Who’s rules??

Homily for the Proper 20, Year C

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA)

Lessons Appointed:

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

While I recognize that some of you are already scratching your heads about the meaning and purpose of today’s Gospel lesson, I’m going to ask your indulgence of going just a little further and hearing the next two verses of Luke’s Gospel:

When the Pharisees, who were lovers of money heard all this, they ridiculed him. So Jesus said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts, for what is prized by humans is an abomination in the sight of God.

Today we get to wrestle together with a tough text: this seemingly strange teaching of Jesus which, on the surface seems to praise a shrewd and unjust manager who finds a way to “one-up” his rich boss by doing some discount deal-cutting with a few extended credit customers before he finds himself out of a job.  That’s all in there.  But it isn’t the full story.

If we listen with our hearts (and minds) open, we begin to recognize that this story is part of a theme that weaves throughout the teaching and example of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus repeatedly reminds us in word and deed that the way things are in God’s realm runs counter-intuitive to our human nature.  As Jesus says repeatedly, “my kingdom is not of this world.” 

But time and again, we hear the Word and then we live in the world.  And sometimes there is profound dissonance between the two.  We don’t need to look any further than today’s lesson which deals with the nature of debt and forgiveness: kind of a hot topic in 2022 as well. Jesus didn’t create the dissonance, nor do we. In parables like this, it just becomes obvious.

I think the dissonance begins with the parable of the prodigal son, actually, which comes immediately before today’s lesson if you’re reading the Gospel according to Luke from start to finish.  Our lectionary moves that story into Lent, but I think that loses the flow of what Jesus is doing in this series of teachings.  Most of you probably know the story of the prodigal son: there’s two brothers, one of whom stays home dutifully to help the father run the family farm, and the other asks for his inheritance, then goes off to the city and squanders it.  After a dark night of the soul, he decides to return even as a servant, since the servants had it better off than he did.  When he returns, his father welcomes him with open arms and throws a huge party in his honor.  If we read it from the perspective of the lost son returning, it’s all about undeserved, lavish grace and forgiveness.  We might feel some righteous indignation if we enter the parable from the perspective of the hard-working, loyal son who feels that dissonance when the prodigal is so generously welcomed after squandering his share of the family fortune, which means there’s less to go around for the stalwart sibling. If you went to the Whistler to Cassatt exhibit recently at the VMFA, you might have noticed Henry Mosler’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1879) where the errant son comes home too late, and he is depicted, weeping, at his father’ death bed. That work of art was a cultural interpretation: a morality tale that re-cast the ending of the biblical story of the Prodigal Son in a way that aligned with the cultural values of hard work and reward, rather than ridiculously lavish grace and forgiveness. 

In what image do we see God?

And so we find ourselves back in the dissonance of today’s lesson.  The shrewd manager ends up getting praised by his rich boss for finding a way to act even more shrewdly with those who owed the master money. Both the rich boss and the manager know how the world works: through cutting deals that make other people feel like they got the better end of the bargain, it will look good on them.  Jesus embraces the dissonance to point out the strategy within these human relationships which makes it clear how the world works. 

If that’s our game, then those are the rules.  Following those rules has its human reward, and its consequences: the manager is still out of a job, and the people who seem to be his friends may turn around and be just as shrewd with him at some point.  That’s how the game is played.

But what if that’s not our game.  What if our game looks like the utterly ridiculous notion of forgiving someone who has squandered everything?  What if our game looks like seeing the face of Christ in someone sitting on a park bench with their belongings shoved into plastic bags?  What if our game is getting out of the rat race we’re socialized to think about as “the road to success” and instead making decisions about how we see the wealth and earnings entrusted to us as having a role in the betterment of humanity as God sees us all, rather than our own selfish struggle to beat others to the finish line where the one with the most toys wins? 

We might look like ridiculous children of light.  We might seem soft, in a world full of harsh.  We might risk being seen as more like the poor than the rich; we might risk the emotional pain of mourning with those who are hurt by the rules of this world; we might be seen as meek and mild rather than shrewd and uncompromising; we might hunger and thirst for more God in this world, and less human suffering.  We might even act on those things.  And in doing so, we might find ourselves blessed in the realm of God in ways that we can’t be seen in the realm of this world: we might be comforted through our mourning and active confrontation of injustice; we might gain the friendship of those in low places of this world; we might be filled with the goodness of God instead of fed by our own greed; we might be shown the lavish mercy that we don’t deserve of our own merits.  The dissonance may drop us to our knees and fill us with gratitude for that which we could never of our own merits deserve.

Whose rules are we playing by?

As Jesus points out, we can’t play by two different rule books at the same time.  The rules to any game start with the purpose.  Is it to get to the finish line with the most money?  That’s the playbook for a lot of the games on our shelves in this culture in which we live.  Is it to have earned the most points possible through our hard work and efforts?  Again, I draw your attention to the many sportsball events to which we are drawn.  Those rules are laid out, and the purpose is clear.  I’m a baseball fan; I know that finding ways to steal bases is encouraged, as long as we don’t get tagged out. That’s all part of the game, and good fun. But none of these human games are the rule book of God’s realm.

What is the rule by which the Children of God live?

Love your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.  Love your neighbor as yourself. 

These are the rules for living life in God’s realm, where blessings come from unexpected places and people as we walk the journey together on earth, as it is in heaven.  And Jesus suggests to his disciples, the children of light: be clear whose rules you are playing by, and be committed to them.  Because if you’re trying to do both, you will love one and hate the other.  The dissonance we feel between the rules of the world and the rules of God is a temporary state: we’re going to make a choice to live into one, or the other.  And God knows our hearts.

I know it’s only September, but one of my favorite scenes in a Charlie Brown Christmas is when sweet little sister Sally is asking her brother Charlie Brown to help write her Christmas list to Santa.  After a long list of asks she finally adds, “You can make it easy on yourself and just send money; how about tens and twenties…” to which her brother offers an exasperated, “Good Grief!” over his little sister’s collusion with systems of profit and reward.  Sally looks at us and says, “All I want is what I have coming to me; all I want is my fair share.”

It makes us laugh because it’s relatable: even within her childhood naivety, Sally knows exactly how the world works.

But in God’s economy, there isn’t an ever-dwindling supply where we need to grasp for our fair share.  There are no deals that need to be cut.  We don’t need to win friends through doctoring the books and manipulating emotions.  Instead, we’re invited to life in a family of unwarranted and undeserved grace. 

Whose rules are we playing by? What is the real treasure, of our lives and of our hearts? 

I’m also going with the Gospel according to Peanuts on this one.  We find that treasure not in all the bright lights and shiny objects of this world but in the lowliest and most unexpected of places, even in a tiny and vulnerable baby lying in a manger. God chooses sides and enters our humanity in vulnerability so that we don’t have to live in the dissonance anymore. We can live full hearted lives as the children of light, just as Jesus lives and teaches us to do.

The rules of that game aren’t dictated by the rich and the shrewd; they are sung by the angelic choir and delivered simply, as they are in that children’s classic by Linus, who puts a blanket on his head like a lowly shepherd and reminds us of the angels song: Glory to God and Peace on Earth as we embrace the Good News which has come for all people.

Because that, my friends, is what life in Christ is all about.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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