Saturday, September 22, 2007

Give An Accounting of Your Stewardship

23 September 2007 – Proper 20C: Amos 8:4-7, I Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, MD

(With thanks and apologies to Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Luke [Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, 2006])

Hear This!

Rabbis and preachers often convey moral truths by way of subtle and clever stories. Which is exactly what Jesus has done – he tells a clever story. Unfortunately, natural instincts have led the church to misinterpret the story, looking for a character to emulate, and even worse, has changed the translation to make sense of the misunderstanding. Ooops!

One attempt to make sense of this story has been to suggest that the steward is not dishonest and not “stealing” from the rich man’s investments, but only deducting his commission. If that is the case, wouldn’t anyone who works on a commission basis want his job? If this is his commission, it is 50% in one case and 20% in the next! Only loan sharks and drug dealers work with such margins. It’s almost better to think he is simply dishonest.

Then there is the translation problem. The Greek text does not suggest “charges” being brought against the manager, but rather that he has been slandered – which suggests that the charges are false. And not that he “squandered” the rich man’s property, but rather he was “spreading it around” – what we would call “diversifying his portfolio.” Which sounds like good fiscal policy in today’s world of free-market capitalism.

So, on the basis of gossip and false charges the rich man fires the steward, suggesting that perhaps he doesn’t want to “spread his money around.” After all, the next thing you know people will be expecting him to invest in their venture projects, or even worse, ask him to donate to charities. This kind of thing needs be nipped in the bud, so he fires the steward.

This would explain the steward’s reaction, which is in fact to cheat the rich man. He has caught on to how the business game is played. If he can be cheated on the basis of gossip and innuendo, he can take revenge. This in turn might explain the rich man’s response, which is, in effect, “Congratulations, now you are learning how the game is played. You may have a future in this after all. Let me put you to work in a new company I am starting up – let’s call it “Enron.”

So we have a disloyal master, and a cheating, revengeful manager who thinks he can do well in the future by demonstrating he can cheat. Which is what the merchants in Amos are salivating to do – cheat. They wish to break the Sabbath laws and sell sell sell 24/7, put a heavy finger on the scales, shrink the size and weight of a pound of olives, so that they can fill their closets with the newest shoes – Crocs, Uggs, Jimmy Choo, Nina Ricci, Prada Sport Sneakers, Cole Haan, Brunomagli, and the like!

In a hilarious send up of Raymond Chandler mysteries and Episcopal liturgical customs, Mark Schweizer in his book, The Alto Wore Tweed (St. James Music Press, 2002) sums it all up in the libretto of an Epiphany Pageant featuring not the three Kings, but their wives, Leona, Imelda and Hilary:

I’m Imelda, jolly and quaint

Rather large, a face like a saint,

My shoes I can carry on one dromedary,

If I show real restraint. Ohhhhh

Star of wonder, star most fair,

I’m wandering without footwear.

It may seem callous, but at my palace

I have around three thousand pair!

Clearly we are not to emulate the merchants in Amos, nor the rich man or his manager in the Gospel. These people all represent the children of this age. These are the people who serve wealth/mammon, not God.

The key phrases in here would have to be, “You cannot serve God and mammon/wealth,” and, “Give me an accounting of your stewardship,” and of course, “Hear this…surely I will never forget any of their/your deeds.”

So what the scriptures before us mean to ask is, given that we all have resources that we manage, i.e. we are stewards of all that God has given to us, do we marshal these resources on behalf of God and those God loves, the poor and the needy? Or, do we all have closets full of shoes? Shoes, of course, is simply a metaphor, a space-holder for whatever else it is we find ourselves collecting or addicted to: clothes, cars, matchbox racers, fine wine, fine food, stamps, baseball cards, Thomas Kinkaid knick-knacks, guitars, coins, and everything else the Home Shopping Network and its minions offer as “true collectables.”

Be certain that there is no suggestion that money and resources are bad. Rather, the assertion is that there is a true need for money and resources in the Kingdom of God. Either you are on the bus or off of the bus, the Kingdom of God being the bus. Either we are serving God with all that we are and all that we have, or we are not.

And the only thing we need to know is true about the Gospel story (other than its description of the world of commerce looking pretty much the same before and after the birth of free-market capitalism) is that one day we will all hear a voice asking, “Give me an accounting of your stewardship.”

As William Burrill, retired Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester has long maintained, a quick glance at the register in our checkbooks, or now our online internet statements, will give a balanced and true picture of where our commitments lie – with God or with mammon. Or, as the late Bishop Bennett Sims once put it, “Of all the money I spent on myself, I would love to get most of it back. Of all the money I gave away, I don’t care to see it ever again.”

Is it any wonder that we are anxious about earthly things, as our collect asserts? Jesus, claims the Letter of Paul to Timothy, gave himself as a ransom for all that we might choose to become children of light, that we might choose to “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” that we might choose to hold fast to those things that shall endure. In the weeks ahead we will be asked to make such choices – choices we face everyday. Jesus trusts those of us who know him to make such choices on behalf of his Father’s kingdom. There exists an entire world that hopes his faith in us is well founded. Amen.

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