Who am I?

[W]ho am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill-offering? For all things come from you [O Lord], and of your own have we given you.[1]

Hopefully some of you recognize this piece of Scripture because I use it as an offertory before Holy Communion from time-to-time. But beyond recognizing it, you may be wondering, what on earth does this farewell prayer of King David’s have to do with the readings of Scripture appointed for today? Well that’s a good question, and the answer would be nothing and everything. Nothing directly but everything in that it’s David’s response to a divine corrective received a few years before. Beyond this, it’s also a summary of our lessons for today.

The abridged version of our reading from Luke is this: a good argument against the resurrection gets refuted by Jesus. Perhaps I should elaborate a bit more.

The context for this story from Luke is the Sadducees, who are among the politically powerful wealthy elite, and they operate the Temple, which gives them a powerful religious base of operations. As such they dominate religious and political life within the bounds allowed by the Roman empire. In this tenuous setting a lot of people – including the Sadducees – are likely concerned Jesus is threatening their livelihood; thus they are suspicious of much of what Jesus represents.

To be fair, the Sadducees have the misfortune of being made out to be bad guys over the millennia through interpretations of Scripture that tend to reveal more about our cultural and social biases than they do facts about the Sadducees. Thus I think we read more into their differences as presented in this Gospel than Jesus likely intends as he uses them simply as a foil to make a point – a point about how preoccupation with worldly – including religious – concerns can cause us to miss out on participation in the fullness of life that Jesus has to offer.

The Sadducees’ strict adherence to – or preoccupation with – the teachings of the first five books of the Bible, and their assertion that resurrection was not taught within these books is what makes them a perfect foil for Jesus. Literally speaking, the Sadducees are correct, resurrection is not compatible with “the law” [Torah] as they read it. But Jesus points out a flaw within their narrow view by citing God’s revelation of God’s self to Moses in the burning bush as an exception to their understanding. God says to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Not I was, not I will be, but I am. Present tense. Here God is asserting God’s presence among the Patriarchs still, centuries after their earthly death.

Jesus isn’t trying to make the Sadducees look bad here, that’s not the point; if it were we would all look really bad because we all have our issues that keep us more often preoccupied than participating.

The Sadducees are just doing what Rabbis do. They like to play stump the Rabbi, they pose a conundrum to see how the Rabbi will get out of it – to see if his answer stands up to scriptural scrutiny. And Jesus does not disappoint as he points beyond their narrow or preoccupied view to reveal what they are failing to participate in – another vision of life in the present and to come.

So what is the point? I think the point is to answer the two-part question posed by David, “[W]ho am I, and what is my people, …?” In the Old Testament reading, in the Epistle, and in the Gospel we find people who are so preoccupied with their worldly concerns, such as preserving the status quo, or ensuring their security – that they are missing out on the fullness of life that embraces the abundance presence of God in their midst. I am one of these people too because I am a human being and this is what my people are. When confronted with the anxious realities of life our survival instinct to preserve what we have kicks in.

Yet the question continues, “… that we should be able to make this freewill-offering?” There are two parts here: “we should be able” – but how? By invitation to participation – an invitation presented in all three readings today: an invitation by the prophet Haggai to participate in prosperity; an invitation by God to participate in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ; and an invitation by Jesus to participate in resurrected life.

This is all well and good, but how do we reconcile our anxious tendencies and such gracious invitations to participate in God’s abundance? The surprising answer is found in the final part of the question, “… make this freewill-offering.” As opposed to required offerings, which were periodic obligations mandated by “the law”, the freewill-offering is entirely voluntary and is the fruit of gratitude expressed in response to the recognition of the source of abundant blessings we enjoy as the people of God.

“For all things come from you [O Lord], and of your own have we given you.” This notion that God is the source of all that we have comes from the biblical understanding that everything we have is ultimately derived in some fashion from creation. In today’s lessons this is most strongly emphasized in Haggai where God asserts God’s sovereignty over all creation and wealth, and God’s intention to give prosperity.

