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Church Can be Exhausting, But So is Scaling Everest: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 22, 2019:
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

I’ve been reading a book about Anglicanism alongside someone who’s been following a sense of call to our particular denominational sheepfold. The book’s by a priest from England named Richard Giles, and it’s called Always Open: Being an Anglican Today. (It’s got a picture of a 24-hour convenience store on the cover, “always open.”) And he writes this:

[The local church] is able to be for us God’s hot-house, where we, [God’s] prize plants, can be nurtured and brought to maturity. Such nurture is, however, not always a case of basking in warm sunshine; a hot-house is a place of forcing growth when our natural inclination is to stagnate. The local church is a place where we have the corners knocked off us, and come face to face with the variable and unreliable quality of the raw material (you and me) at God’s disposal. It can be an exhausting and bruising process, but then so is winning the Super Bowl or scaling Everest.*

That’s a helpful analogy to me, God’s hothouse. Together in an environment that might be muggy, but it’s the environment designed to help us grow. And Giles says it’s the place where we get “our corners knocked off us.” The greenhouse has different plants, of different sizes and needs, some on the far edges, others a little too close for comfort, maybe getting tangled up in our branches. And that’s just the reality of being in a hothouse. The raw material, Giles says, is “variable” and “unreliable,” but, we’re still God’s prized plants.

That’s one analogy, and last week Jesus, and Canon Wendy, shared another, that we are God’s sheep. And we’re prized to the extent that God will go to any length to find the missing 1 per cent, even if it means taking an eye off the more reliable 99. And what’s stuck with me since last week was that suggestion that when we’re lost in the woods, rather than get ourselves more lost, we might be better of standing still, calling for help, and letting yourself get found. As I’ve been sitting with that image, I’ve been wondering if we might say that each Sunday when we come here, to this sheepfold, or hothouse, that that’s an opportunity to stand still, and re-orient ourselves. Even if we might not feel fully lost, the events of the previous seven days may have taken us off the main path. And so here we re-center ourselves; we get re-found by the Jesus we’ve gotten to know — and continue to get to know — in our stories and at the table.

So: we are God’s garden. And we are God’s little lambs. Those are nice, evocative images. But then sometimes Jesus throws us a curveball (or a knuckleball), and we end up with parables like today’s. The Parable of the Unjust Steward. Or shrewd, or cunning, crafty, slick, or clever; all of these get at the meaning. Or we might just say, “the steward with gumption.” It doesn’t translate too well into a picture, compared to a shepherd cradling a sheep. The main character isn’t likeable; doesn’t seem to us like a model for our own behaviour. And the story doesn’t pull at our heartstrings in the way that some others, like last week’s, might.

Today’s parable is the only one, and actually the only Bible passage for which I have a devoted folder on my computer. And not just on my computer, but as part of my internet-based “Dropbox” account, which lets me get to it from any computer, anywhere in the world, as long as I have my password. That’s how intimidated and puzzled I am by this parable. I’ve got a dozen academic articles in that folder that I can tap into anytime. Just in case. And in one of those articles discovered that this parable has been dubbed “the problem child of parable exegesis” and “the prince among the difficult parables.” It’s been described as “a notorious puzzle.”** I’m curious, as you heard it, if you liked it, or not. Did it penetrate, at all, into your consciousness? Or, like me, is your initial reaction just “that’s weird.” Were you wondering if there characters represented certain people or things? Or if it’s just a bit of a ‘swing and a miss.’

Well, this puzzle of a parable has with it “a jungle of explanations.”** Because we figure that it’s in there, in Luke, for some reason. So we try to salvage some meaning from it.

    – One of the primary explanations has been that the steward shouldn’t be imitated literally, but we should learn something from his resourcefulness, his urgency. Maybe it’s a story about devoting ourselves wholeheartedly to our faith. To work now for the future, for things “eternal.”

    – Some look to the culture of the time and place, and figure that in reducing what the debtors owe, the steward is just erasing his own commission. So the master is still getting what he’s owed, and the steward is actually acting more honestly than before. He’s being charitable. And some add that the steward is increasing his boss’ honour, by making the debtors feel more positive about him.

