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18th September 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
16 September 2016

Readings

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Our reading from Jeremiah this morning is a lament on behalf of the poor. 

Maurice Andrew notes that verse 22 ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’ is the inspiration for the well-known African American Spiritual and explains that balm was a sweet smelling resin from Gilead which was believed to alleviate pain.  Therefore Jeremiah is saying that although there is balm in Gilead there is no cure for the people.  This leads to chapter 9 verse 1 which Andrew labels, as one of the most unrestrained outpourings of the whole book.  This verse shows a God who does not threaten but a God who weeps and identifies with the oppressed.  Andrew quotes Kathleen O’Connor and suggests that this may be an image of God that takes up woman’s suffering and weeps with them.  Maurice puts the verses into our context writing ‘O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.

O that there were more people in Aotearoa New Zealand who would weep for the many of our people who, though they may not be slain (though some have been), certainly are lost. [1]

Luke 16:1-13

This morning’s reading from Luke’s Gospel is a difficult reading to understand because it seems that dishonesty prospers and that does not seem right.  The key to understanding the passage is, as usual, context, the context of the Gospel, where the story occurs, and the context of the culture in which the story was told.  Last week we looked at two of the stories from the beginning of chapter 15 and we noted that they were the first two in a series of three.  The third parable is the prodigal son.  Now here is the clue to understanding today’s parable.

The message of those three parables was that God does not only seek out the lost but God is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths in doing so.  God is even prepared to give up being God and come into the world as a human being and suffer what was understood at the time as the utter disgrace of execution to save lost humanity. 

As an alternative understanding Justo González writes that this is a parable we should all read and consider before attempting to interpret any other parables of Jesus because it undoes the common notion that the parables are nice stories about commendable people.  González concludes that this is a parable of stewardship that reminds us that whatever we have now is only under our temporary management and we have all been given notice.  The parable invites us to be like this wise steward who is ready to cheat the present order for the sake of the new order that is to come [2]

Sermon

Our lament from Jeremiah this morning reminds me of the recent travelogue on television one Tracks Across America.  In that series Billy Connolly takes a rail trip for six thousand miles through the backyard of America.  In typically Connolly fashion he avoids the wealth that is so often presented as the United States.  The train rolls relentlessly on through vast landscapes of emptiness and deserted towns.  His vision of California avoids the glitz of Hollywood and shows a roadside beach covered by belching sea lions and a ramshackle mansion built from recycled materials.  The mansion was built by an old man who escaped from an age care facility and used to sit on a toilet on the roof and abuse people as they walked past.

The truth of the documentary was that railroads do go past people’s backyards.  But the real poignant truth was that so much of America’s interior that held so much promise is now deserted or in ruin.  The wealth is in the cities while the wide open spaces are sparsely populated.  Towns are decaying buildings and rusting cars.  The buffalo are returning to the vast prairies that men committed genocide to possess.  A long Silhouette across the horizon of Native Americans mounted on horseback, their feathered headdress twitching in the wind, only exists in the imagination of the aging banjo player staring from the train window.    

Tracks Across America is a four-star prophetic lament that, like our reading from Jeremiah, illustrates the despair of an unjust economy that offers wealth to a few and huge cost to the dispossessed many.  Yet like Jeremiah there is still a glint of hope as the long white hair parts to reveal the aging imp of mischief who declares ‘It is I, Billy’.  Like our Jeremiah reading the hope is found in ordinary people doing ordinary things, belching sea lions and leaping carp amongst people doing the best they can.  People cooperating in communities far removed from the cunning schemes and dubious practices of Wall Street. 

It is where the dispossessed and the devious meet that we find the challenge in today’s most startling parable of Jesus.

Like the people Billy Connolly met in the back yard of America Jesus was preaching to the people who lived in the backyard of first century Palestine.  Jesus’ listeners knew all about debt.  Jesus was fully aware of the way oppressive systems worked in Galilee to drive people from their land into unemployment and poverty.  We can’t directly transfer first century economics to our world although there are similarities.  I once read that the economics of the Roman Empire was like a giant pyramid shaped vacuum cleaner that sucked all the empires wealth from the regions to Rome at the top.