The Epistle and the Gospel do not make specific claims about the source of all that we have or prosperity per se, but they and the Old Testament lesson are clear about the source of the promise of eternal life, and they call us to claim and practice participation in the promise precisely because this practice is challenging in the face of our preoccupying practicalities. Our acceptance of this challenge – this spiritual exercise – with “our possessions” will result in a stretching and growth of our spirit, and in this practice we will be lead to an increased awareness of God’s presence and abundance in our lives, where we will learn the answer to the question, “Who am I?”

[1] 1 Chronicles 29:14 – from David’s farewell prayer

Political Rally?

These days some of us may be more familiar with Halloween than All Saints’ Day. Given the pop status Halloween enjoys, we can be forgiven for thinking that Halloween is the thing. As a result I offer a little background to put Halloween into proper perspective.

The name Halloween is derived from the holiday’s origin name, which in archaic English is All Hallows’ Eve, the day before All Hollows’ Day. In old English a “hallow” is a saint or holy person. However, with time “saint” came to replace “hallow” in most contexts, but not Halloween, which in popular imagination has taken on its own unique identity separate from All Saints’ Day. You can probably guess why Halloween has its own following. Let’s face it, All Saints’ Eve, which it really is, just doesn’t conjure up the “paganesque” imagery we often associate with Halloween. Nonetheless, Halloween – as the Eve before – exists to point the way to All Saints’ Day, as if to conjure up the hallowedness we might aspire to even as we are immersed in ribald revelry.

But how is it we end up celebrating All Saints’ Day two days after its appointed day of November 1st? Well, it’s one of the ways the Church accommodates those of us whose lives can’t make space for communal worship during the workweek.

The Church makes this accommodation because All Saints’ Day is so important a communal feast that it merits our attention and celebration. Thus it is a movable feast – it is accommodating – so we are able to observe its celebration as a community on a Sunday following November 1st.

At its core, All Saints’ Day is a day of thanksgiving for all the saints, those still living and those who have gone before us. We give thanks today for their grace-filled examples and we celebrate that we are joined with the saints in the communal body of Jesus Christ our Lord. In this celebration we are filled with awe as we reflect upon the saints’ examples, and perhaps nevermore so than as we contemplate the contentious political environment that threatens our communal landscape these days.

I think this accommodating feast of All Saints’ and its lectionary can give us some perspective in how to face these days as a community, especially in light of the values espoused by Jesus in Luke’s riff on the beatitudes.

Today Jesus is sermonizing, not only to his disciples, but also to “a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.”[1] This diverse multitude of extended community is full of curious onlookers and those seeking to be cured.

So while Jesus may be looking at his disciples as he preaches, he is very aware of this diverse and unhallowed multitude; he wants this community to hear his sermon as well. What’s more, he’s saying things that are confounding to many of them. You see, Jesus is not pandering to the crowd; in fact, his words are confounding and challenging to most of them precisely because he is not trying to tell them what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. By modern standards, Jesus stinks as a politician.

On the one hand Jesus speaks of blessedness or happiness, and on the other he speaks of woe or grief; but in neither case is he speaking of happiness or grief in conventional ways.

He says, happy are those who are poor, who are hungry, who weep, who are hated. Apparently suffering as the prophets and saints suffered for their faithfulness is how to claim the reward of heaven. Hmm … suffering; I’m thinking this is not the way to win over an unhallowed multitude.

Clearly, there is another choice. We can choose to pursue riches, to be full, to laugh, and to have others speak well of us, but Jesus tells us these will only lead to grief in the end. Excuse me, but I would like to have my cake and eat it too!

This is not the kind of stump speech one expects from a successful politician. Instead Jesus is telling all of us the good news and the bad news; this kind of candor or authenticity is not something we expect from public officials all that often.

Perhaps we should accept it as an honest appraisal of the choice before us; a choice between communal happiness and constrained grief. If we are listening, and if we choose communal happiness, Jesus gives us a prescription for pursuing that happiness: love; do good; bless; pray; be generous; and treat others as you would have them treat you.

However, Jesus tells us to be selective. He tells us to pursue happiness by accommodating: our enemies; those who hate us; those who curse us; those who abuse us; those who hit us; and those who steal from us.

