Sermon, Sept. 18

Read today’s lessons here. We use the Track 1 readings.

  1. The Parable of the Dishonest Manager 
    1. Oddly delightful contrast with last week.  
      1. Last week: Lost and found parables – sheep, coin; talked about the prodigal son – feel familiar to many of us, and relatively easy to understand, though there are depths and nuances to explore.
      2. This parable leaves us thinking, What??…. Confused and uncomfortable. 
    2. This story directly follows the lost & found parables in Luke’s Gospel. But that doesn’t mean it belongs there. 
      1. Luke’s self-appointed task, from the beginning of chapter 1: to investigate everything he could find out about Jesus, and write an orderly account. 
        1. He is pulling together material from different sources and sometimes he just … sticks something somewhere. 
    3. What is a parable, anyway? …  A story that’s meant to open something up, to point beyond itself. 
      1. This is an odd little fact that I love: It’s basically the same word as “parabola,” which describes the line something travels when you toss it up into the air. A parable is something you throw out there… & see where it lands. 
      2. Parables are meant to make you see things in a new way, or leave you thinking; some more than others. 
        1. This isn’t even the most complex or ambiguous one, not by a long shot.
    1. In the preceding parables, Jesus makes it clear that the Shepherd, the Seeking Woman, the loving Father are meant to help us understand God. Does it follow that the authority figure in this story – the Rich Man – is also a God-figure? 
      1. No, not necessarily. Jesus tells parables about the ways of the world as it is, as well as parables about God’s kingdom and the ways the world could be. 
      2. The way Jesus wraps up this parable – “The children of this age are shrewd in dealing with their own generation” – seems to suggest this is a this-worldly story. 
      3. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a message for the children of light, for those who seek to follow Jesus.
    2. So what’s the message? Well: Either Luke’s source, or Luke himself, has put this parable together with some sayings about wealth and money. 
      1. Call to integrity in financial dealings, and in life in general – “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…” 
      2. And a call to not letting money or wealth be a dominating concern in your life – “No slave can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and Mammon.”
      3. Let’s talk about Mammon for a moment. Who’s heard that word before, either in this saying, or elsewhere? … 
        1. Word is slowly disappearing from Bible translations, being replaced by “wealth” or “dishonest wealth.” 
        2. “You cannot serve God and wealth” is easier to understand; I see why translators are making that choice. But it is losing something. 
        3. Mammon is an Aramaic word – the language Jesus spoke. There are other words Jesus could have used, and did use elsewhere, for wealth and money. 
        4. There are a few times in the Gospels where Jesus’ Aramaic is kept, even as the rest of the narrative is told in Greek. I think Luke keeps “Mammon” in Aramaic because he sees that Jesus is treating Mammon as a character here. 
          1. Reading it through the lens of the Old Testament’s long struggle with idolatry, worship of false gods: it’s pretty clear that Mammon here isn’t just “wealth,” but is “wealth” personified as a godlike being.
        5. Commentary on this text – Barbara Rossing: “Perhaps we need to retain the personified idol named Mammon, as a reminder of how a financial system itself can function as an idol or ‘religion.’” 
          1. A hallmark of the false gods of the Old Testament is that they often demand extreme sacrifices, even human sacrifice, which is anathema to followers of Israel’s God. We might well ponder the human sacrifices demanded by our financial system and economy today. 
      4. So: This parable offers a teaching on keeping money or wealth in perspective – as a tool, not a goal; as a thing, not a god. That is a valuable and important teaching for God’s people and God’s church, in any time and place. 
      5. But: I don’t think that exhausts the meaning of this parable. There’s something provocative and interesting here that resists being boiled down. 
  1. The story itself… 
    1. Let’s look at the story itself, translating it into a modern situation that might help us understand it.
      1. Say there’s a payday lending company that specializes in high-interest loans to poor people. 
        1. High interest means that if you take out a loan, borrow money from that company, you’ll have to pay a lot more than the money you originally borrowed to pay it off and settle things again. 
