Lectionary blog for Sept. 18
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113;
1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
As baseball season is winding down and the pennant races are heating up, I have been reminded of a kerfuffle back in 2007. The New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays were in a tight pennant race. Derek Jeter was the batter. Tampa Bay’s pitcher threw a pitch that bounced off Jeter’s bat, and Jeter shook his left arm, screwed up his face in pain and grabbed his elbow. The umpire decided the ball had hit Jeter and awarded him first base.
Now, nobody but the home plate umpire thought Jeter had been hit, and after the game, when Jeter was asked about it, he admitted that he had put a fast one over on the umpire. And the newspapers and the sports talk shows had a field day, arguing over whether Jeter was a cheater or just a smart ballplayer.
It seems to me that Jeter and the unjust office manager in our Gospel lesson have a lot in common; both of them pulled a fast one, and the man in charge rewarded them for it. It’s a difficult story and a hard one to understand, isn’t it? OK, let’s be honest. The story is not that difficult to understand. It is the way the world works, and we all know it. Both our candidates for president have been accused of pulling fast ones that are very similar to what the manager did. My baseball story is the sort of thing that happens all the time in life, just usually outside the prying eyes of television cameras and sports reporters.
We understand the story. So, actually, it’s what Jesus says about the story that’s hard to take. It looks for all the world like Jesus is praising someone who cheats; someone who, like Jeter, does something dishonest in order to win.
A business owner finds out that his office manager is guilty of mismanagement. He calls in the manager and says, “You’ve got two weeks to get ready for an audit. Now get out of here.” The manager knows he’s in deep trouble. Too proud to beg; too weak to work; what to do? What to do?
Suddenly, he has an idea. He calls in some of the company’s biggest customers. “Have I got a deal for you?” he says. The plan is simple. He cuts their bills in half, destroys the paper trail and writes new invoices. Now when the audit happens, no one can prove that he cheated and all the richest men in town will owe him a favor. His future is secure. Of course, when the owner looks at the doctored books, he knows what has happened, but there is nothing he can do about it. He knows he has been conned. And here’s the surprise. He says to the man: “I have to admit it; you were pretty smart. You got me. Now get out of here.” As I said, up to this point the story makes perfect sense to us. What doesn’t make sense is that Jesus seems to join the owner in praising the manager for his dishonesty.
But a careful reading of the text shows that Jesus is not praising the man for being dishonest. Rather, he is pointing to the man as an example of someone with single-minded devotion to a cause—which in this case, happens to be himself. Jesus’ point turns out to be pretty simple. “Here,” he says, “is someone who knows how to give his entire heart mind and soul to the service of his god.” And Jesus wonders, “What if the citizens of the kingdom of God were to give this sort of single-minded and complete devotion to the cause of the one and only true God!” Martin Luther, in the Large Catechism, says: “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.”
This story of the unjust steward confronts me with some serious questions I have to ask myself, the first one being “What really is my God?”
Is it my No.1 concern in life to share good news with the poor? Or am I like the people Amos ranted about—those who “trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4)?
Look at the Psalm. Do I give some time each week to help the Lord “raise the poor from the dust” (Psalm 113:7)? Do I contribute to and pray for organizations dedicated to participating with God in healing the sick?
How well do I heed the words written to Timothy? How much of my valuable time do I spend each week in “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” (1 Timothy 2:1)?
Jesus points to the manager and says, “This man is shrewd and devoted his life to serving his god—his god being wealth and money.” Can I be as smart and devoted in serving the living God?
This is the real question Jesus puts before us in his story of the con-man office manager. Because it has to be one or the other—it can’t be both. You cannot be fully, completely and totally devoted to the care and feeding of your bank account—while also being fully, completely and totally devoted to the care and feeding of your soul. “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
This is not an admonition, as in “You shouldn’t try to do that, it’s too difficult.” No, this is a stern statement of spiritual fact: You cannot serve the Lord your God and the Lord your Money. It’s not possible; it can’t be done.
The underlying issue here is trust. Do we really, fully, completely and totally trust God with our life and our future? Or do we hedge our bets, trusting our own wits, our own efforts, and our own accumulation of things to keep us safe in a dangerous world?
Jesus invites us to trust in God. And the only way for that to happen is for us to learn to obey the First Commandment: “You shall have other gods before me.” If there is anything “to which our heart clings” more than it clings to God, if there is anything that we trust more than we trust God, that thing is, Luther says, truly our God. Today, Jesus invites us to trust and serve God above all other things. Can we? Will we?
Amen and amen.