Does such an accommodating party platform even make sense if one wants to win a campaign? Well if you want to make an impression on someone, do what they least expect, it will get their attention. They may even pause to ask “why?” Accommodation may become an opportunity to remind them of the Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Accommodation is an invitation to remember that what Jesus wants most for us and from us is to be in relationship with one another – not opposed to one another. This is essential to our communal wellbeing and it is what we need to remember these days and for the days to come because we won’t all be happy with how the political landscape turns out, but we can still do unto others as we would have them do to us.

It is because of this that Jesus is telling his disciples, and the multitude of diverse opinions and wants, that we need to set aside our differences and hurts and choose to build relationships of mutual respect and accommodation.

But Jesus places the burden of this accommodation on us as disciples. We are the ones who are called to show the multitudes what the communal body of Christ and the kingdom of God look like. Heaven knows this will require the best efforts and prayers of All the Saints.

[1] Luke 6:17

A Different Kind of Widow

“Then Jesus told [the disciples] a parable about their need to pray always and not to
lose heart.”[1]

These opening words of today’s Gospel are not just a preamble to the parable of the widow and the unjust judge; they are also a bridge to Jesus’ preceding monologue, which is an unsettling description of the end times that will occur before the coming of the Son of Man. It is this story of the end times to which the parable is intended to illuminate the virtues of persistent prayer and steadfast faith. While this is well and good, I
think to leave it at that is to overlook another, richer aspect of this parable. This parable has been subjected all manner of manipulation over the centuries, some of which can be attributed to losses in translation; but it has also accumulated a lot of presumptions that, while well intended, are not well founded. For example, the widow is often presumed to be poor, a victim, and without power. In fact, other than her widow-hood, there is nothing in the story to support these presumptions. These are nothing more than the accumulation of biased and widely accepted stereotypes about widows. Yet the Bible is full of stories about widows and other women wielding the power of their own agency – that is their own influence – despite their sometimes desperate circumstance. These women include Naomi, Ruth, Tamar, Abigail, Esther, the widow of Zarephath, Martha, and Mary, among numerous others. All stories that Jesus knows well or has been a part of.

So why have we chosen to treat this widow differently? Is it because we want to tame or domesticate the parable – to make it about something other than ourselves?

Alternatively, perhaps it is because it is easier to deal with a banal stereotype than it is to deal with the dignity and presence of Christ in the unique individual that is presented to us.

Or in our tradition of the middle way, perhaps, we should accept the widow on the basis of what we can read in the parable, which is very little.

The widow’s plight is constrained to just one verse. Her only spoken words are, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”[2] Yet within these five words there is one word that speaks volumes about the widow – it is the word “justice.”

The choice to translate the Greek this way doesn’t do the word justice, if you’ll pardon the pun. The choice of “justice” is a safe translation that avoids what may be seen as unladylike aspects. Specifically, this translation sidesteps aspects of the original Greek that include: vindication, vengeance, and punishment. In this light, it seems the widow sees herself as harmed and she wants retribution – retribution against the party that has harmed her. She wants to set things right.

This perspective, coupled with her dogged persistence, presents us with a woman, who knows her rights under the law and will use whatever resources she has, to set things right. The fact is this woman prevails through the persistent wielding of the power of her own God-given agency – her own personal influence. This is a prevailing pattern of the women of the Bible; and this fact begs the question of whether we need a new biblical model for the “widow” or woman as one who means to see things set right.

At the core of this parable is, what seems to be, an imbalance of privilege: a privileged and complacent judge who is unencumbered by any sense of accountability; and a widow, whom the judge mistakenly believes he can put off. This parable invites us – regardless of our gender and regardless of our sense of powerlessness or privilege – to identify with the widow; and perhaps to recognize those places in our lives and our community where we have accepted imbalances of privilege as they are.

This parable also speaks to the entirety of Jesus’ ministry – the confrontation of prevailing biases or privilege of society through the persistent and sometimes annoying proclamation of his vision for the kingdom of God. In this light, where have we fallen short as stewards of our God-given gifts of agency: the power to use our voices, in prayer and in speaking out; the power of our minds, in imagining how things could or should be; and the power of our presence in taking stances that illuminate injustice?

