Sunday, September 18, 2016

September 18, 2016
The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
(Luke 16:1 - 13)
Today’s Gospel reading is maybe a little disturbing or confusing. What can we make of it? Let’s start by consider the following examples of some of the commercials on television today. 

Scene: A lone canoe being paddled across a calm lake. 

Tag line: This is not a canoe; it is an aerobic workout before breakfast. 

Scene: An oversized tractor combine being driven down a rural road. 

Tag line: This is not a farmer; it is an investor driving his capital investment. 

Scene: A Little League baseball game underway on a summer afternoon. 

Tag line: This is not a baseball game; it is cash flow for the ice-cream truck. 

Scene: A young girl turning somersaults with her friends in an open field. 

Tag line: This is not a gymnast; it is a future physicist learning about gravity. 

There are other such commercial spots, each told with pictures and captions and without the usual voice-overs. The message seemed to be that there was more to each of these scenes than was obvious. The viewer's initial impression about what was seen was not wrong; it just failed to take in the full range of possibilities. Thankfully, the ad agency spelled out the not-so-obvious for those of us who are slow of heart and mind. 

The Scriptures are full of these more-than-meets-the-eye images. Consider the following scenes. 

Scene: A man, his wife and their possessions moving across a deserted, semi-desert expanse. 

Tag line: This is not moving day; it is a nation builder heeding the voice of God. 

Scene: A laughing, shouting, jumping, arm-waving old man skipping down the road. 

Tag line: This is not the first time he's been down this road; it is the first time he's been able to see where he's going. 

Scene: A small, rock-hewn crawl space in the side of a hill. 

Tag line: This is not an ancient gravesite; it is the opening to unbelievable possibilities. 

There are many other scenes and tag lines you could create as you consider the biblical narrative. 

The parables of Jesus are also a lot like television commercials -- there is usually more to them than the obvious. The problem is that Jesus doesn't always provide the tag lines for those of us who don't quite get it. That we don't get it should not necessarily embarrass us, for we are in good company. The Twelve didn't always get it either. 

A young man, who possessed as much promise as he did wealth, approached Jesus one day to inquire about serious devotion to God. At the end of the conversation, it became apparent that this young man's final barrier to full fellowship, his wealth, was for him the most difficult to overcome. Commenting sadly on what might have been, Jesus made what seemed to his disciples to be a counter-intuitive statement about wealth and righteousness. When their confusion could no longer be contained, the disciples asked Jesus what exactly he meant about the wealth-righteousness connection. If Madison Avenue had written his lines, Jesus might have said something like, "This is not a heaven-bound person of wealth; it is a knobby-kneed camel trying to do the impossible."

Jesus responds with the biblical equivalent of "Duh!" (Matthew 15). Fortunately, Jesus explained some of the more difficult to understand statements, although occasionally he looked at his disciples in exasperation and said the Middle Eastern, Aramaic equivalent of "Duh!" (See, for example, Matthew 19:26). But unfortunately, he left other just as difficult to understand parables unexplained. 

The parable of the unjust steward is a case in point. What do we do with a parable that seems to compliment dishonesty? How do we handle a teaching that implies that the ends justify the means? And why did Jesus explain the easy ones and leave the hard ones for us to figure out? 

Let's take the last questions first. One explanation for why Jesus did not always provide the meanings to his parables may be that a spiritual exam that provides an answer sheet doesn't lead to much learning. Jesus left just enough ambiguity to make us think deliberately about what his intentions and meanings were. In other words, when presenting us with lessons on faith, Jesus does not always provide an answer sheet. 

Do you remember those math books in junior high school that provided the answers in the back of the book? You considered yourself fortunate if you had a geekish-looking teacher with Coke-bottle-bottomed glasses and a pocket protector bulging with ball-point pens, protractors, slide rules and compasses. He knew to give only the odd-numbered problems for homework since the even-numbered answers were in the back of the book, but for book tests he didn't have that option. Now you give a bunch of adolescent math students an exam, with half of the answers only a few page flips away and overseen by a teacher who's just shy of legally blind -- well, that's why you might have considered yourself fortunate! 

As much as we might wish otherwise, Jesus didn't always provide an answer sheet for his parables. He knew that sometimes the only way we were going to learn was to wrestle with the enigma as we try to figure things out for ourselves. Just as we instruct our children to use a dictionary to cause the meanings of words to become a firsthand experience, so Jesus leaves us alone with difficult parables to enable learning to occur through our struggle to understand. 

But there are other questions which confront us through this parable. For instance, how does one handle a teaching that implies that the ends justify the means? Most of us, at some point in our learning experience, have been taught just the opposite -- that the ends do not justify the means. It is not just a matter of whether you win or how much you accomplish or how far up the corporate ladder you ultimately climb; it is also a matter of HOW you manage to arrive at those places. To win by cheating is no victory; to gain the whole world, but lose your soul in the process is no accomplishment; and as Pilate found out, not even the soap in the executive washroom will wash away the stain left by an unprincipled rise to the top.

