I’d like to introduce our guest writer for the month of September, The Rev. Dr. Sam Persons Parkes. I first met Dr. Parkes a year ago at the Academy of Homiletics. I was immediately impressed by his energy, creativity, and commitment to helping other preachers become better at their craft. As we have come to know one another better and to collaborate on projects, Sam has become a critical conversation partner, colleague in ministry, and good friend. As a local church pastor and an academically-trained homiletician, Sam is uniquely able to teach and write both as a pastor and for pastors. Sam has recently joined the Preaching Consultation Team that is working with me to develop a national strategic plan for improving preaching in The United Methodist Church. I know you will enjoy Sam’s unique teaching style and creative insights into the lectionary passages, especially the Old Testament readings, for September as he presents his series, “Preaching with the Season of Creation 2016.” – Dawn Chesser
Sam Persons Parkes is the pastor of Cloverdale UMC in Dothan, Alabama. Sam earned his M.Div. from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University and the Th.D. in homiletics from the University of Toronto and the Toronto School of Theology. He has been a contributor to the Abingdon Preaching Annual and to the recent Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary. Sam is serving in his 25th year under episcopal appointment in the United Methodist Church and is a clergy member of the Alabama-West Florida annual conference. He likes to spend his time cooking good food and then attempting to run it off. He is the father of two exceptional children who keep his academic fancies grounded in the concrete world.
-Rev Dr. Dawn Chesser
WEEK 3: Jesus cleverly creates fresh options from dead ends.
Introduction, Part A: Choose ye this day which verses you will preach.
No question about it, Jesus gives us a doozie this week. This parable reminds me of the morning glory vine that I have growing on my back fence. No matter how much I dig, chop, and spray that thing, it keeps coming back. It refuses to be erased from my yard! And for a while, if I am lazy at just the right time, it will treat me to a gorgeous yield of purple. An unlikely beauty from such a noxious vine.
I’ve wrestled with it every third year and ignored it in between times. Something in me would like to get out the scissors! But there is a gorgeous yield here waiting for us if we will make some interpretive decisions. The lectionary offers us 13 verses. For my own sermon on this passage, I think the first decision to be made is how much of this material to focus on in the sermon. From my reading, there are two main choices:
(1) Focus on the parable alone, perhaps from verse 1 through 8a, which is where the parable apparently ends; or one could stretch it all the way through verse 8. But clearly verse 9 is commentary as Jesus says, “And I tell you …”
2) Verses 10-13, while they do have some clear connection to concepts in the parable, appear to be a collection of teachings on wealth and riches – mammon. These would offer a good opportunity for a sermon rooted in stewardship themes, if you choose. But there’s not much grace in them. I don’t know about you, but if my people leave worship with more burden than when they came in, I’m not sure I’ve really done my job. I’m not saying that I like dispensing cheap grace, but how can my sermon help them experience a God who can empower them to act ethically toward God with their mammon? It will be hard for a single sermon to adequately stretch over all 13 verses.
For my purposes, I am choosing to stay with the parable through verse 9. Lord knows, there’s trouble enough for one sermon in these 9, though I might “reach out and touch” the other verses a bit before we get to the end. I find an unlikely source of grace and empowerment in the person of the dishonest manager. So that’s where I’m putting my homiletical money – on a Morning Glory Hero.
Introduction, Part B: So, what IS a parable anyway?
This sermon may be an opportunity to invite your folks to see parables as a genre different from allegories. For instance, when we read the parable of the sower in Mark 4, we can see Jesus interpret the story allegorically – everything in the story has a one-to-one correspondence with a person or type. A true parable, however, lacks this sort of one-to-one correspondence. It is precisely this break in correspondence that renders the parable powerful enough to rupture our little brains that love to label and classify everything and stick meaning into easily accessible pigeonholes. In the parable of the unjust servant, who is God? Who is Jesus? Who are we? None of these characters pigeonholes easily.
One might view this as a frustration. Or we might accept this slippery sense of meaning-making inherent in parables as a gift and allow it to yield its gorgeous purple. Set your folks free to be a little playful with the Word of God. If Jesus did it, then, uh, don’t we have permission?
As we were studying this parable together, my friend, Joseph Johnson, reminded me how the great New Testament scholar, C.H. Dodd defined the genre:
"At its simplest a parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought."
(C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961, p. 5.)
In short, keep parables weird!
Trouble in the Text: The system of owners, managers, and debtors seems unchangeable.