Our baptismal covenant is not one of complacency and comfort, or privilege. Nor is it simply one of belief. Rather our baptismal covenant is a call to action, with God’s help, not to lose heart:

  • To continue in teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers;
  • To persevere in resisting evil;
  • To proclaim the Gospel;
  • To seek and serve Christ is all persons; and finally, or perhaps I should say ultimately …
  • To strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being.

This ultimate appeal of our baptismal covenant – this appeal to “set things right” – may be the most challenging for us. This appeal may be the one where we are most likely to lose heart; but with God’s help, nourished by Christ at this table, and encouraged by the example of the widow and all the saints, we are equipped as stewards of our baptismal covenant to live generously and to set things right!

[1] Luke 18:1

[2] Ibid., v. 3b

Gratitude

By and large we human beings are hardwired to congregate – to form communities – whether it’s for protection, perpetuation of the species, common interests, or just to socialize. Such motivations for forming communities are often characteristics of a commonweal – a dated term for a group organized for the mutual welfare of its members.

In our lessons for today we find three examples of different communities. In our reading from Jeremiah we find a congregation of exiles in Babylon whom God calls upon to resume living in community, not only for their own welfare, but for the welfare of the entire city, “for in its welfare you will find your own welfare.”[1] Such an expansive and inclusive view of welfare is characteristic of a commonweal.

In contrast, Paul’s second letter to Timothy presents a fractious community of believers who are wrangling over church politics. It is easy to imagine this community as oppositional – focused on a win-lose or zero sum game – rather than mutual welfare. What is particularly noteworthy about this reading is that today it finds itself sandwiched between a contradicting prophetic story about commonweal and a teaching from Jesus about healing. It seems reasonable to conclude that oppositional communities are a far cry from God’s expectation for God’s people; and a far cry from Jesus’ story of healing.

And then there is Luke’s account of the cleansing of ten lepers. This story is a sort nesting doll of communities. There is the village Jesus has just entered, which, given it’s location, is likely to be filled with an eclectic gathering of ethnicities and religious perspectives living in relative harmony. And within this there is a sort of enforced commonweal of ten lepers, who not unlike the exiles to Babylon find it in their mutual interest to band together. Because of the size of their community, when they cry out they are heard, seen, cleansed, and sent to the priests to certify their cleansing. Ironically, it is this instruction to go to the priests that breaks apart the community, that ends its purpose. One of the ten turns away from the others; he found a new community. He is so grateful that he feels compelled turn back (to repent if you will) and give thanks for his healing.

The Samaritan’s choice does not diminish the other nine, in fact they, as directed by Jesus, are fulfilling the law of Moses to have the priests certify their cleansing so they may be restored to their native communities. Instead the Samaritan’s choice illuminates the merit of gratitude as a grace to be admired and desired. I suggest this because while all ten are cleansed, the Samaritan is also made “well”, in other words he is saved. In this act Jesus makes a direct connection between gratitude or thankfulness and salvation. Thankfulness is the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of gratitude. The biblical Greek for ‘to be thankful’ is eucharisteo, in which I trust you recognize the English word Eucharist as in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist and the Eucharistic prayer.

In this story Jesus sacramentalizes gratitude, and challenges us to be intentional and purposeful about orienting ourselves toward gratitude – to practice gratitude until it finds natural expression in our inclination, thought, and prayer, and until it is infectious.

With this challenge in mind, and aware that we are launching St. Michael’s stewardship campaign next Sunday, I appeal to you to consider and answer three questions.

  • What are you grateful for?
  • How might you share this sacramental grace of gratitude? And …
  • How will your gratitude display itself for our community’s commonweal?

In answering these questions, may we each grow in awareness of our gratitude, and may our gratitude find its sacramental expression of thanksgiving. Amen.

