Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Rigged Game and the Real Love

"The parable of the dishonest manager." 

First of all, it’s hilarious to me that this guy is called the "dishonest" manager.   He seems brutally honest to me. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m too ashamed to beg. That is some self-honesty there. 

But let’s just stop for a minute and acknowledge before we dive in any further that this is one of Jesus’ most difficult parables, because it kind of sounds like the Son of God is saying God’s people should be more manipulative and unethical.  At least he does say we could learn a thing or two about shrewdness from folks like the dude who cheats and steals and lies, whose apparently commendable act is to use someone else’s money to buy off people, so that when he needs something they’ll help him out.

Commentators and preachers go to great lengths to pretty it up – they say he eliminated his commission or his own salary, so he was being generous and didn’t cut into his boss’s profits.  They suggest he forgave illegal interest, or was a mistreated worker bringing vigilante justice to an unfair system.  Anything to rescue Jesus from this disaster of a parable.  

 Luke seems so uncomfortable with this parable that he tacks on a bunch of additional takeaways for us, like he’s just giving up, What does it mean? You decide!
Here are some of Luke’s suggested applications, paraphrased:
  •       Liars gonna lie. When people show you who they are, believe them. 
  •       Respect is earned and trust is gained.
  •       If you can’t be relied upon look after the neighbor’s dog well, what makes you think your parents would ever get you your own? 
  •       No one can play on two teams.  You’ll be loyal and give one your best effort, and and neglect and resent the other.  You can’t serve God and wealth.
All of these are fine take-aways, so we could stop right now and each pick whichever one tugs at us the most, and call it good enough.  

But I think this is a great opportunity to circle back to something that has been so foundational to us as a congregation that it has changed how many of us live our daily lives, and certainly how we are church together.  Session just reiterated last week about how important this perspective is to us, and we haven’t explicitly spelled out in a while.  Bonus, maybe if we remind ourselves of this perspective again, we’ll get some insights into this perplexing parable as well.  

So here it is: The way of fear vs. The way of God.

There are two competing narratives all the time, everywhere, in life, in scripture, in media, in the structures we occupy, in the air we breathe.

 Our instinctive go-to is based on the earliest lie, which says we are in this alone and God can’t be trusted. We’re convinced that the goal of life is security and self-sufficiency at all costs. The Way of Fear builds on that lie to say that the powerful matter and the weak don’t, that having more makes you better, and that all human worth is earned. So those around you are competition for your resources, threat to your security, or obstacle to your goals. There is us and there is them, enemies and allies, and if you’re not with us, you’re against us.   

Scarcity is the rule – there simply is not enough so take what you can and guard yours well. And that’s not just money, that’s also things like respect, dignity, opportunity, voice and worth, limited commodities all, so only some people can have it at any given time.  Safety and well-being is hard to get and easy to lose, so never slow down, never give up, never let go, never lose your place. You must be vigilant about self-protection and avoiding weakness, or even the appearance of weakness.  Life is an uphill battle, a never-ending to-do list, a criticism factory churning out judgment, comparison and shame, packaged in urgency and anxiety, and coated with desperation to avoid death that smells like younger, fitter, better, more. 

This week in the news, the way of fear was on display. It’s a system that uses human beings in need as pawns in political stunts, and then turns around to use them again as trophies of political self-righteousness.  A system where the movement of goods matters more than the lives of the people transporting them.  A system where people have to choose between food and rent while big companies rake in record-breaking profits and refuse to lower their prices. A system where the quality of the healthcare you can expect to receive can be predicted by the color of your skin.  This is what the way of fear looks like. 

In contrast, the Way of God is the real reality under it all.  The truth is that life begins in abundance and gift, and the earth and everything in it belongs to God, who made us for connection with God and each other. This belonging is foundational and permanent. Even when we forget or deny it, it remains.  There is nowhere God’s love does not reach, and nothing God’s love does not bear.  Each person is loved just as you are, and you are not meant to be “perfect,” just meant to be you, the only one of you God will ever make on this planet.  Together in all our glorious difference, we live alongside all these unique others who are in it together, with and for each other in this life as siblings and friends, companions who bear each other’s pain and joys.

There is enough for everyone because what we have is for sharing.  It’s all meant to work together in harmony.  And no matter what it looks like at any given moment, it’s all heading toward complete connection and wholeness, because God is the one who decides the end, and in Christ, it’s already been decided.  We can live in freedom and rest, we can join in redemption and hope, we can take in wonder and joy, and we can face our losses knowing death is not the end of the story, that life and love are eternal.   