    – Some ask if the steward represents Jesus, who erases our sins just as the steward erases the debts. (Though it doesn’t work perfectly, because the steward only erases part of the debt.) Or there’s a slight twist on this, where maybe the parable’s about the welcoming of the Gentiles into the Church. The crafty steward makes things easier for the people who owe the master. Just like Gentiles were welcomed into the family of Abraham and Sarah, but without having to observe all the Jewish laws.

    – Some scholars think that basically the last half of the reading was originally unrelated to the parable. You have a mysterious parable that has something to do with faith, but then added to that is technically separate teachings about handling money. Similar by theme, but not really explaining the story.

    – Some note that, just like with letters or emails, we can’t detect tone in our Biblical manuscripts. So maybe it should be read with some sarcasm and irony. “Try to get an eternal reward through bribery… so how that works for ya.”

    – And another (and not the last possibility) is that mention of the “children of light” at the end. We usually take that to mean us, the good, faithful people. Or the faithful people of Jesus’s day. But we could note that around this time you had the group called the Essenes (the Dead Sea Scroll people), that were fed up with the secular rulers, and the religious rulers. They saw things very black and white. And so they took off to the desert, where they would remain untainted by the world. And in their writings they sometimes style themselves as the “children of light.” Maybe Jesus is challenging this retreating from the world, and says that no, we actually need to live alongside the “children of this age.”

So… I wonder, if any of those interpretations convincing? Or if any seemed ridiculous… or if you find them a distraction… or boring. Or is it discouraging, like “how many books do I have to read, and how many ancient languages do I need to learn in order to be a Christian?”

Well… from my perspective, I think all of those interpretations and explanations are secondary. It’s secondary to being in community with others, and together, having our corners knocked off us. It’s secondary to the importance of being in the hothouse and growing alongside other plants. Maybe the scholarship will serve as plant food for you. Or it might not. And if it doesn’t, then there’s something else that will. And besides, we should probably be a little wary of looking for explanations that are too pat, and too convenient. I’m thankful for the advice of the Jewish New Testament scholar (I’ve mentioned before), Amy-Jill Levine. She says:

Religion has been defined as designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting. [This one in particular!] Therefore, if we hear a parable and think “I really like that” or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough. We might be better off thinking less about what they “mean” and more about what they can “do”: remind, provoke, refine, confront, disturb.***

Our Anglican tradition is one that says that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation” (Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles). And that’s different from saying that “Holy Scripture is salvation” or “all of Holy Scripture is necessary for salvation.” Instead, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.” The point seems to be that there’s no secrets that we have to worry about, beyond what has been passed on to us. So we live in relationship with the Scriptures, because there is a depth there, though some parts of Scripture might well be deeper than others. And in this relationship, as Levine says, we’ll be, reminded, provoked, refined, confronted, and disturbed. We’ll grow, we might get tangled up with others from time to time. We’ll have our corners knocked off. And in all this we’ll grow in wisdom, and cleverness, and faithfulness. And we can bring all of that to bear on our world, which, unlike the Essenes out in the desert, is all around us. It’s a world that is probably much worse than in Jesus’s day in its captivity to riches. It’s a world that is divided politically and full of corruption and hypocrisy (which would not be unfamiliar to Amos, in our first reading). Though it’s a world that, in some pockets, is beginning to hear the need for a change in lifestyle, lest our uninhibited consumption and pollution get the better of us and our planet. And in this world there is a lot of anxiety, and anger, and violence, but not always much depth or co-operation. This is what God sends us out to, each week, after the dismissal voiced by the deacon.

It’s a cycle of going out — trying to do good — getting lost — getting found — growing in faith — going out — trying to do good — getting lost — getting found — growing in faith, repeat… repeat… repeat…

It’s notable that the liturgical colour of about half of the church year is green — the colour of plant life, the colour of growth. And the historic mark of Anglican identity is not just a book of prayer, but The Book of COMMON Prayer.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Richard Giles, Always Open: Being an Anglican Today (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2004), 49.

** Dennis J. Ireland, “A History of Recent Interpretation of the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13)” in Westminster Theological Journal 51 (1989): 293-294.

*** Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 3-4.