Photo by Matthias Groeneveld: https://www.pexels.com/photo/one-us-dollar-banknote-on-table-4200744/
Readings: Luke 16:1-13, Secrets of Heaven 4063:3 (see below)
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So, remember the show Breaking Bad? It was quite the phenomenon a number of years ago, garnering critical acclaim and devotion, many awards and at least one spin-off. It tells the story of a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who is diagnosed with incurable cancer and decides to become a drug dealer as a way to secure his family’s financial future. It chronicles his descent into a life of crime and the subsequent darkening of his soul. Now, as much as I appreciate the brilliance of the lead actor, I’ve chosen not to watch it. It’s not that I don’t value complex, nuanced stories, or that I cannot handle realistic depictions of violence. It is rather that I don’t like having to root for an antagonist. It makes me feel uncomfortable, compromised somehow. And so I avoid having to do it.
Which is a bit of a problem for me as a preacher though, because the bible is full of complicated characters that make me feel the same way. There is Jacob for example, a patriarch of Israel, who deceived his father and cheated his brother out of his inheritance. I squirm and wonder: Does God implicitly condone what Jacob did by making him the patriarch of a nation? Or there is Sarah, Jacob’s grandmother, cruelly casting out her maidservant Hagar, Jesus’ disciples acting stupidly and arrogantly, and Paul upholding patriarchy and slavery within his ancient context. The dishonest steward joins a long list. What are we to make of him and the fact that he is praised here? The fact that the clever trickster is prominent in Jewish folklore(1) doesn’t make me feel much better, nor the fact that is was his ingeniousness that was clearly valued, not his dishonesty. I still don’t like it.
I personally much prefer the Josephs, Daniels and Marys of the bible. Perfect, uncomplicated figures who are faithful and dutiful. It makes me feel more confident and safe to exist in a black and white narrative world, where everything makes sense and is put in a reasonable order. But of course, that is not what the real world is like. The world is full of complicated people, ourselves included. A black-and-white perspective is comforting but it is not reflective of reality. The bible is telling us stories about real people who defy our easy categorization, including this dishonest steward who clearly acted selfishly but who was then praised for his shrewdness. And if we are feeling uncomfortable, then it means the parable is doing its job; we are questioning. So then, how do we make sense of this text?
Well, in his own particular context, the steward’s actions are somewhat understandable. As a steward, a manager of an estate, his world was transactional, relationships were mediated by money. That’s how everyone got what they wanted. Even the master’s loyalty itself was dependent on how well the steward did his job, and it seems he wasn’t doing it well at all. And so when thrust into crisis, he continued to act according to his context, his story about the world, which was: Money not only buys goods but buys influence. Relationship, cordiality, good standing, these things are created through transaction. With no resources of his own, he nonetheless manages to purchase good will through a financial transaction, the abatement of debt, borrowing the power to do so from his master. It is a desperate but clever plan, and the master recognizes it as such, seemingly unconcerned about the money that will no longer be paid to him.
And this is where it becomes so confusing. Because it is not so much that we are surprised at what the steward did. The parable is called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward after all, and he acted very consistently. The surprise, and the discomfort, comes from the fact that the master praises him, and that in the interpretation, Jesus lifts him up as a positive example. What, on earth, is up with that?
Much scholarship around this text, wonders about the steward’s motivations and what exactly he meant to accomplish. I think it is also important to ask, what did he believe were his options? What other story about his life and potential did he have recourse to? In a culture where social and economic standing was remarkably fixed and intractable, what other option was available to him?
We all have our own stories that mediate our identity, our options, our decisions. Many times, these stories, these meta-narratives, operate unconsciously unless we have had reason to try and notice them. And we operate within these realities, everyday. It is completely unavoidable. There are many different stories that people have about themselves, we can change stories if we want to, but not having an operating story is not an option, it is just part of being human. I believe that one of the things we are hearing in this parable is that God understands this about us, that God can work with us, and our stories. We start wherever we are, and God starts there with us.
Sometimes we might be led to imagine that God is separate from us and our contexts. And in a way, God must be, for God cannot be limited by *our* stories about ourselves and the world. But that doesn’t mean that God disdains our stories, that God refrains from entering into our stories. The incarnation itself is the ultimate example of how deeply God is willing to enter into our stories and our contexts. God is not afraid of our incompleteness. God does not condescend to simply tolerate the ways in which we all endeavor to create meaning, God instead uses them, without a moment’s hesitation. For, “God so loved the world…” says John 3:16 and God indeed, still loves it, both for what it is now and for what it could be.
And so, we get Jesus’ advice to us at the end of the parable. He tells us to “use worldly wealth”, or as the King James Version says: “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness.” And perhaps we might want to pretend that we are above all of that. Well, its a bit too late for all of us really. Money, and its value, is a predominant human story, one of many, but one of the most prevalent and powerful. Maybe we personally have a different main story, for we all are shaped by our different experiences. But what Jesus is telling us is to make friends with our story, whatever it is, and to use it as far as it can do some good.
