Sermon - 18 Pentecost
In the Name...
Once upon a time, there was an economically advantaged person of the male sex who hired an executive director for his business so that he could relax and enjoy elitist leisure pursuits such as polo, skiing, and yachting. One day, a whistle-blower revealed that the director was earning a less-than-profitable rate of return on the company assets. Thus, the economically advantaged person demanded an internal audit and offered the ethically challenged director a career changing opportunity.
Now, did you follow that? That was the beginning of the gospel we just heard. Okay, so I've modernized the language, but, that's the story line.
And, it's weird. I mean, we expect Jesus to uphold high values, morals, and ethics. We certainly do not expect him to say that sharp practice is rewarded. Yet, Jesus appears to praise the manager for being dishonest. But, alas, however much we may wish it so, this is not the moral of the story.
In Ancient Times, very few people had what we take for granted today as salaried jobs. Slaves did all the menial tasks and professionals were all on commission. Take the tax-collectors whom everybody loved to hate. Tax collecting back then was a privatized industry. The government didn't do it - they weren't actually involved. They hired private companies to raise a certain amount of shekels or sesterces from a given city or region. How it was done, and from whom, was entirely up to the local collectors. Nobody really knew what taxes were due on what or who had to pay them. And, the collectors weren't salaried. What they did was raise as much as they could, but, only send the government what they had contracted to provide. The personal profit margin was out of this world.
And, this was also the case in every other business. It's how a manager, like in today's parable, got paid. He didn't get a penny from his employer. He was paid by the commissions he added on to transactions. So, when he says, "I gave you a bill for 100 bushels of wheat, but, if you just deliver 80 we'll can it even", that means the extra 20 he stuck on the bill were for himself - not the company.
That's why he's congratulated. He's not cheating the firm. He's cutting his own commissions; he's giving up his personal profits in order to make friends with the clients and gain a good reputation. Hey, maybe one of them will offer him a job.
You notice, by the way, that Jesus considers this entire commission business to be what he calls "dishonest wealth" because of the temptation to overcharge to the point of extortion. You have to admit 25% on wheat and 100% on oil is a bit steep. That's even more than the credit card companies. And, that's what he said to the tax collectors. It was no sin to be one, but, it was a sin to use the position for lying, cheating, and stealing.
So, why, even with all this fascinating background material understood, does Jesus tell this parable? True, the manager has done a good deed, something honest, but, he's done it for selfish reasons. He's not, like the tax-collector Zacchaeus, making restitution in order to get right with God. In fact, God is the furthest thing from his mind. He's still as self-consumed and worldly as ever - even more so, perhaps. And, that is exactly what Jesus wants us to notice.
If someone who is totally worldly-minded can see where his best interests lie and how to achieve them, then why on earth can't spiritually-minded people see the same thing - where their best interests lie?
The manager had been coasting. He was running the business in a lazy, routine, manner. He wasn't putting himself into it. He wasn't coming up with new marketing strategies, or expanding the client base and the business was failing. But, once he heard the Trump of doom - Donald - say "You're fired", he suddenly concocted the most incredibly ingenious plan to guarantee his future. Just think, Jesus says, if he had been that motivated all along, he would have never gotten the sack in the first place.
The point of the parable is that we are all managers, managers of our souls, managers of the kingdom of God on earth. So, how are we running the business? There's a lot of competition out there. Competition for our attention, our time, our resources, our energies. Is it getting the better of us? How are we running the business of the kingdom? With drive and imagination, or routine and lifeless? Motion, but, no emotion. Coasting?
We've been given all the necessary spiritual resources. We have a warehouse full of faith, hope, and love. We have the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts. How do we use these? Or is the Good News of God in Christ a secret we keep? It's amazing the number of political flyers and phone calls I've been getting about this candidate or that. Are we as committed to talking about the Christian Faith or St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and getting people to vote, as it were, with us?
And we have temporal resources. Living in this country, each one of us is more economically-advantaged than the populations of entire towns in much of the world. How are we using these resources? Are we providing this church with what it needs to compete? Are we keeping our facilities and programmes properly funded? Hey, we may have the best recipes in the religious marketplace, but, if someone walks in our store and finds stale bread on our shelf, don't be surprised if they go looking for another bakery.
Spiritually and materially, we are all managers of God's business and we have all been given time to show a profit - but, only a certain amount of time. Someday, sooner or later, we'll be asked to render an account of what we've done with what we've been given. What return will we show on God's investment in us?
The manager in the parable only thought about where he was going to live out his days. We need to be thinking about where we will live out eternity. Because only one thing matters at the end of the day. The kingdom of God, in this world and the next. Let's manage it well.
In the Name...