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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sermon: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 20C
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus is back at it again. Telling stories that challenge us. This time, he is addressing the issue of our resources and how we use them. Not uncommon, certainly; except for the Kingdom of God, Jesus talks about money (and the use or misuse of it) in scripture more often than any other single topic.

However, this particular story is uncommon in that Luke is the only one of the Gospel writers who tells it. It is also odd because it seems to hold up as virtuous some less than admirable behavior. So it makes for an uncomfortable read-- not only because we might find the subject matter touchy, but also because it’s hard to find a positive role model in the characters here.

The absentee landowner is depicted as someone who only cares about himself-- his privilege and his wealth. It’s hard to be sympathetic there. The debts that he is owed in the original accounting are oppressive. One hundred jugs of olive oil would likely have represented between 800 and 900 gallons—a year’s production for several acres of olive trees, even in a good year. The 100 containers of wheat would each have held between 10 and 11 bushels, making that debt more than 1000 bushels. Under today’s agricultural farming methods, that’s likely the production of 25 or so acres. Back then, perhaps double that. And when you consider that this was before the invention of modern threshers and other equipment, that means harvesting by hand. I am told that one can manage to harvest about 2 acres a day that way. So the debt in question, in addition to its intrinsic value, would have represented hundreds of man-hours' worth of labor. These are heavy loads to carry.

Of course, the steward isn't any better. He's concerned primarily with self-preservation, and with not having to do actual physical labor, like other servants and the tenant farmers do.

Even the debts owed after his adjustments are not light, though any relief is welcome; it may be that he simply trimmed off the fat that he had added, to line his own pocket. That sort of creative accounting was commonly accepted practice in that time and place.

So, what is the moral here? That it’s okay to rip off someone, if they are wealthy enough?
Not exactly. Think about this: in the story, the steward -- a man who has until this point lived a comfortable life by enforcing the demands of a wealthy and uncaring absentee landlord -- realizes that in the end his own welfare depends on the good will of others. Regardless of his motivation, he offers mercy and forgiveness to those oppressed by the economic system in which they operate. The landowner also, perhaps, discovers that his desire for honor and prestige is satisfied more fully by going along, however unwillingly, with the generosity that his steward set in motion for his own selfish reasons.

In other words, an unjust system was used to affect justice.

I think those words are key. The translation we read this morning refers to “dishonest” wealth; but the words there may also be more accurately translated as the “wealth of injustice:” money or property tainted by misuse, oppression or other dishonorable behaviors.

Now, I’d like to think that doesn’t apply to anything of ours, of course! We have worked hard for what we have; we try to be honest in our dealings, we do not cheat others, we try to be prudent with our spending and we are committed to giving. However, when we are really honest enough to take a good hard look at what we have and what we do with it, we can see cracks in the virtuous picture we try to paint.

The clothes we wear, for example. I am a real bargain hunter, and I try to spend my money wisely, and to look for good value. But I rarely stop to wonder how many of the clothes I’ve purchased are produced in places where the employees are treated well, and paid a living wage. How many are the products of sweatshop labor in unsafe conditions, maintained by companies who don’t care about anything but profit margin?

Then there’s the food we eat. How often have I made choices that have supported healthy, sustainable agricultural practices? And how often have my buying habits contributed to destruction of the land, or the inability of family farmers to survive, or ongoing poverty and degradation of migrant workers?

And then there’s giving. Do I consistently support the church and other godly causes with the share of God’s abundance given into my care?

These are hard questions to ask, my brothers and sisters, and hard questions to answer. And yet, nestled in the challenge, there is good news. There is one lesson we can take, from this Gospel: that even amid all our sinful choices and selfish inadequacies, it is possible to do good and godly things that follow God’s will for the world. There is virtue in justice done, even if it is incomplete. There is always good passed on in some way when mercy is offered, regardless of the reason. There is always grace to be found in forgiveness, even if we are only acting out of “enlightened self-interest.”

Of course, what is in our hearts matters; but so do our actions matter. They matter a great deal. As the prophet Micah proclaimed, “What does the Lord require of you, o mortal? To do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” These are action verbs, every one of them. And the doing comes first.

Perhaps because that’s why we have all that we have, in the first place: to be able to care for the church and the world in which we live.

So, when we leave here this morning and go through our days, please consider: what do we do, and what could we do, with what we are given—in Jesus’ name?


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