Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Books Have Been Cooked

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost--St. Simon Cyrene Sunday (Proper 20C): Luke 16:1-13

This morning we pray one of the Church’s great prayers over the newly baptized Jadon Abera Kane. The second and third sentences of this prayer are:

Sustain him, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give him an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.[1]

This is the traditional prayer for the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is an ancient prayer which goes back at least to a liturgical book called the Gelasian Sacramentary of the sixth century. We’ve been praying this prayer over the newly baptized or the newly confirmed for 1,500 years. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit have their roots in Isaiah 11:2-3 where they are said to be the gifts that the spirit will give the shoot that is to come from the stump of Jesse. They are normally listed as



Right Judgment or discernment



Reverence or love (sometimes called “piety”)

Joy and Wonder (sometimes called “fear of the Lord”)

Today we have to notice that among that list is not a gift Jesus says we should be given, that is, “shrewdness.”

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light (v. 8).

The one thing that any commentator on Luke’s Gospel who has ever lived has agreed upon is that this is the most difficult parable to decipher. Why does Jesus set up as the hero of the story someone he calls dishonest? And why does he commend that dishonesty to his disciples as “shrewdness?”

First of all, we have to say that “shrewdness” is perhaps related to one of the words on the list of the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit: the gift of wisdom. In fact, the Greek word here translated “shrewd” is one of the Greek words often translated as “wise.” When φρόνιμος (phronimos) is translated “wise” it means wisdom in the sense of cunning and Jesus tends to use it when there is some urgency involved, a situation of potential hopelessness.[2]

So quite possibly what Jesus wants to commend to us is the ability to think on our feet, and, perhaps, in particular not allowing ourselves to get bogged down in our piety or sense of self-righteousness when faced with adversity.

The parable itself is, in many ways, about that very thing from the standpoint of God. Remember the parables are not morality plays. Their point is not to teach us how to behave in particular ways, although that may be a side effect. Their primary purpose is to teach us about God and the ways of God. God is always the main character, and there is often a secondary, Messiah character, as well. It is important also to add to this knowledge about them the fact that Jesus clearly told them to get God out of the box that religiosity generally puts him in. His protest was always like the title of a popular book by J.B. Phillips in the 1960’s: Your God is Too Small.[3]

Let’s read the parable through that lens: The rich man (God) had charges brought to him that his steward was squandering his property. We don’t know exactly what that means but it was clearly bad. He demands an accounting from the steward but also fires him (which seems a little rash, but remember all those times when Moses had to talk God down from spewing his wrath—God does seem to have a bit of a temper).

The steward (the Messiah figure) is in a quandary. What to do now? I don’t like to get my hands dirty and I’m too proud to beg. Then he has an idea, the point, apparently, where he is shrewd. He wants to see my books, does he? He thinks I’ve squandered his property does he? He hasn’t seen anything yet! And this should have the effect of giving me a good reputation with the people and perhaps they will see that I am well taken care of.

So, he cooks the books. He calls his master’s debtors in and gives them amazing discounts. Why some of them end up repaying less than they had borrowed in the first place.

And then comes the surprise. There’s always a surprise in a parable, and it’s usually how the main character (God) reacts to how the story has developed. Jesus says, “And his master commended the dishonest steward because he had acted shrewdly.”

The master should have been furious. He had just lost a great deal of wealth at the hands of the steward, and he had acted to do so after he had been fired! He should have had him arrested.

This is a parable about the radical grace of God. It has immediately followed, with no interruption, three other parables of the grace of God: the shepherd with the lost sheep, the woman with the lost coin, and the story we call the prodigal son, but is really the story of the forgiving father. Those three parables had been reactions by Jesus to criticism by the religious authorities that he associated with tax collectors and sinners, the wrong kind of people.

By the time he is through with the prodigal son, you can imagine some in his audience simply increasing their grumbling. They sided with the elder brother in that story who was furious that his younger brother had been welcomed home to a party rather than a rightful punishment.

So Jesus goes on to be even more provocative by telling this fourth story, about the dishonest steward. God has indeed allowed the books to be cooked, and Jesus himself is the cooker. Salvation by bookkeeping is dead.

The Church has struggled with that message ever since. It is hard to believe when you’re in the religion business that you are not also in the bookkeeping business. And when a piece of the church has acted like its bookkeeping days are over, it usually gets accused of looking like the world, operating like the world. I have stood before meetings and Councils of the church and been told that my declaration that the bookkeeping is over is a total capitulation to the values of the world.

But I believe it is a total capitulation to the values of Jesus. I believe it is simply time for the children of light to be as shrewd in dealing with our current generation as are those whom Jesus called “the children of this age.”

Let us now baptize this child into this life. Let us pray that he receive and live all his days into the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit. Let us also pray he receive the gift of shrewdness, enough shrewdness to grow up believing that the religion into which he has been initiated has nothing to do with bookkeeping. It has to do with what we will say over him.

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.

Which is to say, “Little Jadon, the books have been cooked by the one we call Lord and Savior and Friend. That means just this: you’re in. For ever.”

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 308.

[2] See, for instance, Matthew 7:24, 24:45, 25:1ff.

[3] Reprinted in 1997 and still widely available, and still worth the read.


Isaac Success said...

Calvary Greetings Michael... I just want to find out how possible it is for us to exchange links as i'm building and want to expand a blog on God's Love. Thanks in anticipation of a favourable response.

Isaac Success

Isaac Success said...
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