Amos 8:4-7 ~ 1 Timothy 2:1-7 ~ Luke 16:1-13
This is one of those Sundays when the lectionary-based preacher wishes she had planned her vacation more carefully. For the preacher in a setting where several people might share the preaching duties, this would surely be the Sunday when the senior pastor assigns preaching to one of the associates. Or if the pastor’s lucky enough to be supervising an intern, this is a great week to offer her an excellent growth opportunity in preaching!
Since I didn’t take vacation and have no associates or intern, I had no choice but to work with what the lectionary offered. I’m called to preach God’s word to you, and always to find God’s grace in the word. So as I began to consider a sermon for today, I thought I might focus on the Old Testament reading from Amos, or the pastoral advice from First Timothy…but no, that wouldn’t be right. You deserve the chance to hear your preacher, your new pastor, stumble around with the crazy parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel.
It’s hard to figure out what Jesus means by this parable. He tells a story that seems to feature a manager defrauding the owner of the business for his own gain. It seems the manager hasn’t been doing his job very well— probably wasteful and inefficient. So when he finds out he’s about to get sacked, he comes up with a plan to provide for himself. He invites the folks who owe money to the boss to reduce their debt—they get a free discount and he gains friends who’ll take care of him in the future… of course at the boss’s expense.
I’ve heard a parable described as a story about something ordinary, with a surprise or twist that leads us to experience reality in a new way, maybe even transforming our daily life.
The setup of this parable sounds like a pretty ordinary scenario: a guy’s trying to look out for himself, and sometimes that happens at the expense of someone else. But there’s definitely a “surprise or twist!” When the owner of the business found out what his erstwhile manager had been up to, he commended him. Instead of a reprimand, or worse, the guy gets kudos for “acting shrewdly.” Then Jesus piles on some commentary to the parable, inviting his listeners to “make friends…by means of dishonest—or worldly– wealth…”
Is this really Jesus talking??? Jesus, the Jewish rabbi who advocates love and keeping the law—including the 10 commandments…including #7: you shall not steal…
So I studied it, prayed with it, looked at different translations, read what other, far more accomplished, scholars have said about it. And some people offered some pretty creative explanations involving the social mo-res of the time, the system of honor and shame in the first century Middle east, and a kind of Robin Hood approach: because the system was corrupt, always favoring the rich at the expense of the poor, the shrewd manager could be commended for equalizing the wealth: reducing the debt owed to the landowner may have decreased his wealth, but since he had more than enough, it was fair to make him share with those who were poorer.
Usually after I spend some time wrestling with the text, something rises to the top for me. Some point that seems to be the right thing for the congregation to hear right now. And while I struggled with this lesson, some themes seemed to make sense…but nothing felt really right.
And then I had that lightbulb moment…maybe it would be OK to tell you that sometimes I don’t know what to make of a text. Years of reading and studying the Bible before seminary, intensive study of old and New Testament during seminary, almost 80 sermons preached in the last 3 years…and I don’t know what God’s trying to tell us with this text.
I HOPE you won’t change your mind…after all, I’m not yet ordained and installed “officially” as your pastor. But there’s one thing you can count on with me…I’ll never make something up when I don’t have the answer to a question or problem. I’ll always do my best to work it out, or guide a process of working something out together. If I don’t know, I’ll say “I don’t know.”
So the grace-full lesson that I finally discerned from this text, for this Sunday at St. Peter, is that sometimes…we just don’t know!
Our church body, the ELCA, tells us that scripture is “inspired” by God. When we use the word “Inspired”, it means more than the brief definition I found in Webster’s: “very good or clever.” When we talk about scripture being inspired, it’s actually a reference to the Holy Spirit. The oldest meaning of inspire is “breathe”…so we might say that scripture is breathed into us by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit breathed God’s word into the people who first wrote it down thousands of years ago. And remember it was written down in ancient languages that most of us wouldn’t know how to read: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. It was written down using tools that we might not recognize today: chisels on stone, sharp blades or quills on sheepskin or parchment. And for many hundreds of years, if another copy was needed, that copy was made by hand.
And copies by hand, aren’t usually perfect…even if the copyist is also inspired or breathed on by the Holy Spirit. In fact, I brought my Greek new testament so show you something…I know you can’t see detail from where you’re sitting, but take a look at this page. The top portion of the page is the text, written in Greek. The bottom portion is a series of notes, advising the reader that what’s written above is really just scholars’ educated guess at what the “original” version said. Most of what’s written in the Bible, the inspired Word of God, might possibly say something else. No one can be sure. And we haven’t even gotten to translation yet, taking the original Hebrew or Greek and turning it into our King James or New Revised Standard Version or “The Message”…
So, I’ve shared a little lesson in in interpreting ancient texts. From this I hope you’ll remember 2 things. First, I believe the “inspiration” is ongoing. God didn’t just inspire the original writers of Holy Scripture. Each ancient scribe, making a copy of what had already been written down…each translator…each READER…each preacher…can be breathed on by the Holy Spirit. That’s why there isn’t just ONE sermon to preach on a given text. If there were, my job would be a lot easier. Look up the text, and preach the same message that was offered 3 years ago the last time this lesson came up in the lectionary.
That’s also why each listener takes something different away from the sermon. This hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve heard preachers describe a conversation with someone in the congregation after worship…the listener talks about how the sermon touched him…and is saying something completely different from what the pastor thought her sermon was saying. Each of you is listening with ears and heart inspired by the Holy Spirit—so you’ll receive the word that you need to hear. God is breathing even now.
The other important thing to hear is that its OK if we don’t always have the answers. Sometimes we don’t hear the Spirit breathing…and that’s OK. And that’s where I think God’s grace is today. We can accept that there will be times when we just won’t know the answer. We do the best we can, reading, praying, studying…but sometimes we just have to wait for the breath of the spirit to come…or wait until we’re ready to hear it. AMEN
September 18, 2016, St. Peter Lutheran Church, Trenton OH