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Trinity 17 Sermon

Amos 8:4-7
Luke 16:1-13

I’d like to take us back a week, when, if you were in church, you will have heard two of the three so-called ‘lost’ parables told by Jesus, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, the third one then being the very moving parable of the lost, or prodigal son. All of these stories express the joy that is felt in heaven when one sinner comes home. I once read a story about a clergyman who was involved in bible translations. He pointed out that the Eskimo language doesn’t have a word for joy, and I’ve got to say, they do look a bit miserable – it must be all that dark and cold! But they have now word for joy, so it was difficult to translate this passage for them. However, he said, the Eskimos do have an expression for that moment when the dogs come home for the day and are released from their sledges with much tail wagging. So in the Eskimo New Testament the phrase “there is more joy in heaven, when one who was lost is found” became “there is more tail wagging in heaven, when one who was lost is found”. If you are a dog lover, or perhaps even if you’re not, you’ll identify with that image of unbridled pleasure.

So, good news in those stories, but this week we might wonder where the good news has gone, because in the very next chapter of Luke’s gospel we’ve moved on to much more dubious motivation and behaviour. We’ve moved on to cheating.

Cheating in its many guises forms a large part of our news these days – it seems to be around a lot. That might be cheating on an individual basis, affairs, embezzlements, benefit fraud, tax avoidance, and cowboys, cowboy builders, lawyers, accountants, dentists – not any of you, of course, but plenty of people who do a minimum of cheap shoddy work for a large sum of money. And then there are those who cheat on a corporate scale. Again there is the whole issue of tax avoidance, multi national businesses that manipulate loopholes to avoid paying tax – legal maybe, but surely cheating in spirit nonetheless. And with so much sport in the news at the moment, we might think of those who cheat by taking performance enhancing drugs, not just as individuals, but, it seems in some countries, as part of a government sanctioned scheme – an accusation that has seen the entire Russian athletics team banned from this year’s Olympics.

I guess what all of these have in common is that someone loses out, someone, unfairly, pays the price. When benefits are falsely claimed, or taxes aren’t paid, it’s those of us who do honestly pay our taxes that carry the burden. And when sportsmen cheat – and why you would want to win when you know that it’s a false victory is beyond me – but when sportsmen cheat, others who have trained so hard lose out. Now it seems that some may be given the medals they should have won years ago, which is some justice, but poor consolation really. It’s so unfair.

And cheating forms the theme of our bible readings today. In the Old Testament reading the prophet Amos takes a very righteous stance against the unfairness of it all, against those who wheel and deal without a care for either honesty or the poverty around them. “Hear this, you who trample the needy, and do away with the poor of the land…skimping on the measure, boosting the price, and cheating with dishonest scales”. You’re all cowboys, in other words. Dishonest. But watch out, says Amos, because God sees what you are doing, and won’t forget. He doesn’t approve at all.

But then we come to our gospel reading, when Jesus tells the parable of the dishonest or unjust steward, as it’s sometimes called, or the shrewd manager, there are lots of titles, but the teaching seems quite shocking, because it’s all about a man who puts himself first. This manager is sacked for his dishonesty, his whole future is in jeopardy, and so he uses his remaining time in his position to reduce debts owed to his master, to cheat his master so it seems, so that those who benefit will then help him after he’s been thrown out on his ear. It’s a sort of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ situation, it’s unfair, and the master loses out, and what amazes and confuses us is that Jesus seems to condone this behaviour, and to suggest that if we buy friendship in the same way, it will secure our future too, that we can buy our way to heaven. If we had been there listening to him, we might have reacted with a gasp, and: “WHAT did he just say?!” Perhaps that’s what you’re thinking right now.

This parable, this story that Jesus tells, is strangely different, and notoriously difficult to interpret, and there are all sorts of theories – that for instance the rich man had been ripping off his debtors in the first place and therefore the manager was doing a just thing, and the master couldn’t complain – or that the manager took his own cut on top of his master’s debts, and so all he was doing was letting off what he would have received himself, not diddling his master at all. But there’s one theory that resonates with me more than any other, because I think it is completely in line with the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, and I’ll try and share that with you.

Let’s go back again to the previous chapter, chapter 15, the introduction to the lost parables, and it begins with these words: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered and said ‘this man welcomes sinners and eats with them’.” Jesus is keeping bad company, in other words. It’s in response to their moaning that Jesus then tells the lost parables, to demonstrate how much God loves sinners, wants them to turn to him, wants to forgive their sins and bring them home. He reaches out to make that happen. As Christians our hearts should sing when we hear these stories. Our tails should wag.

