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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 09/22/2013

During the past few weeks we’ve had several gospel readings that have made us a little uncomfortable, texts that have been pretty clear about what Jesus is telling us to do but it doesn’t matter because we know we’re not going to do it anyway.  We’re not going to hate our families, we’re not going to sell all our possessions, we’re not going to invite total strangers to dinner parties; it’s not going to happen.  With those texts we try to soften it or explain it away, assuming that Jesus must have really meant something else, but there it is.  Deep down we know that what he’s really getting at are the difficult demands of real discipleship, demands that we know we can’t live up to. 

Today’s gospel though, is different from what we’ve had previously.  The parable of the Unjust Steward or the Dishonest Manager does make us uncomfortable, in that regard it’s similar to what we’ve had previously; but this one makes us uncomfortable for different reasons.  In this case, we really don’t know what Jesus is talking about with his apparent praise of dishonesty.  In all the commentaries I have and all the books that reference this parable and all the articles I’ve read about it, there are many explanations but I have yet to find one that I find convincing. 

Parts of it can be explained away with a better understanding of the business and social customs of the day but it’s hard to get past the fact that the manager is praised for dishonesty; you can’t get around it.  He embezzles from the boss, then in response to his rightful dismissal, he swindles him out of even more money by making back room deals with some of the clients and from the tone of it you don’t get the idea that this is some kind of lovable con-man that we’re dealing with; he’s a crook, he’s a bad guy.

You want a “crime doesn’t pay” ending where the manager is thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth; that would make sense.  But no; you basically get, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  However you try to twist it, it just doesn’t make sense according to any moral or ethical standard we’re familiar with.  So, rather than fumble around with weak explanations that none of us would really buy anyway, this time around I’m going to leave this to the realm of mystery and move on to something else.

How about Jeremiah?  He’s always a pleasant alternative.  Poor Jeremiah;  “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.  I mourn and dismay has taken hold of me.”  Poor Jeremiah, he certainly had a tough go of it, but since I depressed you with him last week I’d rather not do it again today.  Today you do find out where the phrase “a balm in Gilead” comes from though.  Apparently the region around Gilead, east of the Jordan River was especially noted for a soothing ointment derived from various plants and trees that was used to help heal wounds and that’s what Jeremiah references here and that’s where the hymn “There is a balm in Gilead” comes from.

The readings from Jeremiah do tend to be downers.  There’s a few more weeks of it though.  The good news is that you do get a break from him in a couple of weeks.  The bad news is that the break is from the book of Lamentations which is even worse, then it’s back to Jeremiah although I’ll give you a preview and tell you that the last couple of readings from him do get more hopeful. 

One thing though, about using these semi-continuous Old Testament readings is that they get us into some different Psalms, Psalms that take us where the lectionary usually dares not go.  The psalm of the day is always a response to the first reading, there’s supposed to be a connection between them, but one of the criticisms of the regular lectionary is that mostly all you get are the nice psalms.  Some of you perhaps remember that the green hymnal, the LBW, didn’t even include all the psalms.  Some were deemed too harsh to be read on Sunday morning so they omitted them; they were apparently afraid that you couldn’t handle it.

The psalms though, are prayers, prayers that express the full spectrum of human experience with God.  They include prayers of praise for those times when things are going good; they also include prayers for when the psalmist is in some kind of need and looks for God to provide deliverance.  Those are the two kinds that we usually get from the lectionary.  But then there are others; like the one appointed for today, number 79, that pleads for God’s vengeance to be rained down on the psalmist’s enemies who of course are also seen to be the Lord’s enemies.  “Pour out your wrath upon the nations who have not known you and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon your name.”  Pour out your wrath; pay them back!

This isn’t a nice prayer; Psalm 79 wasn’t in the old hymnal.  This isn’t “thy will be done;” it’s “my will be done,” and being nice people it does kind of offend us.  We’re more comfortable with the kind of prayer described in the reading from Timothy today, “intercessions and thanksgivings for everyone so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”  That’s more like it; not “pour out your wrath.”

We don’t pray that way, but there probably aren’t many if any of us who can say we’ve never felt that way about someone or some group.  We think those thoughts, but we don’t tend to address them to God because we don’t want God to know we feel that way.  With Psalm 79 though, there’s no self-deceiving politeness, no attempt to protect God from how the psalmist really feels.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what exactly is the problem in any given psalm, but in this one it’s not so hard.  Enemies had invaded Jerusalem and destroyed parts of it along with killing some of the people; “They have shed blood like water on every side of Jerusalem.”  Perhaps most grievous though is the fact that these enemies had profaned the temple, the sacred dwelling of the Lord, thus outraging the psalmist. 

There’s a revulsion like we would feel if someone came in here and trashed the place, destroying things we find holy, the kind of revulsion many feel if they see the American flag being burned or disrespected or how we would feel if someone vandalized the graves of our loved ones.  They’re all violations of that which we find sacred so you want the perpetrators punished. “Pour out your wrath; pay them back.”  Maybe some of us would catch ourselves and say, “That’s not a very Christian response,” but you can’t deny that initial desire for vengeance.

This psalmist is honest enough to acknowledge the desire for vengeance.  He is also faithful enough to turn the desire over to God trusting that God can do something about it.  The danger of such a psalm though is to make the desire of the psalmist the same as the desire of God.  It’s not hard to see how a psalm like this could be misused as permission to slaughter one’s enemies in God’s name, but as I said, this is a “my will be done” prayer, not “thy will be done.”  The potential for religion gone bad is there, but on the other hand it is OK to turn our human desire for my will to be done over to God and leave it there as long as we recognize that that’s what we’re doing.

This is such a human prayer because you also perhaps note that the psalmist wants it both ways.  He wants vengeance on his enemies but forgiveness for himself and his people; “Remember not our past sins; let your compassion be swift to meet us.”  Then in verse 10 he kind of catches himself, basically saying “Don’t do this on my account; do it for yourself so the nations, the outsiders don’t question your power.  Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’”

The Psalms are about God, but they are also about humanity, sometimes, as in this one today, probing the darker side of who we are with our desire to impose our will on God, a will that sometimes isn’t very nice.  Personally though, I think that’s what makes the Psalms interesting and what makes them a great resource for prayer; you can recognize yourself and your thoughts in many of them and know that you’re not the first one to ever feel that way.

What the conflicted and contradictory feelings of today’s psalmist might remind us of though, is something else from Timothy, that “God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  That’s the God we find revealed in Jesus, a God who spared nothing to reveal that truth.  Jesus leaves us scratching our heads sometimes like he does with today’s parable but we know that at the heart of his teaching is the forgiveness that welcomes everyone, even those we might find unworthy, those on whom we want God’s wrath to rain down.  We catch ourselves though, realizing that everyone is welcome.  Everyone is welcome because God does desire that they might be saved, that they might come to the knowledge of the truth.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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