So, putting aside for the moment our actual practice, at least in theory we know that the ends do not justify the means. That being true, how do we handle this parable from Jesus that seems to imply the opposite? In keeping with our more-than-meets-the-eye approach, possibly what is being praised in this parable is not the means or the ends themselves, but the fact that they existed. In other words, the servant had a goal and a plan for reaching that goal, and these are being commended. Could Jesus be subtly asking about our goals and about our plans for seeing them come to reality? Not your goals for retirement, not your honey-do list, not your next major purchase, not even your vacation plans, but your discipleship goals, your ministry goals, your spiritual growth goals, your putting-faith-into-life goals. Do these goals exist? Do you have specific plans for making them become reality? Are you working your plan? Are you making progress toward your goals? 

If truth be told, for too many of us these types of goals exist more in the form of wish lists than of action plans. We intend to become more serious about our prayer life. We intend to become a part of that ministry group. We intend to become more actively involved in the life of our congregation. But as we all know, today's good intentions become tomorrow's regrets as we wake up one day to realize that what might have been will never be. While we, along with the disciples, stand on the sidelines criticizing the steward for his unrighteous actions, we hear Jesus say wistfully, "Yes, but at least he did something."

So, what do we do with this parable that seems to compliment dishonesty? We can't simply ignore it, throwing up our hands in despair, moving on to other, easier interpretation tasks. Our natural inclination is to stand in judgment over this steward and his actions, by warning each other not to follow his example.

Maybe we need to sit with this parable, or, better, let it sit with us. Knowing that the road to understanding will not be easy and that we will be met with many more theological cul-de-sacs than throughways, we should nevertheless stay with this parable, insistent, like Jacob of old, that we will not let go until it blesses us. Keep in mind, the Scriptures also show Jesus telling his apostles that some of his words he will explain to only them at a later time. Maybe, our later time has yet to come for this passage.

If we do indeed nevertheless stay with this parable, insistent, like Jacob of old, until he blesses usIf we do that, maybe we will discover that in its less than obvious way this parable isn't really about dishonesty after all, but about something else entirely. Possibly we will decide that the tag line should be: This is not a dishonest steward; this is an employee opening up his own individual retirement account or 401K.

Maybe the problem with a lot of us is that what we is what you get. We have lost the "More-than-what-meets-the-eye" Christianity. We are overloading and downloading, stressed-out and boxed in, hyper-tensive and super-sensitive; we're exactly as we appear to be.

But wait! Jesus is telling us that the abundant life is "more than meets the eye." This life is one that goes beyond the superficial interpretation, the outward appearance, the visible and tangible scene. Christians are people with tag lines, whose every action, while having authenticity in its own right, has a deeper layer of meaning and purpose, defying both conventions and conventional wisdom.

Scene: Career professional leaves corporate world.

Modern conventional wisdom: Burnout.

Spiritual insight: New priorities which stress God and family.

Scene: Mother chooses to stay at home during child's preschool years.

Modern conventional wisdom: Waste of earning power.

Spiritual insight: Investing in a child's life.

Scene: High-school students form group to promote sexual abstinence.

Modern conventional wisdom: Idealistic and unworkable.

Spiritual insight: Sexual purity outside of marriage pays many dividends.

Scene: Group of people donate vacation time to work on housing projects in Latin America.

Modern conventional wisdom: Vacation time should be used for rest and recreation.

Spiritual insight: Giving of oneself to others is energizing and empowering.

Let's put this another way. Possibly in this day of merger-mania, corporate buyouts, downsizing, outsourcing and bottom-lining, this parable has something to say to us about the priority of people over profits. For you see, given the choice between making money and using friends or using money and making friends, this steward chose the latter. 

The point of the parable? This was a shrewd choice and one that merited commendation. And that may be a lesson worth waiting for. At least, that’s what this later apostle standing in front of you thinks Jesus was trying to say.
Let us pray.
Father God, we live in a world filled with opportunity; filled with seemingly dishonest business ventures; in a world filled with tantalizing distractions – help us to think outside of the box in our spiritual life while in the midst of this.
We have many distractions and obligations – sometimes more than we can possibly fulfill. It is in this very sense, that we must sometimes find shrewd ways to be sure we are giving You the proper amount of our time and lives. It is in this very sense thatwe must sometimes find shrewd ways to ensure we are doing Your will and finding our place in the kingdom of heaven.
As we go through our daily routines and obligations, help us each to find ways to spend more time with You and to find more time to do for others, fore when we do, we do so for You. Help us to find shrewd yet Christian ways to be more like You in our life and our dealings with others. We ask all this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.