Bill Loader suggests that wealth and exploitation are not simply a moral issue which Christians also need to address, but something that is central to the gospel.[3]

In Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’ nobody is written off, discarded as morally or economically bankrupt because of what Loader refers to as ‘the roguery of divine grace.’  

That statement takes us away from the casualties of economics and focuses on the real issues of the parable.  We find the morals of the parable hard to understand because the dishonest manager triumphs. The dishonest manager cheats his boss in search of post redundancy security.  We can make all sorts of excuses for him like suggesting that the boss was ripping off the peasants.  Perhaps he was only discounting his commission.  However, Jesus did not footnote his parables and those are just guesses. 

The reality is that we think the dishonest manager ought to get his comeuppance but instead he is praised for his cunning scheme.  We expect comeuppance but instead we find he is up and coming. 

That is the issue we have with God’s Grace.  People who should get their comeuppance get forgiven.  It bothered Jonah and it is against every moral code we have ever learned.  Every moral code except one, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That is why Loader refers to ‘the roguery of divine grace.’  Divine grace is as perverse as the story of the dishonest manager.  Certainly the Sensible Sentencing Trust would understand the roguery of forgiving the unforgivable but the divine logic may not be human logic but it is divinely logical.

I watched a documentary recently where they interviewed a young man on death row in Texas.  He had fled from a routine traffic stop because he had drugs in his car.  The police put out road spikes and he swerved to avoid them and in the dark he did not see the police officer standing at the edge of the spikes. He hit the officer with his car and killed him.  The police said he drove at their colleague on purpose so he was convicted of murder and executed.  At the time of the interview however the drugs had well and truly worked their way out of his system and his adolescent brain had matured.  He wanted the execution to happen quickly so his family and the family of the police officer could move on.  People admitted he had changed but were adamant that he had to pay the price.  The executioner showed no remorse.  When we take into account that the Dunedin Study found that a large portion of adolescents commit crimes you have to wonder if his crime was simply that he got caught.  Certainly he should not have fled from a routine traffic stop.  But we also have to ask about the judgement of the experienced police officer who on a dark night stood in dark clothing at the edge of road spikes designed to stop an out of control driver.  Yes, the young man failed to stop when requested by the police and he was guilty of reckless driving causing death along with whatever charges arose from what he didn’t want found in his car.  But he was in need of recycling not terminating

The concept illustrated in today’s parable is that in the divine realm no one is to be written off, because what people have held against each other has been written off by God.  Divine grace cancels all prejudice and judgement that renders other people less than human and without rights. 

In the divine realm the poor are not poor ‘because they deserve it’.  They are more likely to be poor because, even though both partners work full time jobs most of their minimum wages goes on rent.  The wages are low because otherwise their jobs would not be profitable, shareholders would not get a dividend and their company would not attract the right high paid executives. 

There is a point of view that people are unemployed or paid low wages because they are lazy.  However, you don’t have to watch many episodes of the very contrived Undercover Boss to find that is simply not true.  Time and time again the undercover boss is chastised by his workers because he can’t keep up with the work schedule his number crunching has produced.  The boss is a multi-millionaire because his workers meet their targets day after day, week after week and yet it’s the boss that has the big house, the flash car and the plastic family.

The wise or dishonest steward in the parable was prepared to cheat the present order for the sake of the order to come and that concept runs through all the gospels.  At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel Jesus announces his mission by saying:  The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. (Mark 1:15)  

As Christians we are continually called to bring that divine realm into reality, it is always at hand, but always out of reach.  The justice God’s realm demands is beyond human logic, rehabilitation rather than revenge and an economic vision that suggests it is not OK that 10% of our population own 70% of New Zealand’s wealth.  It is not OK that the bottom 40 per cent of households hold just 3 per cent of our total wealth.

To hold such views is to take a stand against the gods of free market ideology which even today puts us on the side of the crucified.

The unjust servant may well have tricked his master but he was wise in preparing for the realm that was to come. 

In this strange parable Jesus is suggesting that we should all prepare for the realm that is to come because, the kingdom of God is always at hand.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp. 457,458.

[2] Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), p. 191

 

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