No One Can Serve Two Masters
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 4; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
September 22, 2019 –Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Everyone has a God. For some it is money. For some it is power. For some it is fame. And for some…it is living deeply in the truth…with faith that there is a Power in the Universe that is greater than anything we can now understand… but calls us to its bosom.
Who is your God? Money? Power? Fame? They are all passing. But the God of truth calls you to its bosom. Who is your God?
We have been reading about nations who fell – Israel and Judah – 700 and 600 years before the birth of Christ. We have read that they lost their loyalty to the one true God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In the Bible we are reading the history of a people up through the time of Christ. It is being written in retrospect. They are looking back at what happened and trying to figure out why.
But we are also reading a very rare and special history. Hitler was once asked what history would say about what he was doing. He said, “If you win, you need not have to explain...If you lose, you should not be there to explain!”
After World War II, Churchill was asked if he thought history would be kind to him. He said he thought it would because “I intend to write it.”
The Bible is one of the few histories we have that was written by a nation that had been vanquished. That is why it burns with the question of consequences and missed chances.
That is why we read so much about the need to be fair to those who are less well off than ourselves. That is why the questions of ‘why’ and ‘what should we have done instead’ are asked again and again.
Jeremiah is telling his neighbors – in real time – what the consequences of their actions are going to be… and he will pay heavily for his candor…for the loyalty he shows to God…in pronouncing these oracles we are reading…to the king.
There were others who claimed to be prophets in Jeremiah’s day who prophesied differently than he did…but we don’t read their prophesies… because they were wrong.
And the history we are reading says that there were many who were trying to get the king to take other courses of action…they worked so hard to suppress Jeremiah’s advice to the king…because no one of property wanted to believe it…it would hurt. It would leave a mark.
They had Jeremiah beaten and put in the stocks at the Upper Gate of Benjamin at the Lord’s temple. He would not be silent. They had him thrown into a cistern. He would not be silent.
The king had him rescued and then asked him to give him some advice and Jeremiah said “If my enemies find out I have been giving you advice, they will kill me…so don’t ask.”
The king says, “Tell them, ‘I was pleading with the king not to send me back to Jonathan’s house to die there.’” This is because people want to believe what they want to believe more than they want to hear what they need to hear.
So Jesus will lament when he turns toward Jerusalem that it is “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Paul alludes to this indirectly when he writes to Timothy…and to us… today to pray for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
When the king is wise and leads the country well, seeing the hard things that need to be done and doing them, the people prosper. When the king is foolish and there is no peace in the land or anywhere.
But I interject: The worse things get, the better people get. The converse is also true. The better things get, the worse the people get.
Paul persists, “God our Savior wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” And that has been the guiding principle of his life’s work…to be a “true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.”
Paul is showing his protégé, Timothy, the basic truth of what needs to be done if one is to live a good and full life… a life of meaning that produces all kinds of good fruit.
Carry on my work in this way and you will be as happy at the end as I am now, even though I am writing to you as a sufferer for Christ and the end is drawing near.
Make the most important things the first things in your life and it will all turn out well…even if it turns out the way it did for Jeremiah…and Jesus…and Paul.
Oh, but it is so hard to get what we want out of the way so that we can receive what we need to get. But if you can do it, you can see what is to come. Opening this gift requires poise and self-insight…a deep desire to do what is right… and the patience to let the answer come to you.
When I was in the legislature…30 years ago now…the Speaker of the House taught me a lesson. People would come to him with problems that needed to be solved.
They were excited about the problem. The matter was important to them. It was urgent. They were turning to their leader to show them a way to make it all turn out all right…right now.
He would listen to them with very few interruptions. He would ask questions to clarify the situation. Then he would pull out his book and ask, “When does this need to be done?”
They would tell him and he would turn to that date in his book and write it down. Then he did nothing until shortly before that day arrived.
In fact most of the time…ninety per cent of the time…he ended up doing nothing at all…because the problem had taken care of itself by then.