[1] Jeremiah 29:7b

Insufficiency vs. Abundance

Lord, increase my faith! Perhaps you – like I – have felt like uttering this cry from
time to time. And today, we hear Jesus’ chosen 12 – the apostles – give voice to it. Yet, we don’t know much about the apostles’ particular circumstance as they cry out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” It sounds as if they are desperate. Perhaps the apostles are overwhelmed by all that Jesus is telling them on their way to Jerusalem. I don’t know; but to my ear it sounds as if the cry is coming from a place of insecurity, of doubt, a sense of insufficiency; as in, “I don’t have enough.”

Such a sense of insufficiency – whether real or imagined – can be debilitating. It can keep us from taking risks; indeed, it can keep us from doing what we ought to be doing because we fear we won’t have enough. Even worse, this sense of insufficiency can be isolating, it can ruin relationships and aggravate our poverty if – in our pride – we refuse to acknowledge our circumstance. At least in our Gospel story the apostles have the sense to proclaim their need.

And in their need Jesus goes on to disabuse the apostles of their sense of insufficiency by proclaiming, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you.”

In this similitude Jesus reminds the apostles and us that it is not a matter of quantity
or how much, but a matter of the quality of the resource. Thus this lesson
applies to faith and to stewardship.

The apostles’ sense of insufficiency and pride reminds me of a different story;[1] the story of a very young couple who struggle to make ends meet.

The bride, Mary, is from a prosperous and closely-knit professional family. She is well educated and has begun her college education, but she has also fallen madly in love with a young man named Elton. In contrast, Elton is from a rather poor farming family where he had a hard relationship with his deceased stepfather. As a result he is pretty self-sufficient. Although Elton has dropped out of high school; he is hardworking, long in horse sense, blessed with a joyous zest for life, and he adores Mary. Yet – because of his origins – Mary’s family doesn’t approve of Elton. So when Mary and Elton elope, Mary’s family disowns her. In their sense of insufficiency her family is prepared to discard their daughter rather than diminishing any of their perceived sense of prestige and wealth. Such is the perversity of insufficiency. As orphaned newlywed teenagers, Mary and Elton have little choice but to make do with what they have: a team of horses; a small and dilapidated farmstead Elton leases from his mother; and their mutual ardor.

Their first year of marriage is a terrible struggle. They barely survive, yet they are blessed by their surroundings as their farmstead is neighbored by five other similarly poor farmsteads. Mary and Elton find themselves a part of an impoverished yet hardworking community that knows how to steward their seemingly few gifts. This community teaches the young couple what they need to survive that first winter when they have no larder. This community barters and trades their skills and meager provisions to get by. While they may not have much, what they have is sufficient.

By the second year, Mary and Elton have a garden, they have learned how to can, they have a share of a slaughtered hog, and they have managed to buy a couple of chickens and a young hog called a shoat. But more importantly Mary and Elton have earned the love and respect of their neighbors because of their generous spirits and their interest in their neighbors’ lives and circumstances. Without being asked they respond to the needs of their neighbors, often before attending to their own. This poor community may not thrive economically, but they thrive in spirit, relationship, and love – indeed they have an abundance – because they know what the other has to offer and in turn know what the other needs. And they respond to the need almost without being asked.

The fall of their second year turns unseasonably cold. Mary falls desperately ill, but she dare not complain to Elton because her upbringing has taught her never to give voice to need or vulnerability; so she soldiers on without complaint, trying to keep her need from her husband. For his part, Elton has deferred the plowing of his own field because he has promised to help his neighbor Walter bust up his cornfield so that it can be sown again. It will be a long day as he walks his team several miles up the road to Walter’s farmstead, and then returns home to tend his own. So Elton sets off well before sunrise. Whereas Mary, in her illness, is so weak after tending to the chickens and the shoat that she collapses in bed, too exhausted to confront the household chores or even to tend the flagging fires in the stoves. Before she passes out, she despairs, how will I get my chores done? Mary lies gripped by the same sense of insufficiency that plagues her family of origin.

Hours later, Mary awakes aware of a soft humming in the background and the return of warmth to the small farmhouse. From the bed she sees that the house has been cleaned spotlessly, and rocking comfortably in the sunlight of the bedroom window is her neighbor Josie, humming hymns as she plies her needle in a tablecloth she is fashioning for the fair.

