Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

This morning’s Gospel contains what may be the most baffling of Jesus’ parables. If you were paying attention it might have struck you as more than odd. It likely would have seemed like I misread something to horrible effect, because it seems to run counter to everything we know about Jesus: And I tell you, [Jesus says] make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon. More recent translations make the point even more sharply: And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.

So troubling are these words that, even from very early on, Christians have tried to argue that this is a mistake in how Luke recorded our Lord’s words, and critics of Christianity have used it as proof of the faith’s inconsistency. Julian the Apostate—the Roman Emperor who turned back to paganism after two Christian Emperors—claimed this passage as proof that Jesus was no more God than any other fallible human. And if we look at the text, it appears that Luke himself didn’t know what to do with this saying. Surely, he included it because Jesus said it, but then he tacks a number of Jesus’ other, apparently contradictory sayings about the dangers of mammon on to the end. So, we go from “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon” to “you cannot serve [both] God and mammon” in the span of a few verses.

What in heaven’s name are we going to do with this? Well, I want to suggest an alternate reading as a possibility—a possibility, not the gospel truth, necessarily, though thinkers as wise as St. Augustine made the same argument, so I’m in good company.

You will remember from last week that we sometimes misunderstand parables because we reckon their protagonists to be us rather than God. Keep that in mind. There is another truth about parables which also affects how we read them, and that is that parables are not allegories. That is to say that they give us an insight into the nature of God or of the Christian life, but not every detail is meant to correspond neatly to something in reality. So, in last week’s Gospel we heard the parable of the lost coin, and determined that the woman was to be seen as God and the coin as the lost soul, but the woman’s penury is a plot device rather than a symbol suggesting that God is somehow poor. It is a powerful metaphor, not a perfect allegory.

So let us apply these two facts—that we often mistake whom the parable is about and that parables are not allegories—to this morning’s Gospel. Remember what happened? The steward is fired for defrauding his master, and he proceeds to collect less than what is owed from the master’s debtors in order to ingratiate himself to them. Ultimately, the master commends the steward for his shrewd rejection of justice. The just, or righteous, path would have been to collect all that was owed, but such justice often lacks mercy. The steward is less interested in what is fair than he is in what is effective in bringing about rapprochement.

So what if this parable is not about us and our business dealings? What if it’s actually about Jesus? Remember, parables aren’t allegories, so we don’t have to see the steward’s initial unfaithfulness as anything other than a plot device to get the story going. In other words, just by positing Jesus in the role of the steward, we don’t have to claim that Jesus has defrauded God the Father or something like that. The important part is what the steward does with the debtors. They owe something, and the steward cuts them a break so that he might be taken in by one them. This is called “unrighteous” in the parable, but we miss the point if we impose our own understanding of righteousness onto the text. In fact, a better word would be “unlawful”, because that’s what a first-century Jew would have understood the word “unrighteous” to mean. The law demanded full payment.

If the steward is supposed to be Jesus, the parable is not about money at all. Luke probably added the bits afterward about not serving God and mammon, because even he (or perhaps some later redactor) didn’t fully understand what the parable was about. It’s not about money, but rather about the human soul and sin. By all rights, we’ve got a debt we cannot pay. The fair thing, the lawful thing, the righteous thing, would be for each of us to suffer the consequences. But just like the steward, who desired to live with one of the debtors, Jesus desires to dwell with us and within us. And just like the steward, Christ knows that that can’t happen if he simply follows “the rules”.

That we can have a relationship with Jesus is not fair; justice would demand the opposite. If a friend were to constantly turn his back on any one of us, to break faith and defraud us, we would be just to end that friendship. So, too, would God have been within his rights to cut us off entirely, to call it quits with us.

The children of Israel had a conditional relationship with God. God promised to remain faithful if and only if they kept their end of the bargain, if they followed the Old Testament rules. They didn’t. Neither would we have done. We were supposed to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. We still don’t. But then what God did was shocking, an affront to justice. He said “no more conditions. I will love you unconditionally.” That wasn’t the deal. He didn’t have to do it, but He loved us so much that He desired to stay in relationship with us whatever the costs to Himself, knowing that the cost would ultimately be His Son’s life. Mercy has trumped fairness; love has overcome the law.

As I said last week, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have any expectations. It doesn’t mean we should try to be kind and just and curageous and loving, to practice the virtues we learn in following the Lord. What it does mean, though, is that there isn’t anything we can do to make God stop loving us. He’s broken the rules for us already; He’s bailed us out when we should have been left in chains. The only things we can actually offer in return are our penitence and our thanks, which is why we keep showing up here week after week. We can try to love God back, even if we haven’t enough love in us to go very far in that regard. Most of all, we can permit Him to live in our hearts. This is not a one-time deal, no matter what the televangelists tell you. This is a daily choice. We can let God in or evict Him. But before we do the latter, let’s remember that that’s why he bent the rules in the first place. That’s why he showed mercy when justice demanded wrath. He who on earth had no home, wants only to live in us. Will we prepare for him room?

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