tormented in the flame!”  Luke’s Jesus is no friend of the rich.  And the parable directly before this one (in Chapter. 15) is “The Prodigal Son,” where the son who runs away and spends a fortune is the one rewarded by the forgiving father.  The same phrase used for the offense of the so-called “dishonest manager” is the one used for the prodigal son: each is accused of “squandering property” that is not, technically his.  We can’t help but sympathize with the hard-working elder brother – who gets no fancy party, just resents the unfairness of the whole thing.  And let’s face it – it IS unfair. In the role of God is this forgiving father who doesn’t even wait for his prodigal son to apologize, but instead runs down the road and throws his arms around the boy to hug and kiss him.  It’s an embarrassing public display of an old fool’s forgiveness of a young fool’s mismanagement of his hard-earned money.

Parables are supposed to shake things up – especially to upset those who are self-righteous and powerful, like the Pharisees.  Marcus Borg, the author of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, likes to talk of Jesus as an upsetter of what he calls “conventional wisdom.” So this parable starts to make a lot more sense if we can just get out of the mindset that the rich man has to be God.  I had a professor who thought “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” would be better called “The Parable of the Forgiving Father.”  So perhaps we should call this one from Luke 16 “The Parable of the Irresponsibly Generous Debt Forgiver.”  Jesus is saying, “It’s not God who’s unfair, it’s life.  It’s the Kingdoms of this world that are unfair, so choose life in God’s Realm of love instead.” 

It’s our worldly system of moral accounting that is under attack here, not the individuals caught up in it, struggling to survive. As one commentator points out, what we translate as “dishonest manager” might be better, or more literally, translated as “manager of unrighteousness.”  And what we hear translated as “dishonest wealth” might better be translated as “the coin of this present and unrighteous realm.”  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about God’s economics, which is a different system entirely from our own.  This parable is perplexing precisely because there is no exchange rate that makes sense between the Realm of God and the Empire of Caesar.  We proclaim God is a just ruler, but let’s face it, the facts of life show that bad things happen to perfectly good people.  God, like any human parent mediating sibling arguments, has never been exactly fair.  “My thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways my ways,” God says through the prophet Isaiah.  (Isaiah 55:8)  When you stop to think about it, we should be grateful for that. God acts like a reckless spendthrift when it comes to grace; he just gives it away to any fool who asks for it, even fools like us.

I believe Jesus casts the rich business owner in this parable as the bad guy, because like the Pharisees, he is an accountant of righteousness – as WE are when we nit-pick over the sins of our neighbors, when we are so focused on the speck in our neighbor’s eye that we can’t see the log in our own.  I remember interviewing my great aunts for a family oral history project, and they were great people, but they could STILL remember which sister got the best doll for Christmas 1906.  Aren’t we all like that? 

We assume the rich man must be the hero because Jesus puts him in charge.  But think about it: who was in actually in charge during the time Jesus was preaching?  Caesar. It’s Caesar’s portrait on the coin of his realm, and we remember what Jesus said about that, when he asked us to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”? (Luke20:25) If that’s true, then where is the image of Jesus OUR Lord imprinted?  Where is his memorial?  One place is in the simple bread that is broken and shared with all at the feast of God, here today and gone tomorrow. It’s ironic that “bread” can be slang for money, because it cannot be hoarded; it must be either eaten or given away.  In a week, it no longer has value – it’s just a moldy doorstop.  Another place we see Jesus?  In the faces of our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ, this ragtag band of sinners who gather gratefully as Christ’s beloved church around His table of grace. 

Families know well how hard it is to have a bitter argument at the dinner table.  It’s just not good for the digestion.  We are motivated by hunger to at least call a truce in our arguments, if not offer complete and Christlike forgiveness, so we can break bread together.  Jesus said (in Matthew 5:23-24), “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” The practice of forgiveness is at the heart and center of Christian faith.   In fact, you can say it’s our business in the church: God’s grace is the ONLY product that we dispense.  You could call us “Forgiveness, Incorporated.”

We can learn much about ourselves using metaphors from the business world.  If church is a business – what is the product we’re selling?  Some churches sell worship as a concert or show, or the preacher as a popular self-help guru.  Some churches sell programs and support groups, or moral education for children.  Some churches sell club memberships, where friendliness and companionship is the commodity traded.  Some churches sell Salvation through Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, a kind of one-way ticket through their doors and up the express elevator to Heaven. 

I’m making the case here that what Jesus is telling us in this parable is that the business of his disciples, the business of the church, is offering the world spiritual debt relief, offering unconditional love and forgiveness to all – completely free of charge!  In fact, if we’re to go by this parable, what we’re up to is NOT very sound business practice after all.  It’s a kind of reckless and irresponsible squandering of resources, kind of like the prodigal son’s father killing the fatted calf for no good reason.  So if we’re more of a nonprofit agency, just giving grace away, that’s all the more reason to guard our capital carefully – because donations are precious.  The income side is extremely hard work –if you don’t believe it, just ask anyone on our 250th Anniversary Campaign Cabinet! 

But here’s the thing.  Is God’s grace a scarce and nonrenewable resource?  No.  God’s grace is a stream of steadfast and eternal love.  God anoints us with blessing until our cups overflow and we push away from the table of grace, pleading, like guests at Grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner, “Enough!  Enough!”  Because we have been given such a liberal outpouring of the grace of God on the cross, while we were yet sinners, we in the church can afford to just give forgiveness away.  Through Christ, we are invited to tap into living waters of unending grace; we do not have to ration supplies from a stagnant cistern, or a well that threatens to run dry.  That is the way the Kingdoms of this world work – they encourage us to try to run our lives on a fear-based economy.  They expect us to survive on the accumulated runoff of hard work and good reputation, paychecks cut by frugal taskmasters who must also survive in the harshness of this desert world.

But God doesn’t do business that way.  Christ, our Redeemer, has canceled ALL our debts.  He is the supplier of redeeming love, and we in the church are called to be distributors.  Preaching, teaching, and above all, PRACTICING forgiveness is the true business of the church, Jesus is saying.  Let’s try to really mean it next time when we pray, as Jesus teaches, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  We are called to forgive generously, recklessly, as Christ has forgiven us.  That is the business Jesus wants us to do for him – he wants us to be good stewards of his Father’s business, Forgiveness, Incorporated.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


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