How did this come to be? Well, on his way to Walter’s in the dark of the early morning, Elton overcomes his pride and admits his need – not for himself but for the one he loves. He pauses his team as he passes Miss Josie and Tom’s farm, and calls out to Josie that Mary is sick. There is nothing more to be said. Elton knows that Josie has no children to occupy her, and for her part Josie knows how difficult it is to get everything done that needs to be done even when one is feeling well. Josie and Elton know each other’s gifts and now they know each other’s need. Nothing else needs to be said.

Mary, coming from a family plagued by insufficiency, selfishly thinks she can and should conceal her need from Elton and her neighbors. In contrast, in a vulnerable and generous spirit of sharing Elton and her neighbors disabuse Mary of her sense of insufficiency and pride. And for her part Mary is revived to a new sense of stewardship by the revealed abundance of love that shatters her former sense of insufficiency.

Where the apostles, Mary, and perhaps you and I are inclined to call out, “Increase our faith!” because we occupy a place of perceived insufficiency; Jesus is telling us instead be like Elton and Josie and proclaim from a quality of love and vulnerability that, “we have done only what we ought to have done” and it is sufficient in abundance.

[1] This story is a synopsis of the following. Wendell Berry, “A Jonquil for Mary Penn” in That Distant Land: The Collected Stories [Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004] Kindle location 2622 of 5940.

On the Occasion of a Patronal Feast

Last Sunday we were blessed with the opportunity to baptize Jacqueline – to welcome her into the body as one of Christ’s own, and to affirm our own baptismal vows. Christening – in and of itself – is always a beautiful and moving rite, yet this week I glimpsed a profound connection between Jacqueline’s christening and the christening of St. Michael’s in the Hills. I will acknowledge that by outward appearances this seems like a curious connection, but bear with me as we follow where this leads.

Sixty-six years ago the petition to create a Mission named St. Michael’s in the Hills was approved by the Diocese of Ohio. This christening – if you will – led to the annual remembrance of our patron saint and his entourage – St. Michael and All Angels. But it isn’t the calendrical proximity of Jacqueline’s christening and the feast of our patron saint that connects them. Rather it is the commonality of their objectives; a commonality that would easily be lost to time without a re-reading of historical archives.

As I was praying with the appointed readings for today’s feast, the Holy Spirit – as it often does – led me down what, by outward appearances, was a bit of a rabbit trail. The Spirit prompted me to re-read St. Michael’s history as posted on our website. In doing so I was surprised to learn that the Gospel lesson for the feast of St. Michael’s and All Angels has changed since the christening of St. Michael’s. This change occurred during the transition from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which some of us recall with fondness to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

The reading from the Gospel according John we have heard this morning, which has been associated with this feast for at least forty years, is not the reading appointed for this feast sixty-six years ago.

This may strike you as ecclesial minutiae, but according to our history the Gospel lesson associated with the feast of St. Michael and All Angels sixty-six years ago is our raison d’être – our founding mission statement. So today I am taking the liberty of sharing with you another Gospel lesson. The abridged [vv. 1-5, 10] but current translation of the formerly appointed reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew [18:1-10] reads:

18 1At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ 2He called a child, whom he put among them, 3and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. …

10‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.

This Gospel lesson is foundational to the call and purpose of this parish. Our founders christened this parish St. Michael’s because of this Gospel lesson’s emphasis on the formation and inclusion of children. The founders of this parish prioritized children, which is evident from the familiar 1950-something picture of the congregation gathered in a locker room of the Toledo Tennis Club. The children and youth fill the forefront of the photograph where they are recognizable, while the adults line the back of the room in relative obscurity. Children and youth were prioritized. Even in the house on Bancroft Street, the Sunday School classrooms were in comfortable bedrooms, while the worship space was the garage. The formation of children and youth was prioritized.