The parable opens on a crisis between two characters. The story is simple enough. A wealthy (gk., plusios) man fires his middle manager on charges for squandering (lit., “scattering”) his possessions. Luke uses the word for “rich” 11 times in his gospel and never in a positive light. The rich deserve woe (6:24), want to build bigger barns to hoard (12:16), ignore the needs of the poor (16:19ff), and find it hard to let go of their wealth (18:23). So, Luke surely intends this wealthy man to be viewed in a villainous light.
And yet, the steward appears little better! How can this manager possibly be a source of grace? We don’t know what “squandering” looks like here, but in the parable immediately prior to this one, the Prodigal Son, we see the son squander money “in dissolute living.” So we can imagine. However, he is only dishonest by accusation. Someone has brought charges against him. But who? In the ancient Near East, the wealthy did not care if their stewards skimmed some off the top as long as they didn’t disrupt the system, made their collections, and maintained their master’s honor (in a culture where honor was as valuable as wealth). It isn’t until verse 5 that we discover the source of the man’s riches and the likely charges against the steward!
The rich man has debtors, significant debtors. And now we begin to see the whole system at work. The debtors, apparently sharecroppers on the land of the rich man, owe him oil and wheat. This is how the system works. A person with wealth and power lets out the land to workers and charges them for the privilege. People in the middle make the lease happen. The steward becomes the public face of the hidden power that continues to take from them. And while the rich man couldn’t legally charge interest, he could still find ways of exacting surcharges and fees to bolster his bottom line at the expense of the debtors. But the steward’s face is the one that they see and that they would despise. So perhaps they charge the steward, hoping for his removal and that the next guy will be better. Who else would levy the accusation?
At the end of the day, it’s just another heartbreaking human system, right? Another tale of how the “haves” take advantage of the “have-nots” and remain faceless in their power, hiring others to do the dirty work. And the steward knows how this thing works. He knows it’s useless to fight the system. He honestly assesses his future: “I’ve not worked hard to become physically capable to compete in the most menial jobs (digging ditches), so I know I will be resigned to begging.”
Dude might not even be guilty, but he knows the system. His master has been embarrassed and dishonored by even the mention of the steward’s misbehavior. In a culture of honor and shame, it appears that the master cannot control his steward or his household. And that is very bad. The steward knows that he is about to get the boot.
But that is the system. It is what it is.
Trouble in our World: The death-dealing systems of the world seem fixed.
Indeed, it is what it is, right? Our world is full of systems like this. Ecologically, the system seems so intractable! The earth is heating from greenhouse gas expulsion. We can’t seem to shake our fossil fuel addiction. It doesn’t FEEL like we are the bad guys, but I had three Amazon Prime deliveries at my house last week. Every time they came, it felt like a little Christmas! Oh, it IS my sister and my brother and it’s also me, O Lord! Standing in the need of prayer! What can I really do about it, though? It is what it is, right?
In my state right now, Sweet Home Alabama, our governor and our legislature seem bent, bound, and determined to institute a state lottery as the solution to our continual shortfalls in funding Medicaid and education. Meanwhile, the state has some of the lowest tax burdens on its citizens in the United States. And the income tax system that we DO have is regressively stacked against people who earn lower incomes. The issue seems to have died in the legislature for the moment, but it’ll be back again soon. The lottery will fund these programs for our state’s poorest based on a system that will disproportionately affect the very community it seeks to benefit. However, the greatest benefit will go to Alabama’s property owners whose taxes fall far short of sustaining the common good. But what can I do about that? It is what it is, right?
We are so enmeshed in these intractable systems, and they often feel paralyzing. Sometimes, we are the rich folk. Sometimes, we are the debtors caught in a system that gradually unmakes us, even though we never see the faces of those whose privilege consistently takes from us. Sometimes, we are the ones caught in the middle who benefit from the trickle-down economies that we didn’t create but confer some privileges on us as long as we send the goods up the hill to the big house.
Sometimes this happens to us spiritually as well. Those of us in 12-step programs have felt the oppression of our disease, nameless and faceless. Our disease sends out its stewards, though. We may not see the bald face of our disease itself, but we do see the stewards’ names on bottles of bourbon, tubs of ice cream, across the top of pornographic websites, and on the faces of scratch-off lottery tickets. We feel that momentary burst of something that tastes like privilege when the middleman comes calling. But the aftertaste burns like debt, deeper and deeper in debt. That’s the way our interior systems of addiction often work. And our faceless, voiceless oppressor down deep in our souls silently communicates its power: there’s not one damn thing you can do about me.
It is what it is, right?
