24 September 2007

Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost: "Real and Messy"

I will admit that, like many preachers, I’ve struggled with the Gospel text this week. This parable, as well as the verses that surround it, is one of the most confusing passages in scripture for me. Now I know I’m not supposed to say that – I know I’m not supposed to comment on the Bible as if it were a novel under review. But it’s the truth: I honestly don’t know how to understand this parable. I’m not the only one, either. At our Synod Leaders’ retreat this week, we spent a lot of time going over this parable with our two guest speakers. Frankly, I’m not sure the discussion was always that helpful. I remember leaning over to one of the pastors from Fergus Falls and admitting that I was thinking about preaching on Amos this week and avoiding the mess entirely.

Deciphering what Jesus meant to say in this parable is a tough nut to crack. Was the manager merely shrewd, or was he corrupt? The manager said, “I’m too weak to dig, and I won’t stoop to begging.” Jesus insisted all along that beggars and laborers were as much children of God as anyone else – does this parable invalidate all of what Jesus said? Under the accusation of squandering the rich man’s property, the manager confirms the accusation by squandering even more in an attempt to cover his butt for the time he gets sacked. But at the end of the parable, Jesus tells his disciples to be faithful and honest in all things, whether it’s a little or a lot. How again is all of this supposed to work?

I’ve read several attempts to decipher the meaning of this parable, some old and some new. Some look closely at the Greek to find an escape hatch; others use socio-economic policies of the time to try and determine how the manager might have been working for his master's benefit. An Episcopal preacher for whom I have a lot of respect says that this is a story about how the shrewd manager actually freed the peasant farmers from their oppressive debt to an incredibly wealthy landowner. These are all valid attempts to make sense of a very difficult parable – but none of them rang true to me this week. This is one of those moments in the story of Jesus where I'm not really sure what's going on, but I don't want to try to escape the uncertainty by changing the rules of the story – that seems false to me.

Philipp Melanchthon, the Greek and Latin scholar who was Martin Luther's most trusted colleague during the Reformation, once said that "to know Christ is to know His benefits." So, if that's the case, let's take a look at this parable in terms of benefits, shall we? The landowner doesn't really gain any benefits, other than possibly in the goodwill of his debtors. Important, but not essential to the story. The manager gains the benefit of shelter and protection, but at the cost of his honesty; even though the landowner says he's been shrewd, the manager has in fact squandered his master's property. But the debtors – they are the ones who gain benefits clean, aren't they? The end result for the debtors is forgiveness; their debts have been significantly reduced. Even if it's unfair – even if it's a cheat – even if the manager did it to save his own skin, the debtors have in fact found their burden lessened and now may walk that much more free. It's messy, it's not fair, it's bad economics – but it's also a gift to the debtors which they couldn't have gotten for themselves.

A Presbyterian colleage of mine in Alexandria, VA wrote in her blog this week about some conversations she's had in the church over the years:

Sweet Church Lady to me at recent event: I sat beside ___ (another church lady) the other day and she wouldn't stop criticizing you at the women's luncheon.
Me: So what did you say?
SCL: Oh, I would never say anything. I wouldn't want to make waves.

Church Leader: Would you pray for my daughter? She's back in rehab again.
Me: Of course I will. Shall we add her name to the prayer list?
CL: Oh, please don't. I couldn't face my friends if they knew. I've never told them about D's problem.

Church Officer: I think ___ (another officer who is a recovering alcoholic) might be drinking again.
Me: Do you think we should go talk with him?
CO: Oh, no. I wouldn't want to embarrass him.

As a child of the 1960s, I remember dressing up in patent leather shoes and donning a bow in my pin-curled hair for Sunday School and worship where I would join dozens of other little girls dressed just the same. Little boys wore little jackets and ties. Moms and Dads also donned their Sunday Best. And everybody filed into their pews and smiled at their neighbors and worshipped the LORD and went home.

At home, there might have been marriage/addiction/financial/mental health/sexual problems. But - God forbid - we disclose such family secrets, especially in church. We wouldn't even tell the pastor unless we were desperate.

As late as the 1980s when I served as a summer intern in a NY church, I met a family who disappeared for the summer, only to return my last weekend. They asked to speak with me and shared that their only son had died of AIDS in another state.

Me: Oh my gosh. I am so sorry. I didn't even know he was sick. And no one said anything to me.
Grieving Mom: We didn't tell anyone he was sick. That's why no one told you.
Me: ? Well . . . would you like to have a memorial service here after the pastor's back from sabbatical?
Grieving Mom: Oh no! Please don't tell anyone. We can't tell people about it. It would be too embarrassing.
Me: (long pause) So . . . you aren't going to tell your friends that your son died . . . because it would be too embarrassing?

We have a choice when it comes to forgiveness – we can take it real and messy, or we can take it false and clean. The Pharisees, who had been grumbling about Jesus dining with sinners, wanted their forgiveness clean – so clean, in fact, that Jesus once described them as “white-washed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”[2] Jesus came to forgive sinners – and we were so offended at the thought that we crucified Him for it. In that sense, we are all Pharisees – all people who try so very hard to maintain that no, we’re not messy, we’re not sinful, and we don’t need forgiveness like that. If we just maintain the illusion that everything’s okay, no one will notice that we’re covered, head to toe, in our failings, our disappointments and our sins. Real and messy, or false and clean: how do you want it?

Perhaps the manager really was squandering his master’s property; we’ll never know if the accusation was just or unjust. What we do know is that the people to whom he offered forgiveness of their debts took that forgiveness without a second thought. When you’re under the load of an unpayable debt, you don’t question whether or not you’re too proud to accept the gracious gift that lifts the burden: you take it. What Jesus offers us is the same reckless, squandering gift. We owe God a debt for our sins that we could never repay. But Jesus offers to forgive the debt: no payment, no required sacrifice, just forgiveness and mercy. The question is: are we honest enough to accept the grace He offers?

I’d much rather be the pastor of a bunch of real, messy, forgiven sinners than the pastor of a bunch of false, clean, white-washed Pharisees. I don’t want to revel in our sin, but to admit that yes, I am messy and in need of forgiveness is a great relief and freedom for me. To be real and genuine, to say that I make mistakes and I cannot be what God has created me to be, that is a great relief and freedom for me. To be real and genuine, to admit that without the squandering grace of a Son who cannot resist giving his Father’s forgiveness away dirt cheap, that is a great relief and freedom for me. I cannot pay the debt I owe for my sins. Can you?

If Jesus offers you forgiveness, I suggest you take Him at His word and accept it. Take it as the free gift of a manager who is recklessly giving away His Master’s property. Stop pretending that you can stay clean when you’re up to your neck in your sins and burdens. Put away all your false pretenses to righteousness and purity on your own, and let the gracious Son offer you the new, clean garments He washed in His own blood, the garments of forgiveness and mercy. Let it be squander if it’s squander: you are free, regardless. Amen.

[1] Jan Edmiston. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Life” http://churchforstarvingartists.blogspot.com/2007/09/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about.html

[2] Matthew 23.27


  1. This is the FIRST sermon I've EVER heard or read on this passage that has ever truly spoken to me.

    Thank you.

  2. This is the FIRST sermon I've EVER heard or read on this passage that has ever truly spoken to me.

    Thank you.

  3. I agree. You did a good job with this text. I took the other road and preached from Amos, which had its own difficulties for me. It was my first time preaching at my home congregation after three years of seminary and internship.

    They have been very supportive so it was kind of tough when it came down to "Hear this you who trample the needy..."