Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The trick is mercy. . .

Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 20C, preached on Sunday, September 15, 2019.

    So what do we do with this parable?  Why did Jesus tell this story?  We would have preferred other information to this confusing account of a crooked manager and an inept owner who ends up commending his dishonest employee.  Go and do likewise?

    Is it that we are so vain that we see ourselves in every parable?  So we read the stories Jesus told and we think they are primarily about us and primarily about what we ought to do, as if the Gospel were merely ethical instruction on how to be better people.  But this parable is worse.  Who is the hero we should emulate?  The blind owner or the scoundrel employee?  If God is the owner, it seems as if God is the one who is being tricked by His despicable and conniving steward.  At least that is how it seems to us.  Be shrewd and the trickster will get what he needs from God.

    Most of the time this parable gets turned into a lesson on stewardship.  But how foolish is that?  Be smart as a thief and quick and you can trick God into forgiving your sins and you still get to keep the property.  Now that is stewardship that could work!  We could have classes on how to outsmart God and how to be one step ahead of God so that you get what you want.  We would like to be told how to make friends with money and still be spiritual.

    Or perhaps we got it all wrong.  Perhaps this parable is not about us.  Perhaps this parable is not primarily about stewardship.  Perhaps the goal is not to trick God into getting what we want.  Perhaps that is the trick God has played on us.  Perhaps this parable is, in fact, about God, about mercy, and about living out your faith in the good works that show the Kingdom of God lives in you.  The hard part of this parable is that we cannot serve two masters, and there are only two choices.  Satan and his sham treasures which are only briefly yours and never purchase what you want or need most... or God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.  He who loves even scoundrels and liars and cheats and adulterers.

    The truth is that we love the idea of justice and part of us wants a just world in which the bad people get what is coming to them and the good people also get what is coming to them.  But that world is a dream, a broken dream shattered in the reality of Eden when Adam and Eve gave up their birthright for the fake freedom the serpent offered.  That world is a dream, a broken dream shattered by the good that good people do not do and the evil that is their secret delight so that no one is good, no one is righteous, and no one is what God created them to be.  That world is a dream, a broken dream shattered by the fact that sin cannot be hidden and its punish death cannot be ignored or refused or reasoned with.  We neither need nor should we want justice from God.  What we should want and what we should seek is what God offers:  mercy.

    This parable seems to be nonsense.  A slick and manipulative manager steals what belongs to another and when he is caught, he steals more and the owner lets him off.
Nobody likes this parable.  Because it offends our sense of right and wrong and our desire for justice.  Mercy is always offensive.  The truth is that we not only cheer the righteous underdog who wins against the evil enemy, we also cheer when a con man cons other con men and when the down and out find a way to success.  Under it all, we don’t want mercy from God; we want the keys to success – even if the path is a bit shady and less than honest.  But what God offers is the confusion of mercy.

    God’s mercy not only offends us but it confuses us because it is so lavish, so generous, and so freely given.  We can understand God saving the folks who go to church and try to be good and pay their taxes and work hard for a living and even love them when their kids go astray.  That is who we think we are.  We deserve such mercy.  But not the evil, the vile, the shameful, the wicked, the despicable, and the deadly.  They deserve justice.  But God gives to those we judge good and to those we judge evil the same mercy.  Repent, people of God.  The blood of Christ cleanses sinners.  The death of Christ rescues you from death and the grave.  None of it because you deserve it!

    You cannot serve two masters.  It is more obvious to us that you cannot serve God and money.  It may be less obvious to us that you cannot call for justice for some and mercy for others.  For just as love for God and the love of money cannot live peaceably in the same heart, neither can the love of justice and the love of mercy live in the same heart.  When God tells us to make friends on earth with our stolen wealth, He is reminding us that mercy is that stolen wealth, the treasure none of us deserve or are worth.  It does not belong to us but yet God gives it to us for the sake of Christ, the Righteous One who suffers in the place of the guilty and dies for those who freely chose death.

    Jesus is not saying to pad the wallets of others, buying people to get what we want. Jesus is calling us to live as the merciful to whom mercy has been shown.  Is this not what we pray for in the Our Father when we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?”  Is this not what we use our money for when we heed the call of God to be Good Samaritans, to feed the hungry, the clothe the naked, to house the homeless, and to heal the wounded?  Is this not what God has called us to do with our time, loving our neighbor as ourselves and serving our neighbor as Christ has served us?  There is no reward in this on earth – especially when the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.  The only reason for such good works is the mercy that constantly surrounds us with grace upon grace in our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Yes, by all means, be faithful with money and property and time and ability.  But do not forget to be faithful with the mercy that has redeemed you, a lost and condemned sinner, not with silver or gold but with the holy and precious blood of Christ for you.  But do not try to trick God.  God has tricked you.  You came to Him for justice and He gave you mercy.  You tried to manipulate Him for your ends, and He freely gave up His one and only Son for an end you did not even see coming – for the redemption of your lost lives and for the gift of life death cannot steal.  You were looking for a pat on the back from God and instead He gave Himself into your death so that you might possess now and for all eternity the salvation none of you deserve.  The trick is not ours, it is Gods.  The currency of heaven is not justice or money or reward but mercy.

    We sing about this every Sunday.  What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?  I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and will call on the name of the Lord.  I will take the sup of salvation and will call on the name of the Lord.  I will pay my vows to the Lord, now, in the presence of all His people, in the courts of the Lord’s House, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem.

    To those who wish to steal His kindness, God freely gives it.  To those who come for justice, God gives mercy beyond justice.  To those who come for a reward, God gives the treasure they neither merited nor deserved.  That is the message of this parable. We think that Jesus is trying to tell us to give more money and be better people.  All the money in the world and all our good deeds can purchase us nothing at all.  We continue to be tricked by Satan into believing that temporary treasures should be the focus of our lives and our good works can make everything right.  And all the while God is there, with mercy so lavish and generous that it seems positively wasteful to us.  His extravagant grace is not our hope, it is His promise.  This is why we cannot serve two masters.  Mercy owns us all or not at all.  Grace possesses us fully or not at all.
    To those who would murder the vineyard owner’s son in order to possess the vineyard, God freely gives it.  To those who would trick God into getting mercy, God freely gives it.  To those who think themselves good, God freely gives real goodness in the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ our Lord.  You do not need to get this parable for God has gotten you in it.  He has swallowed up all your shrewdness and what you thought you could get by deception or by merit, God has given you freely in Christ Jesus.  In Christ, there is only one purpose for the things of this world, and that is to display the kingdom.  In Christ there is only fruit of the good works we go, they testify of Christ and that we belong to Him.  In Christ we see that justice is not what we need but mercy and this is exactly what God gives us.

    Thanks be to God.  Amen!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have thought for years after studying this parable it was about the costs of discipleship. We should be as diligent in following Christ as the steward was in settling debts. God is merciful to us despite all the games we play with each other. -Ted Badje