And then comes this story of how the manager cancelled debts, and the punchline that stops us all in our tracks in verse 8, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly”. Surely Jesus isn’t commending dishonesty, or even shrewdness, which is still a word that suggests cunning and conniving? Surely the manager had no authority from his master to make these big discounts. He’s a complete rogue, and his behaviour seems outrageous, both to us and to those listening to Jesus’s words. How can it be commendable?

Well, who is listening to Jesus’s words? Who is still there? The Pharisees, the leaders of the Jewish church are still there. Stiff, unbending, resolutely law-abiding, eminently respectable but completely without compassion, and totally aghast at Jesus’s behaviour. As far as they are concerned, there’s another rogue operating here, and that’s Jesus himself. He breaks the Sabbath, he mixes with villains and outcasts, AND he’s going round forgiving debts too, but debts of a different kind, he forgives sins. As the Pharisees see it, only God can forgive sins, and Jesus is therefore acting without authority, acting as if he were God himself – these are the accusations they level at him. So it seems possible that what Jesus is doing here is to take a popular story about a rogue manager and use it to confront his opponents and critics. He is like a disreputable manager who they accuse of being unauthorised to forgive debts, but, he insists, he does so with God’s approval. He shows that grace does not come through respectability, but through care and love and generosity. And just as the master praised the sacked manager, much to our surprise, so God approves such radical and undeserved mercy, it’s all part of bringing the lost home.

And we know that Jesus never stopped being the subject of ridicule, and disbelief in his credentials, and eventually he died on the cross as a criminal. Today he’s still mocked, many laugh at his claim to be the Son of God. And they feel themselves insulted at the suggestion that their sins might be so bad that they even need forgiveness. Well, who is the fool here? As the bible tells us, ‘the foolishness of the cross is wiser than man’s wisdom’. It’s the wisdom of Christians, the shrewdness of Christians if you like, to believe what may seem ridiculous, because we know the gift of freedom from the debt of sin is beyond compare, and one we could never have earned for ourselves.

But Jesus moves on from one punchline to the next one, he says: “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of light.” This time the message is for his disciples, I think, it’s for us. The people of light are the people of God, and he isn’t recommending that we be shrewd in a materialistic way, far from it, but rather saying that we could do more to commit ourselves to the values of God’s kingdom. We can’t buy our way to heaven, but just suppose we could. Just suppose we gave to others, not because we think we should, but as if our future depended on it, just as the steward’s life depended on it. Just suppose we forgave others as if our future depended on it. Just suppose we put as much effort and thought and planning into our spiritual lives as we do into material matters. Just suppose we took faith seriously, and tried to do God’s will, as if our lives depended on it. If it was that urgent, we might try a bit harder.
I think it would make quite a difference, if we thought our lives depended on it. As Christians we may recognise the foolishness of Jesus Christ and the cross as being in fact the deepest truth, the greatest wisdom, the costliest treasure, but we sometimes lack the wisdom and the decisive action to use what we have as shrewdly for God as the worldly might use their possessions for a very different purpose.

Because, in fact, our lives do depend on our own giving and forgiving as much as on God’s giving and forgiving. Of course, we can’t earn our way to heaven. God’s grace is freely given, and Jesus unfairly paid the price. He said to us “How much do you owe God? Sit and write down ‘Nothing’”, and we can’t ever repay him for that. But we can’t accept the gift of grace and leave it all packed up in a box. It’s no good being forgiven if we don’t act forgiven. It’s no good receiving if we don’t also give. Jesus himself taught us to pray ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’. If God’s generosity doesn’t make a difference in our lives, doesn’t inspire us to be generous, then we haven’t acknowledged it at all. I come back to that joy there is in heaven whenwhat was lost is found, when sinners are saved, that is God’s one and only plan, but God’s joy is complete when we join in that plan, use our gifts wholeheartedly for God’s future, for God’s kingdom. That’s when Christianity becomes real and effective, and other people’s lives depend on that too. Time is ticking by, most people around us know nothing of God’s good news, and God will want to know what we’ve done about it, when we come to our final accounting, he’ll want to know, and will know, what we have done to bring them home.

For as the clergyman I mentioned at the beginning went on to say: “ If our Christian living of the Gospel isn’t setting tails wagging, why then it’s hardly begun.”

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