The Surviving Apprentice

First Presbyterian of Lafayette, LA
September 19, 2010 - Ordinary 25C
Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1 1
Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Reality TV is an oxymoron that has, unfortunately, been around too long to dismiss. Obviously there are a lot of people who like the idea of television shows that offer real people in unreal situations, and I will admit that we are far too interested in shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos and The Biggest Loser at the Sasser house. The Apprentice is a show I have never found interest in, but I think Jesus would have liked it. At least it would seem so, based on today’s gospel lesson.

For the audience of the day, the parable of the dishonest manager was as reality driven as a story could get. It’s full of sin, greed, and human failing, wrapped up in a resilience that wins the day. Perhaps it’s the title that kept it from getting the ratings that, say, “The Good Samaritan,” has gotten. People want to be “good.” People do prefer to survive, and who wouldn’t want to be the apprentice to the most powerful person in the land? So, let’s revisit and recast this parable. Let’s call it, “The Surviving Apprentice.”

Picture the scene in 1st century Palestine. A powerful land owner who everyone refers to as “The Master” is touring the city, showing a group of promising young tycoons his beautiful mansion, his fleet of camels, and his storehouses of goods. Each is entrusted to certain amounts of resources with specific tasks, and one by one they are brought into the dreaded and powerful tent of meeting, where they are evaluated and eliminated with the dreaded words, “You can no longer work for me.” That might be another reason why this parable wasn’t so popular. Maybe the Master needs a cleaner tag line when dismissing employees.

Anyway, one of the contestants sees the writing on the wall. You can tell by the look on his face as the camera pans the tent. Now the camera switches to a “candid” shot of this shrewd “fellah” thinking about his options. “Hmm...I know I can’t do manual labor. I bruise like a peach, and my skin is way too fair for direct mid day sun. I know! Since I’m getting fired anyway, I might as well do some networking while I’ve got the chance.” So he calls in all the indebted under his charge and has them rewrite their own bills for authenticity.

Next comes the moment of truth in the tent of meeting. The Surviving Apprentice’s robes hide the sweat pouring from his body, though his composure is cool and collected. The Master reviews the records with a scowl. The Surviving Apprentice holds his breath, awaiting that vicious hand gesture that strikes the conscience like a snake. The Master knows he’s been had. He also knows that to show a lack of control over his willful employee bespeaks of his own weakness. For him to acknowledge the unclaimed debt would bring dishonor as the word of the Manager is the promise of the Master, and the promise of the Master is his very identity in the community(1). The Master looks around, and bursts into laughter. His associates and advisers look at each other in dismay and join in a confused, uncomfortable chuckle.

This is an entertaining story, to be sure. Those of us who always root for the underdog love this sort of thing. But in light of faith in Christ, it’s still a bit troubling. Is this a reversal of the beatitudes, claiming “Blessed are the clever(2)?” Is this some kind of hidden justification or manifesto for corporate greed? Is it a trick question? Perhaps Jesus is trying to see who’s paying attention.

As he often does, Jesus provides some explanation at the end. In vv. 8-9 Jesus says that the “Children of This Age” are more shrewd in dealing with each other than the “Children of Light.” Perhaps this is a throw back to the Deuteronomical code (Deut. 23:19-20) that forbids charging interests to fellow Israelites, though not to foreigners. Of course he never says who the “Children of Light” are, and even more perplexing is the idea that we should garner favors from the “Children of this Age” now, so that they may welcome us into eternal homes later.

In one commentary on the subject, Robert Tannehill suggests that, in light of the whole of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is indicating that all money is in some way tainted. Because of this, those who do not have the leverage of wealth in the decisions they make are the ones whom we should garner favor from, so that we will receive their blessing when we come to life eternal. In this strange twist of fate, the poor have become mediators of God’s grace, and those of us with wealth have become in need of their care(3). Perhaps Tannehill is reaching a bit here, but vv. 10-13 do seem to back him up. First Jesus says, “If it is your custom to be faithful in a little, you’ll also be faithful in much. But if you are dishonest when entrusted to little, you will be dishonest with even more.” That sounds a bit dogmatic, but it does make sense. What follows, however, is the plot twist I referred to earlier, “If I can’t trust you with the dishonest wealth of daily commerce, how can I trust you with heavenly riches?” And now the slam dunk. “You can’t serve God and Money!”

Through this and other texts related to wealth, Luke seems to be calling us to be ascetics who combine their property and live on mutual resources, eliminating class structures and personal debt. That’s really not an option for most of us. Or at least not one we will readily and willfully consider. Perhaps if we look at this from another angle it might help.

