September 22, 2013
Stina Pope

This Gospel lesson in Luke (17) is ridiculous. I mean really! The house manager, or steward, has been cooking the books. The owner finds out, or at least he knows that things are fishy, and so tells the guy, tomorrow, there is an audit. The guy knows his time is up – so what does he do? He calls in the folks who owe money to his owner, and lowers their debts – so they are now in debt to him. That way, when he needs a favor, and he knows he will need lots of favors in the coming time, he knows they will be nice to him.

This is a terrible story! Or is it?

One of the things we have to do when we read the parables that Jesus tells is to figure out who the characters in the story represent. Another thing we have to do is to look at the context, both in terms of what this meant to those people, but also where this story fits into the larger story.

So let’s start with the larger story. This snippet comes after a bunch of lost things, we have parables about the lost sheep, the lost coin, then we have the lost sons, which we know as the parable of the Prodigal Son. These stories are really about the persistent God, the one who goes back out into the wilderness to find that stupid sheep, the one who spends all day looking for the coin, the one who chooses to lose face in the community when he reclaims his son who has shamed him, and now, we have an “owner” who knows full well that the guy has been cheating, that he has been cooking the books. He deserves to be thrown in prison for our evil doings, and what does Jesus say? He should spend his ill-gotten gains to help others. Well that’s an interesting idea, isn’t it?

It doesn’t fit with our ideas of what God is like at all. We think God should care when someone does something wrong, they should pay for their wrongdoing, it’s not OK for someone to do wrong, to cheat in this situation, they deserve punishment!

At one level, this is very interesting. Jesus says, if you have money, we’re not going to go back to look at how you got it – we assume you have hurt others, perhaps not intentionally, but that doesn’t really matter to God, do you think? However, if you have money, it does matter what you do with it now! So pay attention to the now.

But, we sputter . . . the guy clearly did wrong! He does not deserve . . . Who does not deserve?? We are the manager. We have been put in charge of “our” house, our body, our surroundings, our planet, and look at us! We have squandered so much of what we have been given, and we have robbed others in the process. No, we have not hit others over the head for it, but we have looked the other way when it happened. When they asked the good Christian people in Germany after WWII if they didn’t know something was wrong, those people tried to explain that if they said anything, the police would come and take them away, so they kept quiet. They all kept quiet. They just did their jobs and tried not to pay attention. Right now terrible things are happening here, I read about our government trying to cut the SNAP program that feed so many poor people, so many children. It is wrong. I read about the NC state government turning the laws back to 1950’s, and I am grateful for the clergy leading the people out into the streets and being arrested, for the people protesting the XL pipeline and getting arrested in Texas. I look at the pictures of parts of Syria, and the pictures of parts of Detroit, and there is no difference. I hear about gun violence in Oakland, where the young black men are killing each other, and a post just the other day about two men who both had licenses to carry concealed weapons, in road rage pulled off to the side of the road and killed each other. As the commentator said, if they had not had guns, there would have been bloody noses, now we have two funerals. We are hopefully not that stupid, but it even comes down to the chocolate we buy, some of which uses child slavery.

If I buy chocolate that is made with child slavery, then I am supporting the slave-owners. And this is just one thing! How many other places do I support slavery and degradation of the earth and so on, things that I find abhorrent – but still I support them unintentionally? Therefore I have done wrong, and deserve to be punished. In other words, I do not deserve God’s love. Period!

Well, it is very clear that we do not deserve God’s love, very clear. And in this parable, again, Jesus says, that’s not the point. Don’t you get it? It’s not about deserving! It’s so easy to look at the other guy, and say, yeah, he deserves what he is getting, but when I think about my relationship with God, do I want what I deserve? Not usually . . .

And happily that is not what I get. When I am all too conscious of my shortcomings and my failings and how grumpy I was last week with that woman at Costco, I do NOT want what I deserve, not even some of what I deserve. I want someone to understand how tired I am, the pressure I am under, how hard I am trying to do the right thing, to figure out what the right thing even is!

Then we go back, and look at the other stories surrounding this one. They are all about the outrageous generosity of God and about our value to God. Jesus paints this picture of the angels rejoicing at the finding, over and over.

And then we have to “bring it home.” That is, we have to understand what these parables mean to us, here and now. I think they are totally relevant. Is there anyone here who has not felt lost at some point? Anyone here who has realized that they have done something wrong and that dreadful feeling when you know that you are going to be found out? It is a pretty universal set of stories. We have all been stupid and run away from love. We have all gotten lost through no work of our own. We have all shamed those who love us at some point in our lives. We have all done wrong and been found out. We do not deserve being loved. And Jesus says, it’s not about deserving. God wants us to be at the table so much that it doesn’t matter what we have done, as long as we are willing to come back and be part of the family. Jesus paints this picture of the angels rejoicing at my being found?!?!

It gets more difficult to believe than that, because we are members of the body of Christ. Therefore, this is the model that is being painted for us to do, as well as for us to accept. God is outrageous in love. We are to be outrageous in our love. This is where the part from 1 Timothy comes in. In our outrageous love, we are to pray for everyone, everyone! We need to pray for those we love, and we need to pray for our enemies, yes, even President Assad of Syria, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, NRA, Tea Party, etc. Even them.

God enlightens us. We are to conduct ourselves (in thought as well as deed) as a portion of God’s light in this dark and discouraging world. But here is one difference: We are the light; we are not the judge.

We name wrong when we see it or experience it; it is wrong because it is not in alignment with God’s outrageous love and forgiveness and grace

We do not judge the wrongdoer; that is God’s job, not ours.

What I know for myself is that the more I allow myself to be loved, the more I allow myself to feel the love of God, the less I tend to judge others. I may be angry about what they do. But generally speaking, I am angry at their actions because they are hurting other people. And fundamentally, I know I am more in alignment with God’s love when I pay attention to what I am doing in response to a situation rather than pointing the finger at someone else. Does this mean I don’t pay attention to the terrible things that are going on right now? No, not at all. If anything, I pay more attention than I used to. But my response is different.

If I know that I do not deserve God’s love, and God loves me anyway, then I know that this other person does not deserve God’s love either, and the kicker, that God loves them anyway too. Therefore, my first response to their violence needs to be love. I may well wade into the situation and tell them in no uncertain terms that they are not allowed to hurt someone else any more, but that action comes out of love, not out of hate. And, of course, I fail at this. And God takes pity on me yet again.

In this time when all we seem to hear about is people killing each other, let us be a beacon of love and light. Let us remember that God loves us, even us, and therefore loves all of the rest of them out there who may not know it. Let us show it in some small way this week, a smile, an acknowledgement, an action, a sign of forgiveness, a gift of hope, what will you choose to offer someone? Who knows, you may be the hand of God without ever knowing it, but only if you reach out.