September 18, 2016-Proper 20 (Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

September 8, 2016 | by Nichole Torbitzky

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 Psalm 79:1-9 2 Timothy 1:1-14 Luke 17:5-10 Amos 8:4-7 Psalm 113

Luke 16:1-13

This passage starts with two strikes against it.  Not only is this parable a bit confusing, it is also about money.  More than one preacher would avoid this passage.  If you are the preacher who is willing to tackle a subject most people would rather not talk about, then it might be best to to tackle it head on.  Talk about money.  Talk about how Jesus spends more time talking about our ethics around money than he does about our ethics around sex or any other uncomfortable issue.  There is a story about the auto mogul Henry Ford and money.  I have not been able to track down a reliable source, so this story may very well be apocryphal, but the moral remains.  Henry Ford made a trip to Ireland to visit the place of his ancestry.  While he was there, two trustees from the hospital in the town he was visiting came to him asking for a donation.  He agreed to give them five thousand dollars, which at the time was no small gift.  In the paper the next morning, Ford saw the headline proclaiming that the generous American philanthropist Henry Ford had given fifty thousand dollars to the local hospital.  As you can imagine, Ford was shocked and called the hospital to track down the two trustees he had met with.  When they got to his hotel, he confronted the men about the massive mistake printed in the paper.  The trustees apologized, and said they would be calling the paper immediately to correct the mistake and print a retraction, letting everyone know that Henry Ford had not given not fifty thousand, but only five thousand.

Instead, Ford promised to give them another forty-five thousand.  But, he gave them a stipulation: that a marble arch be erected at the hospital entrance with a plaque that read, “I was a stranger and you took me in.”As you preach this text, it might be helpful to remind your congregation that God is involved in all parts of our lives, in a way that is inescapable. Rather than try to engage in the futile exercise of hiding our deepest ethical behavior –how we use money– let’s talk clearly about how God expects us to relate to money.  Because God does have expectations about this behavior.  Even if the parable itself is a little confusing, the ethical command is crystal clear: one cannot serve two masters, which one will you choose?

In the end, the manager in our parable gets it right for all the wrong reasons.  He realizes that our relationships with people, which include their very real debts and financial struggles, are vastly more important than material gain.  This is why the manager goes to the debtors and relaxes their debt.  This is why he is commended.  The manager realizes that money doesn’t satisfy, relationship does.  His actions put money in its proper place, at the bottom of his list. Not that it doesn’t have importance, but that it’s importance lies in how it is properly used.  Top of the list needs to be our relationships with our debtors.

Implied here is that all debts are debts to God, the rich man.  Also, implied is that we have the ability to forgive those debts.  If we are acting in the way God wants, we will be forgiving debt, making it easier for people to find relief.  It becomes really easy to spiritualize this.  Debts very quickly become our sins and spiritual failure.  And then it becomes really easy to drop back into the promises of forgiveness we heard about in last week’s lectionary text.  While spiritual debt is implied in this text, we are doing our congregations a disservice if we let them and ourselves off the hook too quickly.  This text is dealing clearly with actual fiscal, real world debt, and how money affects our life in this world.  Only after addressing the importance of ethical dealing with money in this world can we talk with integrity about how our actions in this world affect our disposition in the next.   

Therein lies the ‘moral’ of this parable.  The way we behave in this world, especially the way we behave with our money affects our eternal disposition.  Most modern Americans hate to hear that!  So did the people of Jesus’ day.  That much has changed very little.  The truth of this parable rings clear through the centuries.  Now, this is not to say that we can ‘earn’ salvation by ethical monetary dealings.  It is Christ alone who sets us right with God.  This passage says that right relationship with God is tightly bound with right relationship with people.  This is what it means to serve one master only.  If we are serving God, then we are behaving not just ethically toward other people in financial matters, but with the same kind of grace and forgiveness that God extends toward us in forgiveness. With our salvation assured, then we are free to serve God as a our master.  With our salvation assured, greed can be seen for what it is, idolatry; money can be seen for what it is, a tool to bring about God’s reign on earth.  The master commends forgiveness, because God acts toward us with forgiveness. As much as we might not like it, God makes demands on us, not to earn our salvation but to live out our salvation in every aspect of our lives including our money.