For example: There are some times that I am find myself striving to get my children to their various activities on time, not only because of my love for them but because I want to appear as if I have it all together. It’s not great that I’m motivated by appearance but still, on time is better than late. Or many times that having guests in my home will prompt a grand cleaning up that might otherwise never have happened, because I care about seeming like a moderately competent housekeeper. Better the stress of frantically tidying up first, so to later provide a space where my guests and I feel relaxed and can actually enjoy each other. Our less than heavenly concerns can help us conform to the basic civility that keeps us all in relationship with each other, that keeps the world moving.
Another way to illustrate the idea of making friends with our story comes from the Buddhist faith. The story goes that one day, the Buddha is meditating under a tree, and the demon Mara approaches, hoping to distract Buddha from his enlightenment, to lure Buddha into battle with him. But the Buddha sees Mara coming, and simply says “I see you, Mara.” And rather than taking a defensive stance, the Buddha invites Mara to sit down and have some tea.
I believe this is what we are being invited into with this parable. We cannot separate ourselves from our context, from the effect of our experiences on the formation of our identity, from telling ourselves a story about “the way things are.” But we can learn how to see these influences and these stories for what they are. We can say, “I see you, Mara,” and not be drawn into battle that distracts us from sitting under the tree, that distracts us from enlightenment.
And thus we heard in our Swedenborg reading about the mercy of “intermediate good.” Our spiritual journeys cannot be instantaneous; they must be incremental and sustainable if we are to truly transform our earthly natures. God works with and within this reality, which means that sometimes our intentions are mixed. This is okay. God invites us to make friends with what-is, instead of denying what-is, so that then we might truly see the stories we are telling ourselves with clarity.
But we also receive a warning. We are told to remember that we cannot serve two masters, prompting us to consider who we really want to serve overall. We need to be super clear: The Buddha may have been serving Mara tea, but that does not mean he was serving Mara’s agenda. We should make friends with our stories, and with the dominant stories of the world we live in, because they have real effects upon us, but we don’t want to end up serving those narratives instead of God. There is a necessary tension here. For example, I might want my children to buy into the cultural norms of appearance enough so that they look presentable, but not so much that they learn to hate their bodies. Or, I might want them to value success enough to create a fulfilling forward motion in their careers, but not at the expense of their mental health.
We all need to exist both inside and outside of our stories. This is what we are taught in the cross: God entered into our story, all of our stories, not only in an act of radical solidarity with our experience, but as an act of revelation, to wake us up to our dominant narratives. And with the crucifixion, we saw humanity choosing to serve our own stories instead of serving God and God’s story for us, leading to the ultimate in human over-reach: the death of the incarnate God. Conversely, serving God means seeing Mara, being unafraid, calm, and clear in Mara’s presence, and then subverting Mara’s expectations and agenda. We are to make friends with unrighteous mammon, with the worldly ideas by which the world is run, but we are not to serve them. And this is really really hard to do, which is one of the reasons I know that I prefer the simple, perfect bible characters. That black-and-white world seems much easier…even as it asks for perfection, that seems less to ask than dealing with balancing the world of grey.
Another way of expressing this whole idea is that we shouldn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Now, it is only by the most generous of assessments that we can call what the steward did “good” but to the folks who benefitted from his debt abatement, objectively it was. He could have done something much worse. What I believe that we are hearing in this parable, is that God doesn’t make the possible the enemy of the actual. God does not love who we are becoming more than who we are.
God sees us. Seeing us in terms of who we are right now does not inherently compromise God, or condone us and whatever we might be doing. Nor does it mean that God cannot be against evil either. But it does mean that God can uncynically, unreservedly, root for the antagonist, because those categories of protagonist and antagonist, of good guy and bad guy, are not God’s story, they are ours. God is always for all of us.
(1) The New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, p256.
1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ 3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ 5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 “ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ 7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’ 8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. 10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? 13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Secrets of Heaven 4063:3
So that a person may be led from the state of the old person into that of the new, worldly passions have to be cast aside and heavenly affections assumed. This is effected by countless means known to the Lord alone, many of which the Lord has made known to angels but few if any to humanity…When therefore a person is converted from an old person into a new one, that is, when they are regenerated, it does not take place in an instant as some people believe, but over many years. Indeed the process is taking place throughout the person's whole life right to its end. For their [selfish] passions have to be rooted out and heavenly affections implanted, and they have to have a life conferred on them which they did not possess previously, and of which in fact they scarcely had any knowledge previously. Since therefore their states of life have to be changed so drastically they are inevitably maintained for a long time in an intermediate kind of good which partakes both of worldly affections and of heavenly ones. And unless they are maintained in that intermediate good, they in no way allow heavenly goods and truths into themselves.