“The Paradox of Generosity”
Psalm 79 & Luke 16: 1-13 ~ Northwood UC ~ September 18, 2022
It is always fascinating to see what we cling to. What it is that we hold on to for dear life. What it is that we will grip until our last breath. This last week, we have been reminded of how we cling to fresh, clean air for life. Last Sunday, our air quality was reportedly rated the poorest in the world. Some avoided coming to church, going outside. And, to those of us who ventured outside, we were reminded of how we cling to fresh air for life.
This morning’s parable, I would suggest, are among Jesus’ harshest warning about what we cling to. Esteemed theologian, Walter Brueggemann wrote “the paradox in this parable is that ‘letting go is to have and keeping is the way to lose.’” Just let that settle in for a moment: ‘Letting go is to have and keeping is the way to lose’”
As we dive into this confusing text, we are reminded that parables are storytelling devices used by Jesus to impart deeper truths into the nature of what God’s Kindom is like. While parables impart truth, they did not necessarily happen: “a man had two sons”, “a shepherd had 99 sheep and lost one”, “a widow had 10 coins and lost one.” Parables are stories that point us towards the truth as we hear them. The power in a parable is how they come alive in our wondering. This morning, we focus on the parable of the dishonest manager. And Jesus will proceed to teach the paradox of how ‘Letting go is to have and keeping is the way to lose’.
There are two characters in this morning’s parable who are very good at grasping, seasoned at holding on, veterans at keeping. They are so good at this, you likely share my distaste for their harsh business practices. We have the rich man who will call to account one of his managers and later praise him for his sneaky, shrewd behaviour. He had always held fast to the bottom line, profit before people had been the key to his wealth. The second character is the dishonest manager. He was being called out by his boss for the lack of income from his debtors, and as a result, his livelihood was in jeopardy. Knowing that he is threatened, he goes to the people with outstanding accounts and makes some sneaky back-room deals. ‘You owe my master 100 jugs of olive oil? No problem, make it 50. You owe my master 100 containers of wheat? No problem, make it 80’. He wants to make some quick cash for his master, so he offers some cut-rate deals. Some quick cash, at least in the short term, will help him keep his job. Tomorrow is another day to worry about. He needs quick cash today! So, he offers these cut-rate deals to leverage his position with the Rich Man. He also seeks to earn favour with the oil and wheat producers, so that when he is ultimately thrown out his job, he will have a back-up plan working with them. The Rich Man and the Dishonest Manager, quite the characters! And before we get too lost in our anger towards these two, let us remember the overarching paradox that I am suggesting: ‘Letting go is to have and keeping is the way to lose.’ What is the Rich Man holding on to? What is the Dishonest Manager holding on to?
The moral of the story, of course, occurs at the conclusion of the parable. After telling the parable, Jesus preaches the story’s moral to his confused listeners “No 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.’ Now as a side-note, the word for wealth, here, is “mammon” which scholars remind us is best translated as “dishonest wealth.” “No 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 dishonest wealth.’ The rich man and the dishonest manager hold on to wealth. Over and above relationships, over and above need, over and above compassion, the hold fast to dishonest wealth over God is the challenge Jesus issues. The cornerstone of our faith is what Jesus teaches in the summation of the laws and prophets. “You shall have no other gods before me”. It is that image of the golden calf and all the ways we make idols that take us away from this foundational spiritual relationship. And, we are taught how ‘Letting go is to have and keeping is the way to lose’.
And, long since the etching of the 10 commandments, and the fashioning of golden calves, life has become very complicated as our world today is painted with a wide ranging palette of grays that slowly, insidiously, have taken us away from having God at our centre. Somewhere in the middle of our journey we stopped. We stopped living for Christ, and increasingly lived the ways of the world. We stopped believing that Jesus died, and was resurrected, and that life was wholly made new. We slowly grasped on to the ways of death, rather than embracing the ways of life. Somewhere along the way it became easy to serve all those pressing demands: of people, of schedule, of money. Somewhere along the way the vision for God's call became so cloudy and muddled and gray. We stopped hearing God’s voice and joined the crazy survivor-takes-all mentality. Somewhere along the way, the challenges in front of us seemed so much bigger than the answers. So, we huddled in an effort to save whatever was left and forgot about living for something greater. We buried our treasures, forgot about God, and increasingly lived the way of the dishonest manager and the rich man. And into this challenging world painted with so many confusing shades of gray, this parable calls, and reclaims who we are. It reclaims whose we are and renews our vision for the Kingdom of God that is beyond us, and among us, and within. And we are reminded of the spiritual paradox for life: ‘Letting go is to have and keeping is the way to lose’.
King Solomon wrote timeless words of wisdom in the book of Proverbs. One verse that comes to mind as we examine Jesus’ teaching here is that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Jesus is challenging us to be clear on that which we grasp onto. For if we only grasp onto the ways of the world, the Kingdom of Peace will never unfold through our actions. If we are to follow the teacher of this parable; if we get clearer on the paradox of ‘Letting go is to have and keeping is the way to lose’, then we might begin to further grasp how we are called to be Jesus’ people. Churches have always been giving places, for in the giving the new life of God arrives. Churches have been places of sacrifice, for in the giving of time, talent and treasure the way of Jesus is furthered. Churches are places where people matter, for in the sharing of our lives we grace the Kingdom of God. Churches have always been composed of Jesus’ followers ~ those who live the spiritual paradox in their lives, that: ‘Letting go is to have and keeping is the way to lose’.
We are offered so many assurances in this world, and we (eventually) figure out how few there truly are. Life is so short; assurances in this life can never be made. Yet, when we grasp the true spiritual gift of God’s new life, we begin to feel, sense, and taste the Kindom that is coming…that is here…that is in you and me.
Let us hold fast to the Ways of Christ and be forever guided by the ways of peace, justice and love.