Grace in the Text: The manager cleverly creates fresh possibility.
Well, this steward makes a choice. He may be sly and deceptive, he may be cunning and clever, but to me he is a hero. A Morning Glory Hero. A kind of antihero. Now, tell the truth! If we were standing in front of the preacher, we might not admit that we know this scandalous scoundrel of a hero. But, friend, you ARE the preacher! (And I know a tear slipped down your cheek when Walter White died at the end of season 5 of Breaking Bad. So don’t tell me that you don’t love an antihero. At least our guy ain’t making meth.)
Our “hero” takes this system, this immovable, predictable system, and breaks bad. But, it winds up breaking good … for everyone involved! He calls the debtors in, one at a time, and slashes their debt. He takes for himself an authority that the system no longer confers upon him. Our hero doesn’t care anymore. What is there to lose? He ingratiates himself with those beneath him in the pecking order by canceling their debts. (The literature is rife with arguments over whether the amount forgiven was the “interest” demanded by the rich man, the commission belonging to the steward, or just an outright theft of the master’s property!1 For me, I have no need to clean this fellow up.) By relieving their debts, the rich man has suddenly shifted from villain to hero himself in the eyes of those accounts receivable! Sure, the rich guy is out some cash. Big deal. You don’t think he will have some other way to rig the system in his favor by next week?
So with his honor renewed and his ability to recognize a system-rigger when he sees one, he turns to the steward and says, “Well done, crafty and shrewd steward.” Is he still fired? It doesn’t seem like it at the end. But even if he is, his clever choices have made him very attractive to the ruling class. How can that be? Won’t everyone KNOW what he has done? No, my friends, the rich guy would never risk appearing like an idiot for letting his steward get the best of him. There’s only so much honor to go around and more than enough shame.
In the same way, this parable’s teller stands in the face of every “rich man,” of every powerful overlord who knows how to rig the system in privileged favor and vows, with cunning and cleverness, to subvert that power. In a religious system that failed to recognize the depth of human need, Jesus, our Morning Glory Hero came healing and often ON THE SABBATH. To the Pharisee, Jesus was a glutton and wine-bibber. To the Sadducee, he opposed the temple. To Judas, he lacked zeal. To Pilate, he was, at best, an inconvenience and, at worst, a rebel. And to Death, he was nothing. On the cross, that instrument, which is the true measure of power in every broken human system, he was merely another dreamy piece of flotsam. At the cross, our Steward was firmly and finally dismissed.
Little did Death dream that Jesus would return, hell’s inhabitants in his wake, with a ledger book in his hand. All the red ink is gone. He has stricken all of our debts to the man. Of all the shrewd stewards, Jesus is the prime example of the type.
Robert Farrar Capon has said it much better than I can:
“This parable, therefore, says in story form what Jesus himself said by his life. He was not respectable. He broke the sabbath. He consorted with crooks. And he died as a criminal. Now at last, in the light of this parable, we see why he refused to be respectable; he did it to catch a world that respectability could only terrify and condemn. He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead. Crux muscipulum diaboli, St. Augustine said: the cross is the devil’s mousetrap, baited with Jesus’ disreputable death ….
“You don’t like that? You think it lowers standards and threatens good order? You bet it does! And if you will cast your mind back, you will recall that is exactly why the forces of righteousness got rid of Jesus. Unfortunately, though, the church has never been able for very long to leave Jesus looking like the attractively crummy character he is: it can hardly resist the temptation to gussy him up into a respectable citizen. Even more unfortunately, it can almost never resist the temptation to gussy itself up into a bunch of supposedly perfect peaches, too good for the riffraff to sink their teeth into. But for all that, Jesus remains the only real peach – too fuzzy on the outside, nowhere near as sweet as we expected on the inside, and with the jawbreaking stone of his death right smack in the middle.”
(Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1988, pp. 150–151.)
Grace in our World: Jesus creates fresh options in deathly systems.
My good friend, Dr. David Saliba, in reflecting on this parable in a recent presentation, almost as an aside, offered wistfully, “I know people, when they think of tithing, think about giving the first ten percent of their money, or perhaps even their time. But I wonder what the church would be like if people were willing to bring the first ten percent of their creativity, their shrewdness, their craft to the church. What an amazing and different place the church would be!”
He’s right, preachers. Too often we act as if we didn’t follow a Savior who was able to subvert several intractable human systems in his life and the ultimate destructive system by his death!