In the news this week the way of God was on display in a high school football team coming together to rebuild a bridge destroyed in a storm, a billionaire giving away his entire company to support climate action, and a close-knit island community dropping everything to provide food, clothing, housing and a warm welcome to unexpected weary travelers, sitting together for hours and listening to their harrowing stories, witnessing the bond of mutual care they’d forged with their fellow travelers navigating horror and hardship.  Drawing on their own sense of community and resilience through hurricanes and covid, these people relished the chance to minister to strangers, opening their hearts to true encounter that not only helped those whose lives are currently in upheaval, but also enriched the lives of those surprised in an ordinary week by the gift of their arrival, reminding them all that we all really do belong to each other.  That’s the way of God peeking through.

 So back to this parable, which is all the lodged in the way of fear. The so-called “dishonest” manager oversees corrupt wealth for an unethical rich guy in a broken system. And perceptions matter. If someone thinks his manager is stealing, the owner is firing him whether he did it or not, because the reputation of the business must not be tarnished. 

 The game is rigged. It’s all pretend. The manager’s actions expose as much when, after he uses his last act to slash the debts of his boss’s debtors, instead of exploding in rage, a slow smile creeps over his boss’s face, and he claps the manager on the back and bellows, “TouchĂ©!” 

 And it took the man losing his job to wake him up to how messed up it all is.  
What really matters? What is really real? 
Our belonging to God and each other.  
So much of life functions in transactional relationships. What can we get from the other person? And that way of functioning is still at play for our manager. It’s maybe all he knows. So he thinks, I don’t have the skills to make it out there on my own! But I do know transactional relationships. If I reduce their debt, they will be obligated to welcome me in.  
But what interests me here is that Jesus rephrases the man’s thought and reiterates his point, when he closes out the parable with, “So I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” He added the word eternal

Eternity in scripture isn’t so much about time. It’s about substance – quality of being. Eternity is love, underlying, overlaying, everlasting, permanent love, love holding it all.  
What would it be like to be at home in love? 
To move in the world connected in love? 
To know you are welcome in each other’s love and to have love to welcome others into?  
I think our deeply honest manager, who knows his own limitations, who knows the jig is up, who is being ejected from his secure and comfortable seat in the way of fear, wonders about this, doesn’t yet know how to get there, but he knows he wants it.
As the clock is ticking down, and security is about to escort him and his cardboard box from the building, he uses the tools of the way of fear—the cunning, manipulation, and transactional relationships, the familiar resources at his disposal, along with the last bit of leverage he has while he still has access to the account passwords—to lower debts, buy good will, and reach out for connection, in an effort to propel himself into this something else, this deeper thing, the intangible, authentic and eternal.
Maybe he wonders if his life could be for something more, if he could maybe experience the belonging of being at home in love, of moving through the world connected to others in love, instead of existing as a cog in the wheel of commerce, comparison and corruption.
Luke says we can’t serve two masters, God and wealth. In other words, we can’t let our lives be for both the way of fear and the way of God. We will either pursue personal security at the expense of trusting God and upholding one another, or we’ll embrace connection and reject rivalry and scarcity.

Serving the one master got this manager nowhere. So, while he’s not sure yet how to serve the other, he’s going to take a stab at finding out.  Kudos, good sir.  More power to you.
I think generations of Christians are scandalized by this parable because we sort of believe our religion is meant to make us good citizens that prop up the dominant system with sound investments, ethical behavior and upward mobility.  It’s offensive to hear Jesus tell a story of someone blowing it apart and then praise him for it. 
But it’s all pretend. None of it will last.  
All that matters is what’s eternal -  love.  
We can choose to surrender to the love that already holds us all, the belonging that already connects us, and practice living in that eternal reality until that becomes the most familiar and natural way to be. 
Or we can live in the way of fear, scarcity and anxiety, dutifully striving away for what doesn’t last.  And when something punctures that and we have to face our own weakness and isolation, we can take comfort in knowing that, however mysterious and ungraspable it is, the way of God is here to meet us, even if our way of reaching for it is flawed and corrupt.  
We belong to God and each other, and every time we remember that--no matter how we turn back to that--we will be welcomed into the eternal home of love. 


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