September 18, 2016. What do you get away with in God’s realm?

Texts: JEREMIAH 8:18-9:1, LUKE 16:1-13

Grace to you, and peace, from the one who is, and who was, and who is to come. Amen? Amen.

Today we overhear some conversations in the scriptures. They’re conversations about real trouble. The prophet Jeremiah was working in Jerusalem at the time when the Babylonians were preparing to enslave his people and deport them all to the marshes near the Euphrates river.. “What’s happening? Why?” are the questions they’re struggling with.  What’s happening?     Why?

In Luke’s Gospel we hear conversations between business people. Somebody seems to be cheating somebody, right? I suppose those people were asking “what’s happening?” “why?” We certainly have those questions, and we might add, “what does all that have to do with the kingdom of God?”

We get to overhear these conversations not just for the satisfaction of puzzling over ancient texts. We get to hear them because they are about us as well as those people from long ago. We get to hear them because God hopes we can learn from them.

The conversations we overhear are disturbing and puzzling to most of us, aren’t they?

According to Jeremiah, God is angry with the people of Jerusalem – and perhaps with us – for following “foreign idols.” What’s up with that? It’s hard for us to grasp both parts of that. First of all, God, angry? Really? We’re taught that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounds in steadfast love.  Maybe that’s why prophets must struggle to be heard.   – it’s hard to accept that God might be displeased with God’s people.

Second, what are these foreign idols to us? In Jeremiah’s time, it’s possible the people of Jerusalem were declaring their allegiance to Ba’al or Asherah, or some other object of Levantine tribal worship. OK. But, in our time?  How do we understand these idols?

The Gospel’s just as puzzling.  The landlord hears a rumor his manager is wasteful. He fires him first and asks questions second. The manager was scared he wouldn’t find another good job. (None of that’s puzzling in today’s world. We get it. Many of us have been through it.) Then he uses the landlord’s wealth to bribe a bunch of people and curry favor with them. So far so good. This sounds like countless newspaper stories about business shenanigans. It’s a story we recognize – we experience a lot of this in our world.

But then the landlord PRAISES the manager for his shrewdness (in gospel Greek, the word “shrewd” means intensely wise, and isn’t quite as negative as it sounds in English.)  The landlord thought the manager was wise to buy the favor of those people with contracts to deliver their crop.  That is a surprise.

If we listen to these conversations –Jeremiah and Luke—carefully, they rattle us. They can transform our understanding of who we are, and maybe even help us know God better. So let’s listen carefully.

I’m sure you know the gospel-writers Luke and Matthew often present the same material in different ways.  Does anybody know from which gospel we get the Lord’s Prayer?  (Matthew, the sermon on the mount.)  And, the prayer turns up in Luke, the same but different. (ch 11).

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Hmmm.    Mostly, when we English-speaking Christians pray that prayer we use parallel language. “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”.

We pray to get what we give. That of course is great, world-changing, wonderful, stuff. God’s forgiveness sets us free so we may forgive. Great. That’s a fine way, a life-affirming way, to live.

But maybe there’s more to it. Luke’s words aren’t parallel…. “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”  Jesus – the way Luke heard him – is hoping for us to go a little deeper into the conversations we’re hearing.  We pray to get something different from what we give.

Let’s go deeper. Who are you in our parable? Are you the manager? Are you the landlord? Are you one of the sharecroppers who has fallen behind in delivering olive oil or grain to the landlord? Maybe you’re a member of the family of one of those people.

The parable says “charges were brought” to the landlord about the manager. Somebody brought those charges. Are you, maybe, the one who brought those charges and cost the manager his job?  This story fits our economy just as it fits the agrarian world of Gospel times, and it fits us.

Whoever you are in the story, you bring your sense of fairness along with you.

If you’re the one who brought charges, you probably did so because seeing that manager squander all that wealth seemed grossly immoral to you, and you wanted it to stop.

If you’re the manager, it sounds like you knew the error of your ways. You suspected you’d get caught one day, and you needed a plan to save yourself. You knew what was fair.

If you’re one of the sharecroppers who had some of your debt forgiven, you probably feel a sense of relief combined with suspicion somebody will change their mind. (Landlords in those days took a lot from the farmers on their land, leaving them with barely enough to get by if they were lucky.)

If you’re a family member of any of those people, you’re probably relieved at the outcome. It probably seems to you like a few months of grace may be coming your way.  The farming families will have a little more to eat. The manager was not torn away from his family and handed over to the Roman police.  Even the landlord got something: grudging respect for the manager.

Remember the lament of Jeremiah’s people “the harvest is ended, the summer is past, and we are not saved.” Maybe the outcome of this wasteful manager’s firing is life-giving to everybody by giving people more of the harvest.

But whoever you are in the story, doesn’t the outcome still seem to break your rules of fairness? Don’t you have a little knot in your guts telling you that you got away with something?

Yes. I hope so. You did get away with something. The kingdom of God is like that.

In Jeremiah, we hear about God’s anger at God’s people for their allegiance to idols. What idols do we worship today? One of them is that little knot in our guts that comes when we cling to the idea that we must give to get. It’s our idea of fairness. It’s an idol. When we live as if God’s kingdom is near, we let go of that knot in the gut.

If you’re the one who brought the charges, the rule of generosity is hard for you to accept: you must give up your hope that the wasteful manager will get the punishment he definitely deserves by your rule of fairness.

If you’re a farmer or family member, you’ve gotten a break – a deal that gets you through the coming winter. It’s not easy to accept or trust your break. Still, living in the grace of God’s kingdom means trusting the break you got. It means accepting grace as well as giving it.

Accepting grace is sometimes the harder part.  That’s especially true for church people. Most of us are better at giving than receiving. But living in God’s kingdom calls us both to receive and give. When we live by God’s grace, we accept generosity we can never repay. We give generosity without clinging to any hope of getting it back.

What’s happening? God’s fairness. God’s grace seizes our sense of fairness, and then upends it. God takes us for who we are, flips over our sense of fairness, and so saves us from ourselves and each other.  We don’t stop being who we are: we are still children of this age. By grace God enlists us, like the manager in the parable, in using our shrewdness – our worldly wisdom – to show that God’s kingdom is near.

It’s my prayer for you that you’ll watch for, and be, signs of God’s grace in the days to come. I hope you’ll use your worldly wisdom to give somebody something good they didn’t earn. I hope you’ll accept something good from somebody you didn’t earn.  The life of the world depends on it.

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