Good ecological news is hard to find in this age of drastic climate change. But are there any stories of hope? They need to be told if we are to engender a sense of hope, of possibility for a good ecological future. Find them and name our Christ into those stories. After all, who else will? Scientists? Nope. And the climate change skeptics? Probably not! If we believe in a God who is at work to flip the environmental script, who loves our creation and is actively working to preserve it, then WE are the ones who have to do that naming. That’s our privilege and responsibility.
Jesus creates fresh options in deathly systems! So preachers, where do you see that? Name God into these systems! We ALL experience these hopeless-feeling systems. We all feel paralyzed in the face of them. The whole point of Christian worship is to have one place in human life where we name a God who is utterly pledged to human flourishing and to the healing of the whole creation! That’s what we do. We name an active God into a world that is seemingly bereft of divine help. But God is there and at work, not always following our rules and regulations, perhaps even violating our sense of good order or even decency. Yes, I know the steward in the parable did it to save his own neck. But remember, this is a parable and not an allegory! We can still see Jesus here in this Morning Glory Hero of a steward who was willing, when his back was up against the wall, to MacGyver another solution.
God is there, even in people who don’t identify as Christian. To those of us in 12-step recovery, Jesus can look like a Muslim sponsor who holds us accountable and works the steps with us, shrewdly tricking our masterful addictions and undermining their systemic power. She might not identify as Christian, but I can still name her as Christ to me. God can be at work in anyone, Christian or not. God can even be at work among the shrewd and calculating, respectable or not.
So often in church, though, we play nice. We do what has always been done. The system practically runs itself … until it doesn’t. Until we find ourselves with our backs against the cultural walls. We think we have been faithful all this time. But there is a world that stopped coming through our doors, people who feel great weights of something like debt to a God they can no longer stomach because the images of God they have seen in many of our churches look more like an uncaring absentee landlord than a God of grace and compassion. And our churches? Too often, we are still playing it safe.
Perhaps it’s time for some Fresh Expressions of church (www.freshexpressionsus.org). Take a look at some of these shrewd examples of embodying something like church in ways that subvert traditional images of church systems. Singing hymns over beers in a bar? Yep. Starting a house church and inviting the neighborhood over for it? Yep. Playing a little fast and loose by risking staid respectability in the hope of finding a world that respectability will not catch? Yep. That’s a Morning Glory Hero style of being church. We trick the powers and principalities that control the cultural game and relieve physical and spiritual burdens of real people. And we might even find our own necks a little less at risk!
The Elements of Sermon Unity (see series introduction in Week 1)
Doctrine: The reign of God! How does this parable understand God’s reign as it compares (parable literally means “to throw beside”) to human systems?
Felt Need in the Sermon: When all the options for change seem to be exhausted, is God still at work in twisted systems?
Dominant Image for the Sermon: Well, I used the Morning Glory Hero, of course. But there are others that present themselves. That look of surprise both on the faces of the debtors and the face of the rich man when he discovers what the steward has done would be a good image to use in the text. Also, the ledger book or a credit card bill with the bottom line slashed in half.
Mission in the Sermon: Bring your shrewd creativity and use it in church!
Other Creation Themes in the Sunday Lections
- Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 – Jeremiah surveys Judah and sees only pain, suffering, and sickness. And this brings the people to question God’s presence. Is there a balm in Gilead? No, only tears. Feeling and identifying God’s presence, much less God’s action, in times of such desolation is very hard. Preacher, is there a word from God in the midst of environmental degradation? When all seems lost, can you help us see God?
- Psalm 79:1-9 – “Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire? Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you …” Gotta love the psalmists! In a lection well paired to the Jeremiah passage, we see Jerusalem at its most desolate, laid waste by what the psalmist identifies as God’s anger. But the psalmist invites God to turn that anger on the other nations! When in the pain of the worst circumstances, how do we handle our own anger without seeking the destruction of others?
- 1 Timothy 2:1-7 – Ha! Try to place THIS one in conversation with the gospel lection! I’m not too sure about creation themes here. Perhaps one could start with the phrase, “there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human.” God’s saving and reconciling work does not come over against our humanity or our participation in the created order; rather, the reconciler is “himself human.” God reconciles through the creation, not in spite of it.
Please also see "A Season of Creation: Killing and Destroying” by Taylor Burton-Edwards
1For an excellent discussion of the many interpretive nuances of this parable, I commend to you David Landry and Ben May, “Honor Restored: New Light on the Parable of the Prudent Steward (Luke 16:1-8a),” Journal of Biblical Literature 119, no. 2 (2000): 287–309.
DOWNLOAD Preaching Notes [.docx]