Pent 18 Lect 25 C:God is NOT the Rich Lord

Readings:

  • Amos 8:4-7
  • Psalm 113
  • 1 Timothy 2:1-7
  • Luke 16:1-13

Click here in order to read this week’s lessons, in both CEB and NRSV translations.

Sermon

When I was a child I learned the Lord’s Prayer a certain way that remains dear to me.  As I have entered different places of worship, I have learned to say the Lord’s Prayer in a number of ways.  People all over the world pray this prayer in a way that is unique to them.

I have heard children stumble over the words in murmurs to small to bring notice.  I have wept as I heard the collective prayer in a dozen languages all at once, each person deliberately pacing their syllables to match the rhythm of the prayer in a spoken harmony and melody.  I have felt awe, astonishment, and reverence in the midst of the dying non-verbal elder who suddenly sparks to life and mouth the words as soon as they hear “Our Father…” coming from the lips of those keeping vigil beside them.  I have stood in an empty stone chamber and intoned the Lord’s Prayer and discovered the joy of reverberations and layers as echoes bounced around the space.

Each way is special.

Each way means something.

Despite all the experiences of a Lord’s Prayer mosaic, and the discovery of the beauty in each, the one that I come back to time and again is the one I learned as a child.  Throughout my life, it has been a constant reminder of the truths of my life.

“And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12, NRSV)

As of 2009, the average Canadian family was dealing with around $145,000 of debt.[1]  According to the CBC, as of 2016 the average individual Canadian is dealing with around $22,000 of debt.[2]  The average university student owes around $27,000 – $34,000, depending on whom they borrowed from.[3]

Those numbers are bleak.  And bleaker still when you understand how averages work.  More often than not, the total number of people owe more than the numbers I just gave you than the total number of people who owe less.

There are some cultures and some religions who teach that it is contrary to their way of life to charge anyone interest.  In truth, we often “forget that charging interest on loans was forbidden in the Bible because it exploited the vulnerable poor.”[4]

A couple of today’s readings take up the issue of debt, the vulnerability of those in debt, and those who abuse the power they are given in life.

In Amos, we read about God’s judgement on oppressors.  God will not forget what has been done by those who “trample the needy and destroy the poor of the land.” (Amos 8:4)

Many people who study the Bible and write about the Bible and its interpretations tend towards taking a pretty strong stance against the abuses of power by the wealthy.  It seems pretty clear that Jesus took a stance against the abuses of power by the wealthy during the time in which he lived.

And because Jesus is about showing the relationship that God wants with the world, and acting for justice for all, we look for the injustices in the stories that Jesus is telling because we want to know what it is that we should be for and against.

For example, last week Jesus was sitting with tax collectors and sinners.  In truth, in today’s reading he is still sitting with tax collectors and sinners.  And the Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling about the way Jesus publicly and shamelessly flaunts this counter-cultural way of being in community with the people who gather around him.  He purposely takes the way everyone understands this world of “tax collectors and sinners = bad/Pharisees and legal experts = good” to be, and flips it entirely on its head.

Or, at least, that’s how I have come to understand how most people interpret these texts.  But it’s really far more complicated than that.

No one really like the tax collector.  But, at the same time, no one really like the know-it-all ‘to the letter of the law’ church-guy either!  And in this story, we are left unsure of the sneaky household manager.  Are we supposed to like him or not?  Most people have an immediate dislike of the rich lord, because he holds these massive debts over these apparent small town farmers.  Some people are left wondering if the people whose debts have been lessened now on friendly terms with the household manager.  And even more wonder why the rich lord commends his manger.

And that’s the beauty of relationships.  They are almost always complicated.

Today’s entire parable is difficult – some say the most difficult of all the parables.  It’s difficult because it is incredibly complicated.  It’s a story that is a tangle of different threads – layers of income, debt, status, and power, security, and so much more.  It is messy.  And made messier still by the depth of relationship between all of the different people.

Because it’s so messy, we want to simplify it.  Because Jesus is telling the story, we want to simplify it AND find God’s role in the story.

Who’s the good guy?
Who’s the bad guy?
Who’s God?
And who are we?

Usually, all good questions when dealing with a parable.

Except, I think, in this case.  You see, I don’t think that Jesus is calling out the rich, or preaching to the evils of wealth and evils of debt.  I don’t think that God is the rich lord, and we are the household managers.  I don’t think that we can simplify this parable like that because I don’t think that this parable is a substitutionary object lesson where we learn quite easily what it is that we are supposed to be doing or not doing.

I do think that Jesus is using this parable to name the truth of every person’s loyalties.  Or, perhaps less cryptically, asking what in our lives enables or hinders us from living earnestly into what it is that God has called us.[5]  Or, perhaps more specifically, which debts in our lives so threaten to consume us that we can only see the world through them?  What is owed to us that we are only ever able to interact with the world around us in light of being owed?

I’m not saying that the very real and pressing bleakness in the life of a debtor ought to be simply shrugged off, with a casual “At least Jesus loves me.”  Or, that the debtors of the world ought to simply give up on collecting what is owed by choosing God over worldly wealth.

Truly, our lives and the world are far more complicated that that.
Truly, our lives and the world have far more value than what we are owed and what we owe.

I don’t have simple answers. What I can tell you is this.  Despite all our deeply complicated matters, we are reminded by God, through this parable, to recognize that even though we sometimes get bogged down in the muck and mire of debts and debtors, we can still hold on to the eternal promise that God’s kingdom and God’s will are done, on earth, as in heaven.  The people around us are the means by which we discover the eternal promise.

My hope is that when we pray,
forgive us our debts/trespasses/sins
as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass against us/those who sin against us,’
we would remember that living faithfully into what God has called us involves all the complicated, mucky things of life and points to the most important and true riches.  Each life is special.  Each way of being means something – relationship with God and with all those around us is life eternal.

Let us pray,
Holy Trinity you are the very truth of complicated life and relationship.  We ask that you would so inspire us with clearer understanding when we are bogged down, when we are scattered, and when we have lost sight of the treasure of your eternal promise through healthy relationship with those around us.  Amen.


Sermon Inspirations

  1. CBC News. “Debt loads increased 2.7% this year to $21,348 on average, TransUnion says.”  CBC News Online | Business.  Posted: May 18, 2016 8:56 AM ET
  2. Lewis, Karoline. “Being Faithful in Much.”  Dear Working Preacher, Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
  3. Rossing, Barbara. “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13.”  Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
  4. Sagan, Aleksandra. “As student debt climbs to an average past $25K, schools invest in battling the mental-health issues it causes.”  The Canadian Press on National Post.  May 30, 2016 11:48 AM ET
  5. Statistics Canada. “Household Debt in Canada.”

This week’s image is titled: “A Lannister always pays his debts” and was posted by “TheDarkTemplar” on Reddit.  This image has been borrowed and modified without permission.  You can find it here.


[1] Statistics Canada.  “Household Debt in Canada.”
[2] CBC News.  “Debt loads increased 2.7% this year to $21,348 on average, TransUnion says.”  CBC News Online | Business.  Posted: May 18, 2016 8:56 AM ET
[3] Aleksandra Sagan.  “As student debt climbs to an average past $25K, schools invest in battling the mental-health issues it causes.”  The Canadian Press on National Post.  May 30, 2016 11:48 AM ET
[4] Barbara Rossing.  “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13.”  Preach This Week, Working Preacher.
[5] Karoline Lewis.  “Being Faithful in Much.”  Dear Working Preacher, Preach This Week.  Working Preacher.

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