If we will sit with most of our problems and think them through they become smaller…more manageable…easier…maybe even funny.
It’s like one of my friends told me once: Worrying must really work because ninety percent of the stuff I worry about never happens.
But there are times, too, when you do have to act…but taking all the time you can and getting all the good advice you can…considering the situation calmly…is still the best you can do.
When we get good advice, we know we have identified all the choices we have…and people have helped us foresee the probable consequences of each choice. Then we have as good a chance as we can hope for to get the best result.
The prophets all did this…Moses… Samuel…Elijah…Isaiah…Jeremiah …Jesus…Paul. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the truth about missiles 90 miles from Miami made everyone anxious.
There were those who wanted a preemptive strike on the sites, but President Kennedy had heard that kind of advice before…during the Bay of Pigs planned invasion of Cuba…and he was wary of it.
So a quarantine was imposed on Cuba and Soviet ships were turned away. The Russians objected formally in two different messages. The first was low-key and formal… and the second was militant and provocative.
What to do? What to do? Finally, they decided to answer the first message and ignore the second. It worked. It gave everyone time to think through the consequences …just like the Speaker’s book had done in the legislature…and there was time for everyone to do the right thing…usually they do.
Sometimes we cannot know what the best thing is or how it will all turn out. The mystery of the parable of the dishonest manager is a good example of that kind of dilemma.
The Gospel reading that we encounter today is one that has perplexed theologians for a long, long time. The owner hears reports that his manager is wasting his property. He demands an accounting from the manager and tells him he is done.
“What shall I do? What shall I do?” he wonders. He can’t do physical labor and he is too proud to beg. He decides to bring the people he has been trading with in and write down their accounts…further compounding his wrongdoing…his faithlessness to the master.
But the master, when he hears about it, commends him. Why? Because the people with whom he has cheated the master will support him with a portion of the loot they have received because of his dishonesty? Really? Jesus, is that you saying that?
I like what a church in Ohio did recently when their brand new, just installed air conditioner was stolen. They hadn’t even made the first payment on the $3500 unit.
They put a message on their sign board. It read: “Whoever stole our AC Unit: Keep it. It’s hot where you’re headed.”
But that is not what Jesus is saying, and I think he is even looking past the underlying dishonesty to ask us. “What is important here?”
This appears in Luke’s gospel right after Jesus, having been criticized for associating with sinners and tax collectors has told the Pharisees that their priorities are all wrong. He tells the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin, which we read last week…and the story of the Prodigal Son…which we didn’t read.
This is a continuation of that discourse on priorities…in response to the criticism of the Pharisees. He isn’t saying that it is all right to steal from your employer. He is talking here about what is more important to us: ‘our’ money or ‘those’ people?
And he is saying that even the master who has been cheated can see the merit in what his manager has done. Here is the way Jesus sums it up: “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
So to close the circle here, Jesus is saying the same thing that Jeremiah is saying: Be faithful to God not to the powers of this world. Use your worldly wealth to make the world a better place. Use your prestige to lift up the downtrodden, not to make yourself more comfortable.
So…in this parable…I think…the Pharisees are those who are tattling to the Master. They are accusing Jesus of wasting the gifts God has given to him by hanging out with sinners and tax collectors. A holy man is not to do such things.
But Jesus knows the Master better than they do, and he knows that he is taking from the rich and giving to the poor…like Robin Hood…but that is what he was sent to do.
And when it is all said and done, he will be sitting at the right hand of God, while they are sitting in a very hot place with their brand new air conditioner.
Who are you going to serve? The Pharisees who lived and profited from a society in which their people were being oppressed by the Romans…and the Pharisees? Or are you going to serve the people who need help and teaching and a new way of looking into themselves?
Who is our God?Who are we called to serve? Are we going to serve God and out neighbors…as the Torah commands us?
Or are we going to devote ourselves to the pursuit of personal wealth and personal gain?
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us…through me…this day? Amen.