Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 9/19

          When Jesus finished telling the parable of the dishonest manager, one of his disciples or someone had to have said, “What are you talking about??” I’m pretty sure someone asked that question because that’s what anyone who has ever heard this parable has thought.  Someone has to have asked but unfortunately no one took note of the question or the response if there was one.  Instead we’re left to wonder, left to wonder how the dishonest manager can wind up being praised for his “shrewdness” which as I read it is just another word for dishonesty.

          No one understands this parable; even the biblical experts tap dance around it.  One of the explanations that is out there says that this was Jesus commentary on a society that was corrupt from top to bottom, the implication being that the rich man the dishonest manager worked for had cheated others to amass his fortune so for the manager to turn around and cheat him wasn’t so bad.  The manager is then praised for finding a way to survive in this corrupt system even if what he did was sleazy.  I don’t know how high that flies though.  I’ll bet your parents, like mine, taught you that “Just because everyone else is doing it, that doesn’t make it right.”  Jesus’ parents must have taught him that too.

          This whole chapter in Luke has to do with money with cautions about how money and possessions can become an idol and take up way too big a space in our lives.  Apparently that was true in Jesus’ time and we know it’s true in ours, hence the warning at the end of the parable, “You can’t serve God and wealth.”  I think we do understand what Jesus is getting at with these cautions even if it makes us uncomfortable, tempted as we are by money and the things it can buy.   But how the dishonesty that is at least condoned and perhaps even praised fits into this discussion about wealth, that’s what requires more explaining away than I’m comfortable with.  I don’t get it.  How can Jesus be OK with dishonesty under any circumstances?  That’s the question I’m left with and I don’t know how to get around it.

          So I’m going to back away from this lesson; I’m going to back away and turn toward the first lesson and the character of Amos and see if that gets us anywhere.  Amos was one of the Old Testament prophets and I think the prophets and the traditions surrounding them are always interesting because so much of what they talked about several thousand years ago is easily transferred into our time.  The prophets were real people!  Now it’s pretty certain that in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos or any of the prophetic books, all the words recorded are not the actual words of the prophet.  These books have gone through a process of interpretation such that others have added to the tradition in response to events that were not necessarily part of the original prophet’s thought.  But still, it’s all rooted in and based on the words of the prophet.

          But where did those words come from?  Part of that answer is that the words came from God, they were inspired by God.  But was there something special about those particular people that caused these words to come to them?  In some ways, no; they were just regular people.  But the individuals to whom those words came were well versed in the teachings and the praise of the Lord of Israel. They were products of their tradition, well versed in the religion and the teachings.

          We started a new year of Sunday School last week; Confirmation starts tonight and this is how the church introduces our young people to the basics of our faith, to the core stories of our faith.  The idea is that through teaching and worship young people become rooted in a tradition, a tradition into which they can continue to grow.

          So imagine these great prophetic figures being raised in their tradition.  Much of what they heard when they were young would have had to do with the fact that their community existed because God heard the cries of the abused and acted to intervene especially in the story of the Exodus.  They would have sung and heard sung the psalms and other words of praise that made the claim that their God is the father of orphans and protector of widows.  As they learned the commandments and ordinances they would have noticed that their God was concerned about justice for the vulnerable and the powerless, always pointing toward a better, more hopeful future. 

          As they grew older these young prophets also would have noticed that while this is what they were taught, there were many who seemed to have decided that while such things were good to teach to the young, the real world operated differently.  In the real world there were haves and have nots, there were losers in the economics of life and God wasn’t going to do much about it.  The rich and the powerful would call the shots; that was the accepted order of things.  But…the prophets to whom the words of God came, remembering what they had been taught, would not or perhaps could not see the world that way.

          About 800 years before Jesus, the kingdoms of Judah and Israel were exceedingly prosperous, prosperous in that the rich were getting richer and so what if it wasn’t trickling down to the rest of the people.  But into this world comes Amos who couldn’t accept that reality and who had words from the Lord to counter it.  He was kind of a loose cannon, and when he took aim you didn’t want to be in his sights.  His sights were most often focused on those who were neglecting the tradition he had been taught, those who were trying to find a way around the commands and ordinances that called for the needy and the powerless to be cared for.

          The prophets weren’t fortune tellers, they were truth tellers and the truth that Amos told was that because of their failure to observe the teachings of the tradition, there was a price to pay.  That price for the people of Israel was exile, deportation which was the preferred policy of the Assyrian empire toward those they had conquered.  According to the prophets, failure to abide by the biblical commands for justice would have consequences.

Is this what Jesus was getting at?  Just as Amos was not shy about pointing out the injustices of his time, maybe in this rather odd parable, Jesus was using absurdity to illustrate the injustice he saw.  Maybe he’s trying to show that being overly concerned with the accumulation of wealth leads to values being so completely skewed that those who are dishonest are actually praised for doing a good job; that’s how distorted things could become.  It sounds crazy doesn’t it…and of course nothing like that could ever happen in the real world.

What Jesus was talking about in this parable isn’t clear but in his overall message about the temptations of wealth he clearly was following in the footsteps of prophets like Amos.  Amos did preach about a value system that had been completely overturned such that God would now look upon the people of Israel for harm rather than good; that’s what it says just a few verses after what we heard today and that too represents a complete turnaround, a rather shocking turnaround.  So it isn’t impossible that Jesus was trying to make a point about just how messed up things could get when making money or getting the best deal become the highest priority without regard for how you get there or how it impacts everything else.        

          There were words of caution and consequences from the prophets and from Jesus.  In many and various ways those consequences have been experienced and continue to be experienced.  Jesus and the prophets did say some things that are still hard to figure out, today’s parable being a good example, but on the whole we get it.  We understand the cautions about money and how we use it, we’d just prefer to pretend that they were wrong even though the evidence is all in their favor.

         

Jesus and the prophets did speak words of caution and consequences, but this is the point in the sermon where I would usually remind you that they also spoke words of hope and promise and we end on that.  Sometimes though, it’s better not to rush to hope and promise.  Sometimes it’s better to let the words of caution and consequence bother us for awhile.

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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