        2. This company can afford to do this because it makes loans to people who don’t have good credit. That means that they have struggled financially in the past, and so regular banks might not want to lend them money. And they really need the money fast, because of some difficult situation – rent, car repair, funeral expenses. 
        3. Can people who are already poor and struggling financially, afford to pay really high interest? No! This is predatory and awful and deepens people’s suffering. And it happens all the time. 
        4. Now, say there’s a manager at a branch office of this company. When he signs off on loans to their customers, he adds in some extra fees, or a couple of percentage points of extra interest, above what the company asks for. When that part of the money comes in, he puts it in his own pocket.
          1. How do you think people feel about this manager? Maybe they realize he’s taking extra, maybe they don’t. But regardless: they know that this company only pretends to help them, while actually dragging them deeper into poverty and bondage. 
      2. But then this manager gets in trouble with the head of the company. He finds out that he’s going to be fired. But he’s got a couple of days before they escort him out and change the locks. 
        1. And he thinks, This is terrible. This is the only job I know how to do. I’m not strong enough for physical work, and I’m ashamed to depend on charity. But I can’t count on anyone to help me; because of my work, all I have are enemies. 
        2. So he gets on the phone and calls in as many customers as he can – people who owe money to his branch of the company. When they come in, he pulls out their paperwork. They look at how much they still owe – and he says, Let’s just bring this number down a little. 
          1. Maybe he alters the initial loan amount. Maybe he writes in some payments that were never actually made.
          2. Maybe all he cuts out is the extra that he put in to benefit himself; or maybe he cuts deeper, erasing some of the profit the company would have made. 
            1. How much do you owe? A hundred dollars. Quick, let’s make it fifty.  
            2. And how much do you owe? A thousand dollars. Here, let’s just adjust that down to eight hundred. 
          3. When the head of the company hears about it, he chuckles to himself. Maybe he says, “It’s a good thing I fired that guy, but man, he is one shrewd SOB.” 
      3. It’s easy to move this parable into the modern day; the dynamics of the situation translate well. But it doesn’t clear up any of its moral ambiguity. 
    2. A few chapters later, in Luke 19, we meet a tax collector – Zacchaeus – whose heart is changed by meeting Jesus, and who swears that if he has defrauded anyone by taking a little extra from them – “IF” that’s happened, mind you – then he will pay it back fourfold. 
        1. Zacchaeus does that as part of his repentance, getting right with God. The manager in the story does it for pragmatic reasons. He needs to have some people who’ll maybe help him out a little, instead of spitting in his face.
        2. But maybe those are both conversions, thought of different kinds. Zacchaeus’ heart, mind and life are changed for the good. The manager in the story just realizes that he can’t keep taking forever. That money and position can only protect you so much, for so long. 
  2. We’ve developed a habit here in our in-person worship of having a place on the way into the nave where you can pause and light a candle, if you like. Many Sundays we have an image of one of the saints or holy ones there, Someone who might inspire our prayers. 
    1. I discovered recently that Dag Hammarskjold is honored in Lutheran churches on the date of his death – today, September 18 – as a Renewer of Society. 
    2. I’ve had a prayer by Hammarskjold on the bulletin board by my desk for years: “For all that has been – Thanks! For all that will be – Yes!” 
      1. It’s from the book of spiritual reflections that was discovered and published after his death. 
    3. Hammarskjold was born in 1905 to an upper-class, educated family in Sweden. Dag studied poetry in college, then economics and law. He taught economics and served in the Swedish government, dealing with unemployment, banking, and foreign relations, including working on the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Western Europe after World War II. 
    4. In 1949 he became a Swedish delegate to the United Nations, an intergovernmental organization formed after World War II, with the stated purpose of maintaining international peace and preventing future wars. 
    5. And then, in 1953, out of the blue, Hammarskjold was elected as the second Secretary General of the United Nations. 
      1. Sarah Wilson writes, “He was chosen, in a sense, by accident. Dag appeared to be a pale, complaisant nobody; a good compromise candidate for the great powers ramping up for a full-blown Cold War.”
