Monday, September 24, 2007

Sermon for The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, Year C, September 23, 2007

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 20

Year C

September 23, 2007

Jeremiah 8:18—9:1 Psalm 79:1-9

I Timothy 2:1-7 St. Luke 16:1-13

Hymns: 337, 708, 711, 488

I want to thank the people of St. Marks’s for their generosity in allowing me to share this holy place and time with you today.

You may not know it, but when you preach a sermon to a search committee you always pray for a soft-ball in the lessons. You know what I mean, the kind of lessons that can really make a person shine with their clever and adroit handling of the topic. A lesson you can really sink your teeth into. Apparently today is not my lucky day!

Generally speaking, the parable of the unjust servant is not the sort of thing you are praying for. It can really leave a person wondering. How in the world can Jesus tell a story in which someone dishonest gets praised? Where is the lesson in that for us? It is the sort of story that if I were editing the Bible might very well end up on the cutting room floor.

In times like these one is tempted to cherry pick the lesson. Perhaps I should just focus on the final two sentences of the Gospel which are filled with importance to our spiritual lives. Just take a pass on everything else and use the opportunity to preach on something very important, stewardship. But I felt the more honest effort would be to work on the text as a whole.

Robert Farrar Capon wrote a series of three small books on the Parables. In one of them he refers to the Parable of the Unjust Steward as the hardest of all.[1] To that I can add a hearty Amen.

One thing you know for sure when you read a parable, if you are scratching your head at the end wondering what in the world is going on, then the parable has been successful. The job of a parable is to make us work. It is not supposed to be like a proverb which you can read and then immediately grasp with wisdom of the saying. Parables are not meant to be easy. When I read a parable and think I have it all figured out, I immediately become very concerned that I have missed something, probably something important. However I’m never in any danger of that attitude with this particular saying of Jesus. But I am grateful that at least Jesus didn’t begin this parable, as many do, with the words, “Now the kingdom of heaven is like…”

Capon classifies this parable as a parable of grace. And that is certainly true. A simple definition of grace is favor that is not deserved. Many times when I finish reading a parable I come to the conclusion that something is just not fair. The wrongness of this parable screams in my mind. How can you go about cooking the books on your boss and then get commended for it?

My ears hear this story and my heart cries out for justice. Why doesn’t the unjust man get what he deserves? Why should evil seem to be rewarded, or at the very least, remain unpunished. When I think about it, what I really want is revenge. Revenge for the wrong this person has done. Sadly revenge is a very common attribute in our world today. If you disagree with me, just think about it for a moment. There are many phrases used all the time that call for revenge. People talk about evening the score, getting even, paying a person back, someone getting what they deserve. All those things are talking about revenge.

This desire for revenge is a deadly thing spiritually. In Romans we are told not to “insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do … says God … “I’ll take care of it.”[2] My interest in getting even, in settling the score on issues, reflects my desire to control the outcome rather than trusting God. On top of that, have you ever gotten revenge? Does it really make you feel good in the long run? Revenge is an emphasis on punishment instead of mercy and forgiveness.

As I found myself getting deeper and deeper into thinking about how unfair this parable was, little warning bells were going off in the back of my mind. You see, crying out for revenge to be meted out against those doing evil is a dangerous thing. What if God decides to give me what I deserve? Offering forgiveness instead of revenge, that is what God does for me and for each one of us. This is an injustice of the most holy kind and one which I must remember to be grateful for every day.

Injustice and forgiveness is the very essence of the message of the cross. As a result of the greatest injustice in the world, the death of Jesus on the cross, each one of us is in turned offered a chance at forgiveness in our own lives. The injustice of not being held accountable for our own sins. This great injustice, of which we all benefit, goes by another name – mercy.

The idea of mercy instead of justice is an idea that many around Jesus struggled with and I think it is one of the reasons he was so unpopular with the religious leaders of his time. It is in our human nature to want justice. We were made that way by God. It motivates many people to do wonderful things in the world around us. To feed the poor, to help the downtrodden around us. The danger arises when we allow issues of justice to crowd out the issues of mercy in life.

It seems to me that we can categorize the idea of justice in two broad groupings. The first is justice as punishment for transgressions – what might better be called revenge. The second is justice to correct inequity, oppression, and unfairness. I fear too often I find myself far too concerned about the revenge and not nearly concerned enough about mercy. As Christians we see in the example of Jesus a keen focus on mercy and an apparent indifference and often even opposition to revenge. And again, I find myself grateful for a God who is only too willing to provide mercy in my life, instead of a demand for revenge for my faults.

So this parable reminds all of us to be grateful for the mercy God has so richly poured out in each of our lives. When was the last time you remember to thank God for that in your life?

Forgiveness is a hard thing for all of us to put into practice, but we must try. If for no other reason than a selfish one – forgiveness is just plain good for us spiritually and physically. Holding things in, holding anger and hate against others, hoping for revenge, tears us up. God calls us to the hard work of mercy and forgiveness. And lets be honest, it is not always easy. In fact, it can be painfully hard. But in the end, forgiveness frees us.

Forgiveness is a journey we must walk. Many of you may be carrying burdens and pains which others have inflicted on you in your life. They may be large or they may be small. You may have been carrying them for a short time or for a long time. But it is freeing to turn them over to God to worry about. How do we know when we have truly forgiven someone? It is when we can wish them well. If we can’t wish someone well, we are still harboring some unforgiveness.

Forgiveness does not always mean forgetfulness. Some people are so toxic that for our own health and safety we may have to set boundaries or completely keep ourselves from them. But we can still, with the help of God, practice forgiveness.

The choice we come to from this parable reminds me of the passage from Deuteronomy 30:19 in which God tells the people that “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” That is the choice everyone in life faces in every generation. Jesus is calling us to make that same decision. Let us all ask God for the strength to choose to live a life of mercy and forgiveness today.[3]

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, 145.

[2] Romans 12:19.

[3] Much of the ideas regarding revenge and forgiveness comes from the DVD “Luggage” by Rob Bell, available at

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