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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 20C
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

“That’s not fair!”

That's the phrase that I heard when I first read today's Gospel. I mean, what was Jesus thinking? First, he talks about rich man’s manager, who is apparently doing a lousy job. “Squandering the property,” the scripture says. So he’s told to bring out the books, because he’s out of a job. His response to this? To go through the accounts receivable, and doctor the books, in the hopes that maybe some of the rich man’s debtors will have pity on him when he’s unemployed. And for this, he is commended by the same guy who just fired him for his poor management! What is that about? That doesn’t sound like fair business practice to me, not at all.

Then, after telling this story, Jesus says two things that seem to directly contradict one another. V. 9 - “Make friends for yourself by dishonest wealth...” and then in v. 11 & 12 - “If you have not been faithful with dishonest riches... if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?" This sounds to me like a no-win situation. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

"That’s not fair!" Seems to me I’ve been hearing that a lot lately. And I’ve been saying it myself. There’s a lot about life that’s not fair.

It’s not fair that my friend’s brother should have been dealing with health problems so severe that the only medical answer is a multiple transplant-- essentially, someone must die for him to live. And it’s even more unfair that he was told this week that matching donor organs had indeed been found... only to have the doctors change their mind about their suitability at the last moment.

It’s not fair that my daughter’s assistant principal-- a big, burly teddy bear of a man, who apparently has a gift for connecting with the teens who fall through the cracks-- was given orders to report for training, along with the rest of his National Guard unit, prior to shipping out for Iraq. His last day at school was Friday.

It’s not fair that the same Guard unit includes my young friend David-- a spare, 24-year-old college student, whom I’ve known since he was a gawky 13, all arms and legs and unsure bravado. He’s in the process of getting his life on a solid track, maybe for the first time; and he’s being called away from that for God only knows how long.

It’s not fair that people who have no interest in children, nor any inclination to care for them, get pregnant every day; while others who would be fine parents, and who are desperate to conceive, cannot do so.

It’s not fair that I have people dear to me getting married on the same day, several hundred miles apart, so that I have to choose between them!

I could keep going here; and I’m sure you could add to the list; but the point remains. So much that happens in our lives seems to make no sense. It doesn’t come close to following the way we would like to see things arranged.

You know, we joke about this at home. Whenever I see some situation that seems to me to be patently misarranged, or badly handled, or just plain wrong; whenever I hear of someone being clueless and ignorant, messing things up for the rest of us, it’s easy to pontificate: “Well, if I were queen of the universe...” This is followed, of course with some solution, or behavior modification, that would obviously Make The World a Better Place.

Trouble is, I have found more than once that when I start making unilateral statements like that, I have been caught up short by someone who able to point out how my brilliant solution is shortsighted, and would likely do more harm than good, because I don’t have all the information. I’m not really arrogant enough to believe I have all the answers; but sometimes I am firmly reminded that I don’t even know as much as I thought I did.

Take today’s gospel, for example. I learned today, what the original hearers of the story would likely already have known: that a property manager for a wealthy landowner in Jesus' time was not paid much of a salary, if any at all. Instead, he worked on commission, tacking his charges onto the debts owed to his master. So when he calls the debtors in and starts reducing their bills, it’s not his employer that he’s shortchanging; he’s simply eliminating his own profit margin, opting to build goodwill at this point, rather than to inflate his bank account. He’s sacrificing tangible assets now, in order to improve his situation later. And his actions, though not entirely logical by worldly standards of wealth and acquisition, end up benefiting both the manager and those whose lives he touches. In light of this, Jesus’ words about how we handle “dishonest wealth,” and where we place our loyalties, make much more sense. Using the gifts of the world for godly purposes, other than our own self-gratification, is indeed walking in the footprints of Christ.

Okay, so now I understand the story better; and the lesson here doesn’t seem so unfair. But there are still all those other examples. And I don’t have an explanation for those, not at all. I find myself in Jeremiah’s shoes, crying...

“Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: 'Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?'" When and how will God answer prayers for healing, for conception, for life and health and wholeness?

"The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." How much longer will we be in the Middle East, and how many more men and women-- American and Iraqi-- will be in harm’s way over there, before the work is done, and we can see a peace that most people long for?

I won't even try to pretend that I have answers for these. But I do know that, at the same time as we struggle with questions like these, we can take comfort in one thing: God understands unfairness, and injustice. Think about this: Jesus suffered, and died a bloody, pain-filled death, as a result of incredibly unfair human injustice. He hadn’t done anything to deserve that kind of treatment, not by half.

And the response? Oh, that’s the ultimate in unfairness. God was unfair enough, unreasonable enough, to reward us for this... with the gifts of forgiveness, and salvation, and eternal life.

As Dag Hammarskjöld, former secretary-general of the United Nations, once observed:
“The Cross is that place at the centre of the world's history… where all men and all nations without exception stand revealed as enemies of God… and yet where all stand revealed as beloved of God, precious in God's sight.”

No, not fair at all. Thanks be to God.


Blogger The Lovely Wife said...

Face it girl life just aint fair. RevRef will be ordained on December 18th and I believe Susie will be also. Life just aint fair.

September 20, 2004 12:00 PM  

Blogger David said...

Well done. This is a hard Scripture to preach on for sure (it ain't fair!). I think you did quite well. When you comin' down south to preach in my pulpit?????

September 23, 2004 10:31 AM  

Blogger Jane Ellen+ said...

Thanks, David.

You know, that's the second time you've made that offer; and I've warned you, I do *not* turn down preaching gigs. One of these days, I'm going to show up down there, and you're going to be stuck with me!

September 23, 2004 5:20 PM  

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