First, put yourself in the place of the Manager. There is a crisis; his superior has called him into accountability. Say what you will about his dishonesty, but he definitely knew what time it was(4). Knowing that he could not bring in all that was expected, he did two things. He brought in what he could, and he did it in a way that endeared him to the indebted rather than alienating them. He knew what time it was, and he acted decisively. Now imagine yourself as the indebted one. Imagine the sure knowledge of being forgiven you might feel when you wrote the new amount, one that you can pay, with your own hand. I wonder if any of you have ever felt this way? If you have, would it not be incumbent upon you to welcome the distributor of grace with open arms and to respond to this grace in all that follows?

There’s a woman who lives in Reynosa, Mexico named Melva. During the first international mission trip I led, my youth group worked on her house. It was a shack, really...with a dirt floor. She had eight children with another on the way. Her husband kept her pregnant to keep her in line, and he did not mind telling us that. We tore down a section of their house and dug trenches for cement footings. We left wondering if any good would ever come to her. We worried that she would die giving birth, or even worse, while trying to get to the hospital. We left the remainder of our trip funds with Puentos de Cristo, our mission partner, to use for her care.

Two years later we returned. Melva was unrecognizable, and it wasn’t just because of her haircut! Puentos de Cristo had given her prenatal and natal care that ensured a healthy delivery. During her recovery, they also provided her with the opportunity to have a tubal ligation. When her husband found out about it he left her, and she got a job in a community center associated with Puentos de Cristo teaching life skills to young girls. Other groups had come during the two years between our visits and had built real walls with a cement floor. Melva insisted that we come to her home, and she served us a cake that had to have cost her a week’s salary. On a wall one of the children had written, “My Home.” She said it was our home, too. From then on, throughout eternity, that group will always have a home in Reynosa.

Afterward, we were welcomed into another home in the same neighborhood. Not by someone requesting help, but just by a friend of Melva who wanted us to see her home and how she lived. She wanted us to pray with her. She wanted to welcome us into her world, even if but for a minute or two. We were welcomed into eternal homes! In retrospect, all I can think is, “My Lord and my God what beautiful gates your heaven presents us with hear in these heavenly homes! And how amazing it is that you welcome us into them through such humble means.”

In our abundance we are as needy as any. In our desire to secure our status, we must not neglect the security of faith. You see, this really isn’t a parable about money. It’s a story about the crisis that the “alternative lifestyle” of being a Christian brings into our lives, and it asks us, “Where do you place your trust?” and “How do your life, your resources, and your actions demonstrate that trust?” As managers of the gifts we’ve been given, including talents and other resources, our faith calls us to live in constant crisis. Every day is a new call to accountability, and a new chance to be both mediators and recipients of God’s grace.

That is a portion of how and why I have felt called to come here. In my conversations with the PNC we talked about management and leadership styles. I made it very clear to them that I believe in a priesthood of believers where ordained officers are not “Lords” and “Masters.” I believe we have been called into ministry together as partners, each having gifts to offer to the ministry we share. Because of those gifts, some of us are called to particular tasks. At the same time, all of us have a pretty clear calling. God wants us to acknowledge the reality of being forgiven. That’s what this parable is about.

Jesus is not telling us to lie or steel. He is reminding us that we do not come by grace honestly. It is, in fact, our failures that encourage us in our treatment of others(5). God expects us to respond to the forgiveness we have received by forgiving others and being an example of the new reality of Christ. And even though we may be drenched with sweat at the thought of being called into accountability, God will grant us the peace of knowing that we will be received into heavenly homes in this life, and in the life to come.

We are not waiting for a final, cosmic crisis to give us one last chance to decide. The crisis has come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As for me, I can’t fire you. I can’t give you a raise. I can’t give you a failing grade, and I can’t kick you off of my team. All I can do is invite you into a life of joyful service in response to God’s grace. It’s a good and joyful life, and I praise God for the chance to enter into it with you today and re-enter it every day. May it be so with me. May it be so with you. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.

1. Tannehill, Robert C. (1996) Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke. Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. pp. 245-249
2. Walton, Jon M.(1999) Teaching Sermons on Troubling Texts: Imperfect Peace. Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. pp.103-112.
3. Tannehill, Robert C. (1996) Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke. Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. pp. 245-249
4. Walton, Jon M.(1999) Teaching Sermons on Troubling Texts: Imperfect Peace. Abingdon Press. Nashville, TN. pp.103-112.
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