A sermon preached by the Rev. Canon John Kilgore, M.D., at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, September 22 2013
Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.
So who are you in this story? Think about it. Are you the dishonest manager? Are you the rich man who hired the manager? The disciples listening? Or perhaps Jesus teaching moral lessons? Who are you? Who am I?
It might be instructive to consider this gospel passage from those different perspectives. The dishonest manager was in a tough spot. He had been squandering the property of the rich man. He apparently had the favor of his boss but lost it when others brought charges against him. When faced with losing his job, he capitulated and did what he had to do in order to ‘save his skin.’ His earthly skin. Imagine that he thought something like, ‘I am about to lose my job, I am going to be out on the street. I can’t do physical labor and I certainly am too proud to beg. And my family! What will I do? I will find a way to get out of this one. If I forgive my master’s debtors they will be indebted to me and I will be OK. Sounds like a good plan!’ So he discounted the various bills. Clearly not an honest guy.
If we go to the perspective of the master, he may have thought, ‘I am sorry to lose this guy, I thought he was pretty good but others have brought charges against him and now I find he is not as I thought he was. Despite the fact that I previously trusted him, I cannot have my business and wealth squandered. So how do I deal with him? Well, I certainly must commend his cunning; that was clever. But he has to go.‘ The manager was not as his master had originally thought he was.
And the disciples listening to this story told by Jesus must have wondered, as do we, what he meant when Jesus said, ‘the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light...make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.’ ‘What could he possibly mean by that?’ they might have been saying to one another. “Is he endorsing the dishonest manager?’ Is he really suggesting that we make friends by dishonest means?’
And then there is Jesus’ perspective. Remember the context here. Jesus is in Galilee, crowds have been gathering around him, probably for days and days. And he is teaching in large open venues. This passage is from Luke 16. Luke 8 talks about Jesus going ‘on through the cities and villages, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.’ The beginning of Chapter 12 says, ‘Meanwhile the crowd gathered in the thousands…’ and mentions they trampled on one another. Chapter 13 references the Galileans he was among. Chapter 14 opens, ‘One one occasion Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat.’ And later says that large crowds were traveling with him. Chapter 15 begins, ‘Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.
Remember that there weren’t auditoriums or speaking venues. What homes there were were small and certainly didn’t have gathering places. And there was no PA or sound system, not that it always makes a difference if you have one! The only real venues might have been a Roman amphitheater such as at Caeserea Philippi, outdoor theaters, but the Bible doesn’t mention his use of these. So they likely would have been on hillsides, perhaps on the slope beside the Sea of Galilee. The terrain there is characterized by gentle rolling hills, natural spots for open air gatherings, and out in the weather, I might add.
So Jesus is teaching group after group, telling many stories and a number of parables. This section of Luke is chock full of parables, the parable of the Good Samaritan, the parable of the barren fig tree, the prodigal son. And the story of Lazarus follows our gospel passage today. So Jesus addresses this part of the discourse to the disciples, but others were listening in. The next line after today’s gospel passage says, ‘The Pharisees who were lovers of money, heard all of this, and they ridiculed him.’ It sounds like Jesus was addressing this as special instruction to the disciples, knowing full well that others were listening on. Jesus really likes to get the attention of those listening by telling them things they don’t expect to hear. In so doing, he really is asking us to look more closely at what he is saying; not just take it at face value. So maybe he was goading them a little bit. The New Oxford Annotated Bible footnotes here that verse 8 is the point - the manager was commended for his shrewdness, the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. The Oxford Bible footnote says, ‘The dishonest manager was prudent in using the things of this life to ensure the future. Believers should do the same.’ Using the things of this life to ensure the future. Jesus may have been thinking, ‘I can’t make it too easy for them. I can’t always spoon feed them. What I want them to do, to understand, is that they must prepare appropriately. Believers should be as shrewd in preparing for their heavenly future as those are who worry about this world.’
He is talking about how we live our lives. Our integrity. Interior integrity. Integrity being adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty. Developing our interior moral self so that we are in harmony with God’s will for us. It is about looking, not on the outside but on the inside. Our lives are so conditioned by looking on the outside. But God knows our heart. Jesus here is talking about face value versus interior worth. Perhaps the surface meaning of his words belie the deeper meaning of his message. Everything is not always as it appears.
I recently received one of those humorous Emails from my mother that is perhaps instructive here. The story goes something like this:
Charley, a new retiree-greeter at Wal-Mart (and there is a picture of him gray haired, clearly a retiree, standing there smiling with his Wal-Mart vest on and many buttons pinned on it espousing various causes) just couldn’t seem to get to work on time. Every day he was 5, 10, 15 minutes late. But he was a good worker, really tidy, clean-shaven, sharp-minded and a real credit to the company and obviously demonstrating their ‘Older Person Friendly’ policies. One day the boss called him into the office for a talk. (And you can just envision this 30 year old new manager thinking he knows it all) ‘Charley, I have to tell you, I like your work ethic, you do a bang-up job when you finally get here; but your being late so often is quite bothersome.’ ‘Yes, I know boss, and I am working on it,’ Charley replied. The manager responded, ‘Well good, you are a team player. That’s what I like to hear.‘ ‘Yes sir, I understand your concern and I will try harder,‘ Charley continued. Seeming puzzled, the manager went on to comment, ‘I know you’re retired from the Armed Forces. What did they say to you there if you showed up in the morning late so often?‘ The old man looked down at the floor, then smiled. He chuckled quietly, then said with a grin, ‘They usually saluted and said, Good morning, Admiral, can I get your coffee, sir?‘ The final picture is of a younger Charley in his uniform!
It is not what is on the outside. It is what is on the inside. We don’t always know that, but God does. We know about ourselves but not about others. When we look in on someone, we don’t necessarily see that person as they are interiorly. Kahlil Gibran said our worst fault is our preoccupation with the faults of others. Bertrand Russell said, no one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.
God knows our virtues, secret and otherwise. God knows our faults, secret and otherwise. And God knows the virtues and faults of others. This gospel is perhaps calling us to be as shrewd for the things of God, as we are in our worldly dealings; shrewd about good relationships, justice in our dealings, and love for each other. Not judging on the outside. And being true ourselves.
Who are we to God? How well does God know us? How well do we know God? Are we close friends with God? Or passing acquaintances? Whatever we may look like on the outside, God knows us on the inside. Are we true to ourselves? Are we true to God?
When we had the icons show here a couple of years ago there was one piece that I particularly liked, and bought. Probably because Ludmilla, the artist, explained it to me. It is pretty much beige three dimensional piece with a lot of deep surface scratches on it. Very textured. The only thing readily identifiable is in the lower right hand corner some pieces of stone in the shape of a doorway. There is an individual in the doorway, passing through. When you look closely at the textured scratches on the background they are actually people. The message is that we come into this life alone and we go out of this life alone. The people in the background are the people on the other side waiting to welcome us. Our loved ones gone before us. But we go through the door alone. However, standing at the side of the door, sketched into the framework of the door, is Jesus. In the final analysis it is just us and God.
We come into this world naked and alone, we go out of this world naked and alone through the narrow door. Only God knows our interior, and the interior of others. So the message is twofold. We are to live our lives with integrity. And we are to treat others as if they have the integrity God wants all of us to have, regardless of what they look like on the outside. We are to treat every individual as if they were Charley the admiral with all the respect we have, since we do not know what is on the inside. Only God knows.
Who are you in this story? Who am I in this story? We are all children of God. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.