Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 19, 2010 (Proper 20, Year C)

This morning we hear the Parable of the “Lame Duck.” Okay, it’s actually known as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager but it tells the story of a guy who may well be the ultimate Biblical lame duck. A property manager who has abused his position for personal gain and is on the verge of getting fired. And it’s one of the most confounding pieces of Scripture in the New Testament. If you don’t have a whole bunch of questions after this one, well, your mind must have been wandering because I know I do.

Jesus tells his disciples a story about two people, a rich man and his manager. The property owner, most likely an absentee landlord, hears a disturbing account that the manager was “squandering his property.” In other words, he’s been ripping him off. He confronts the manager demanding an account of his actions. The manager he’s been busted. And it’s time for this freshly minted lame duck to pay the piper. 

Now, when most of us think of lame ducks, politicians come to mind. We think of people who have been voted out of office yet have another month or two remaining in their terms. After Tuesday’s election there’s a whole new crop of lame ducks waddling about around the country. We also think of second-term presidents who suddenly lack any accountability to the voters yet have another four years to govern. Even rectors who announce their resignations but then stay on for a couple of months become lame ducks. I’ve been a lame duck and it’s not much fun.

But before he’s taken down, this lame duck manager, figuring he has nothing to lose, gets creative. He summons the master’s debtors and starts bargaining with them. “You owe a hundred jugs of olive oil? I’ll tell you what, let’s make it 50. You owe a hundred containers of wheat? Let’s make it 80.” He works fast and furiously to curry favor with the rich man’s debtors so he’ll be taken in and treated well once he’s officially fired. It’s a pretty audacious and completely inappropriate move – the actions of a desperate man. And, based on the cultural norms of the day, the rich man would have been bound to accept the lower amounts, unable to reverse them without losing face with his debtors.

The manager in this story is hardly a sympathetic character. He’s a whiner and a thief. His first thought when he’s about to be fired is to worry vainly about his future. He says to himself, “I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.” So while he doesn’t have the fortitude for manual labor he’s also too embarrassed to ask for help. 

But here’s the twist in the parable: the master praises the manager for his dishonesty. He commends him for acting shrewdly. Which is amazing considering that his manager just lost him about 450 gallons of olive oil and 200 bushels of wheat. There’s no doubt that the dishonest manager is clever – at least when it comes to looking out for “Number One” – but the praise seems a bit much. And what kind of ethical lesson is being taught here? It’s okay to steal as long as you make your boss look good in the process? Because that’s the one unintended consequence of his actions: he makes the master look kind and benevolent in the eyes of his debtors, even if it cost him financially. 

But it can’t help leaving us feeling confused by the whole affair. What is the larger point Jesus is trying to make here? This manager is both convicted and commended. And maybe there’s something of us in all of this. We are sinners yet redeemed, dead and yet alive, sorrowful yet always rejoicing. In other words our faith lives aren’t as black and white as is often portrayed. There is not just a touch of gray but many shades of gray. At its best, this becomes a creative spiritual tension. A tension that draws us into deeper relationship with the risen Christ; a tension that keeps our faith alive and active; a tension that opens our eyes to the opportunities to seek and serve Christ in all persons.

That this parable can be so confounding reminds us that Scripture itself, like our own spiritual lives, is not as black and white as many religious leaders would have us believe. It would make my life a lot easier, of course. You come to me with a problem and I cite chapter and verse to give you the solution. Again, many use the Bible this way – as God’s instruction book or God’s handbook for living. And while Scripture contains, as Anglicans have believed and professed for generations, “all things necessary for salvation,” it’s too simplistic to see the Bible as God’s answer book. Life and its various spiritual crises are much more nuanced than this. And I also have to believe that if the Bible is merely God’s instruction book, you’d think God could have given us something a bit clearer. The Parable of the Dishonest Manager, or the Parable of the Unjust Steward, as it’s also known is many things. Clear is not one of them.

But Jesus does use the parable to make a larger point. He invites us to seize the opportunity to ingratiate ourselves to God and insure our place in God’s kingdom in the world to come. The way we do this, ironically, is to act in opposition to the dishonest manager. Because above all this parable is about faithfulness. Being faithful to God is our primary spiritual “job” in this life. There are certainly all sorts of distractions that keep us away from God – Jesus names the primary one for most of us: money. But there are many. Trying to stay faithful amid all the distractions of this life is hard work. 

Jesus says towards the end of the parable, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much.” So you can take small steps toward faithfulness. You don’t have to build an orphanage tomorrow, you can start praying daily; you don’t have to sell everything and join a monastery, you can teach Sunday School; you don’t have to hand out tracts on Boston Common, you can invite a friend to church. Small acts, small steps bring us closer to God. And that’s about as clear as it gets.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2010

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