      2. Another biography states, “The UN Security Council believed they had chosen a competent administrator who would not challenge the existing world order. Before long, they would learn just how thoroughly mistaken they had been. Hammarskjöld … stood up against the superpowers in the Security Council and with unshakeable integrity defended the interests of small nations.”
    6. Unsurprisingly, the fact that their boring compromise candidate turned out to have some strong convictions was not entirely well-received. Wilson writes, “[Hammarskjold] declared the need for balancing… loyalty to one’s own nation with the best interests of the whole human family—and thus got declared a traitor to his own, a pretender accountable to nobody. He practiced a self-effacing patience to bring leaders to a conciliatory posture—and got blamed for not acting faster. He held to a fundamental humanism, a willingness to believe the best even of a humanity that repeatedly lived up to its worst—and suffered bitter disappointments.”
    7. Despite opposition and struggle, Hammarskjold served as Secretary-General from 1953 until his death in 1961. During his tenure, he strengthened its peacekeeping and diplomatic work. One of his greatest triumphs was smoothing over the Suez Canal crisis by helping Israel and Egypt find their way to a compromise. 
    8. He also played a very important role by, in Wilson’s words, acting as “midwife to the new nations in Africa emerging from the yoke of colonialism.” 
      1. The Western nations who had been, and in many cases still were, the colonizing powers were not in a hurry to give these new nations a full voice on the world stage. But Hammarskjold  believed in the possibility of a true world community, and pushed the UN towards welcoming, supporting and uplifting these young nations. 
      2. He did not get everything right – and it may have cost him his life. In the brutal mess of Congo’s independence struggle, Hammarskjold failed to throw the UN’s weight behind the democratically-elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba when he faced a military uprising – perhaps out of concern that Lumumba held secret Communist sympathies. Remember the Cold War? … 
      3. Lumumba was overthrown and executed. Six months later, while traveling for UN cease-fire negotiations between Congo’s warring factions, Hammarskjold died in a plane crash, along with fifteen others. It’s still unclear whether it was accident or assassination. 
      1. Let me back up and say a little about who Hammarskjöld was, as a human being. He was a person of deep spirituality and indeed mysticism – something few people knew about during his lifetime. He wrote in his spiritual memoir, Markings, “In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.” 
      2. Wilson suggests his Christian faith grounded him for his difficult role: “In his heart was forged a tremendous patience and long-suffering charity that would serve him supremely well as the leader of a still-new, always-fragile experiment in keeping world peace.”
      3. Hammarskjold may also have been a deeply closeted gay man. Wilson writes, “Loneliness was an essential companion in his ability to give himself to the great and risky dream of world community; it made him vigilant and nonpartisan.” 
  1. What does Dag Hammarskjold have to do with the dishonest manager? Well. Remember the people who elevated him into leadership thought he would go along with the global status quo, dominated by a few Western powers. Instead, Hammarskjold spent his tenure – in a very real sense, spent himself – working to support the poor, young nations of the developing world. 
    1. Perhaps, like the manager knowing he’s about to be fired, Hammarskjold shrewdly recognized that the world order of the mid-20th century could not last. Better to befriend the small and many, than to count on safety among the powerful few. 
    2. When we light a prayer candle at our little saint altar at church – or at home – it might be for whatever is on our hearts and minds. There’s also some tradition of lighting candles in the presence of a saint, for the kinds of things that saint in particular might be able to help us with. 
    3. When we light a candle on this day of remembrance for Dag Hammarskjold, we might ask for his prayers to use whatever influence, resources, and opportunities we have, within the imperfect and often unjust systems and institutions of this world, to build human connection and better the circumstances of those with less… that we, too, may someday be welcomed into the eternal homes. Amen. 

Read Sarah Wilson’s beautifully-written reflection on Hammarskjold here: