Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

September 22, 2019

Introduction and Call to Worship
As we gather to praise the Lord of all, we ask for strength to serve God faithfully in our worship, in our work and in the world. We start here in Thorpe as we seek to build God’s Kingdom for all and be wise stewards of all we have.

Today's Readings
First Reading
Amos 8:4-7
God sees those who pay lip service to religion but put their faith in profit and exploit those in need.

Second Reading 1 Timothy 2:1-7
God wants everyone to be saved; Paul puts his words into action, not paying lip service to the Gospel of Christ but taking it to the Gentiles and urging Christians to pray for all.

Gospel Luke 16:1-13
With heavy use of irony, Jesus cautions against paying lip service to God while pursuing dishonest wealth: ultimately, only God can save.

HOMILY “No slave can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:13)

Who is in charge and who do you serve? This topic is not simply the preserve of the political sphere (the labour party and debates at conference this week) or for that matter who governs us and the ongoing BREXIT debate. For Christians, we have the Trinity, God as three in one, to inspire, teach and lead us into all truth. Today’s Gospel text uses heavy irony (which was commonly used in the teachings of the Jewish Rabbis): “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 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.” (Luke 16: 9-10)

I’ve been told a story of an old priest who lay dying in a London nursing home. For years he had faithfully served the people of the nation’s capital. He asked his nurse to fulfil one dying wish. “I would really like to see the Prime Minister and the Chancellor before I die”, asked the priest. “I’ll see what I can do, Father”, replied the nurse. She sent the request to No 10 and waited for a response. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor responded, delighted to visit the priest. When they arrived at the priest’s room, the old man took the Prime Minister’s hand in his right and the Chancellor’s in his left. There was silence and a look of serenity on the old priest’s face. Slowly he said: “I have always tried to pattern my life after our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” “Amen”, said the Prime Minister. “Amen”, said the Chancellor. The old priest continued, “Jesus died between two lying thieving criminals; and I would like to do the same....”  

Who is in charge in today’s quite contemporary sounding Gospel account? A dishonest manager is about to lose his job because he has misspent his employer’s assets. He needs a way out of his mess, so he uses his initiative and visits all the people who owe his employer money. Consequently he reduces their debts. He does this so that they will be hospitable to him after he loses his job. To our surprise, the employer commends the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. Why would Luke include this story in his Gospel and why is the dishonest manager commended? The context of this passage is important, appearing like a literary bridge between the stories of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31). Like the prodigal in the preceding story, our dishonest manager has “squandered” what was entrusted to him (15:13; 16:1). And, like the story that follows, this parable begins with the phrase, “There was a rich man.” (16:1, 19)

Although our dishonest manager does not repent (like the prodigal) or act virtuously (like Lazarus), he nonetheless does something with the rich man’s wealth that reverses the existing order of things. In Luke, reversals of status are at the heart of what happens when Jesus and the kingdom of God appear. We may think of the words of our Lady, as Mary sings her Magnificat with phrases like, “the proud scattered” (which translates the same word for “squandered”: dieskorpisen); the powerful brought down and the lowly lifted; the hungry filled and the rich sent away empty (Luke 1:51-53; see also 6:24; 16:25; 18:25). Use of heavy irony in verse 9 is essential to the message Jesus desired to convey, isn’t it, for irony makes people think. Other examples of irony in biblical teaching can be found in St Paul’s letters. No doubt Jesus (often addressed as Rabbi) could signal this irony to his original audience by tone of voice, body language or facial expressions; reading today’s parable we may twig that, no, something can’t be right here. In most Gospel parables, the “master” represents God. So, this master’s words come as a shock: would God really condone the pursuit of dishonest wealth? Prophets such as Amos would suggest otherwise! No, the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly, not necessarily ethically. That is why our Lord goes on to comment, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” (Luke 16:8)

Just like then, Christians are called today to act differently. We are reminded that we can’t serve both God and the selfish pursuit of wealth that harms other people. So how can we put this teaching of our Lord into practice? How can we ensure that we don’t simply pay lip service to the Gospel (calling ourselves Christians and coming to church) while still conforming to the worldly pursuit of wealth without thought for others? This is a real challenge, as we would want Jesus to commend us today for being shrewd; as well as wise, honest, faithful and just, surely?

Our Harvest celebrations at the start of October offer us a place to start, as we work to support local charities and many who are in need. But we can do more, in our everyday lives. Just stop and have a think about some of the ethical decisions you make day by day, often without thinking… ask yourself: Are your investments ethical? Is your shopping fair trade? Do you know what impact your decisions are having upon the environment and climate? Are the clothes you buy manufactured in sweatshops or by child labour? And there are many more such questions, too. The young people around the world marching for action on climate change on Friday were well-intended and I applaud their determination because we do need to act – but real change only comes with each individual decision we make, day in, day out. That is why Bishop Andrew and Bishop Jo have signed a charter pledging their own action. And we, as people of faith today can make small but necessary differences just by the choices we make and the generosity with which we are willing to share of what we already have with others. It is all too easy to remain children of this age, but God invites us to be children of light, to walk in the light of the Trinity and strive for the kingdom to come. And if we do, God’s gift of eternal life will be open to us, his people of faith.  

SUMMARY
1.    Jesus may have used ‘irony’ like Jewish Rabbis of his time, to show the flawed approach of the pursuit of dishonest wealth.
2.    We should repent of such desires and actions and recognise the forgiveness which is God’s gift to us.
3.    The context of the story and the bigger picture of the Bible stress the real meaning of the parable: one can’t serve both God and unscrupulous wealth.
4.    As children of the Trinity, Christians should ensure that their financial and day-to-day decisions do not exploit others.

 

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