There are at least two takeaways from this observation. One is, while our name is an integral part of our identity, the stories behind our name is the stuff of revelation, purpose and foundation because they reveal our priorities, they reveal the saints upon whose shoulders we now stand, and they reveal the founding mission, which is as relevant and essential today as it was sixty-six years ago. The second takeaway, in addition to knowing our story, is the essential importance of reading, praying and studying Holy Scripture as a community. Scripture is the historical narrative and defining story of our Christian identity and our current consciousness. May we always remember the stories behind our christening and be open to the rabbit trails of the Holy Spirit’s direction as we continue to pursue our founding mission to call children to be among us and to lift them up as the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

The Unjust Master and the Maligned Steward

At one time or another, we’ve all probably heard the expression “lost in translation.” This expression is particularly apropos when we’re dealing with biblical texts, none of which were written in English. Thus dated translation choices can dog a particular text for years and sometimes take on a life or identity of their own.

Such is the case with the parable we’ve heard this morning. The editors of this parable have chosen to title it “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager”, which is unfortunate because it imprints an immediate bias in the mind of the reader or hearer. The result is the nuance of the original author’s grammatical choice is lost in translation.

The offending text today is in the first verse of our Gospel lesson, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.”[1] The offending word here is “charges,” which is the translator’s choice for the Greek diaballo, which means slanderous falsehood. With this translation in mind we realize the manager – or steward – is falsely accused, slandered by others for reasons unknown to us.

Unfortunately, the master seems to accept the charges at face value, which is curious because for someone to become the steward of such an estate one would have to prove themself trustworthy. Nonetheless, the master tells the steward, ‘I’ve heard bad things about you. You’re fired; but before you go give me an account of your management.’

Shocked by his dismissal, the steward realizes he will be destitute without this job. It is his one and only calling – it is the only thing he knows how to do. How on earth will he survive without it? The steward has only one chance to secure his future before security takes his keys and removes him from the premises. With his fate sealed by false accusation, the steward seems to adapt and become what he is accused of – a squanderer. He converts debts owed to his master into treasure by building goodwill among his master’s debtors.

To my mind, what is perhaps most surprising about this parable is the startling response of the master, who recognizing the shrewdness of the steward, commends him for his clever dealing. Perhaps the master is only mocking the steward before throwing him out. Whatever the master’s motivation, this strikes me as a strange ending; there appears to be no moral, no repentance, nothing. What is going on? There is only Jesus’ puzzling commentary at the end of the parable:

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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

So who is faithful in this parable, and who is dishonest? The question begs a closer examination. Upon a closer reading, we can discover another translation choice that has lost its nuance over time. This choice is in the very same sentence as the first, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.”[2] The offending translation choice is “squander” – to waste in a reckless manner. This is a very worldly translation of the Greek – diaskorpizon – to scatter abroad, disperse, winnow.

From a stewarding perspective this is not a wasteful thing but a refining thing; winnowing the chaff to insure the final product is pure and ready for the finest table.

I suggest that the debts the steward is forgiving are a recognition of the useful final winnowed fruits of the debt – what the master would actually realize were he not trying to cheat his customers.

Perhaps this is why the steward was accused, the buyers of the master’s wheat and oil thought the lack of purity of the product was the steward’s doing and that he was lining his own pockets, when the reality may have been that it was all the master’s doing.

If we imagine who the characters are, perhaps Jesus’ confounding commentary seems a bit clearer. Imagine Jesus as the falsely accused or maligned steward, and the empire and religious authorities as the unjust master. We know how this story plays out. Are we expecting fairness or justice? Of course not! But what are the implications for us? We may from time to time find ourselves in both roles: master and steward. But keep in mind, as the maligned steward, Jesus converts debts into treasure, just as he forgives our debts, converting them into redemption. In like fashion, we as stewards can recognize injustice and redeem it through what appear to be preposterous acts of charity and forgiveness. As maligned stewards, we can acknowledge that we live in an unjust world; but we do not have to concede to its injustice. Instead, we can acknowledge the injustice for what it is and we seek to redeem it, sometimes turning its own cleverness against it and at other times winnowing it for the grains of redeemable purity that exist within it – never dismissing the whole, rather seeking the good that can be found within, so that we can hold on to that which is eternal.

[1] Luke 16:1

[2] Ibid.