(Amos 8, 4-7  http://tinyurl.com/25r8ntx; Luke 16, 1-13 http://tinyurl.com/2cfp6p9)


Don’t let anyone ever tell you that the Bible is an easy book to understand. It isn’t! It was written over thousands of years, by people who lived in cultures with very different social systems, legal values and life-styles from us, and  put together almost two millennia ago. If you are going to hear God speaking through it, you have to work very hard to understand what it is saying.

Look at today’s readings. The passage from the prophet Amos, who lived in the 8th Century BC, is a warning to the people of the Northern Kingdom, Israel. This was a time of great prosperity. One of the major powers in the region, Assyria, was distracted by power struggles at home, so the little countries were able to grow rich on trade. This wealth however, benefited only a proportion of the nation, and was maintained at the expense of others, by dishonest trade practices and a corrupt judicial system, taking people into bonded labour for debt, and ignoring the demands of the needs of widows, orphans and aliens. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

Amos demands a return to God’s standards of economic and social justice, and warns the Israelites of the disaster to come if they carry on in their blind confidence in being the Chosen People, while ignoring those standards which were set out in the Sinai covenant.

But if Amos is setting out God’s standards for financial dealings in the Old Testament reading, how come in the Gospel reading we have Jesus telling a parable about a man whose financial dealings were obviously somewhat sleazy, and telling his disciples to take this man as an example to follow? Then we get several sayings, some of which again seem to be hinting we should use ill-gotten gains for good purposes, and other bits saying that we cannot serve both God and money. We need a lot of help to understand this.

The parable known, as the Unjust Steward or The Shrewd Manager, comes in the section of Luke known as a Jerusalem Document or the Travel Narrative (Chs. 9, 51-19.48). Jesus is travelling up to Jerusalem for the last time with his disciples, accompanied by enthusiastic crowds, and critical Pharisees and scribes. Along to the way, Jesus explains to his disciples in particular, and to the crowd as well, what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, and what they need to do to be part of it. Some of this material appears in other Gospels, but some of it, including this parable, occurs only in Luke.

All modern commentators agree that the parable goes back to Jesus, if only because the ‘hero’ is such an offensive example to be asked to follow; but commentators since the first century have remarked just how difficult it is to understand. There are questions about the parable itself. Where does it end? If it ends at verse 7 then the parable is simply about a cunning man who secure his future by cooking the books; but then ‘the master’ in verse 8 must be Jesus.  Why is Jesus praising him? If it ends at the first half of verse 8, then the master who commends him is his employer – but then did the comment about the children of this age being wiser than the sons of light come from Jesus (which is problematic)  or the early church? And did the sayings about the use of wealth and honesty originally belong with the parable or not?

There are questions also about how we understand the story in the parable. Is the master honest and just man, or a partner in crime with his steward? (Since the master in parables is usually taken to represent God, this is a big question). Was he an absentee landlord who was being defrauded by his agent?  Has the steward forced the debtors to sign bigger bills than justified, and does the rewriting of the bills merely represent him foregoing his ‘cut’? Are the payments in olive oil and wheat merely a fiction to cover up interest payments on money, which were forbidden by Jewish law? Was the ‘steward’ a manager of a large estate, or an agent for a moneylender?

These are all questions that people of succeeding generations have asked; but they would not have been asked by the people who first heard the parable. Jesus’ parables depended on using situations which would be instantly recognised by his hearers. They were pithy and effective because he did not have to waste time filling in background details. Their impact came when one of the characters did something unexpected – something which prompted his hearers to think again and revise their assumptions or their prejudices. We have somehow to cross the cultural divide of centuries and attitudes in order to regain that impact for ourselves.

In his book ‘Poet and Peasant’ (Eerdmans. 1983) Kenneth E Bailey uses both ancient eastern literature and contemporary Middle Eastern peasant customs, together with literary analysis, to try to solve the problems of the cultural divide. This is his interpretation of the parable, which makes sense of it for me.

The master is a large landowner, who rented out arable land and olive groves to tenants. He is not an absentee landlord, but concerned about his land, and his tenants, who come to him with their concerns about the manager’s wasteful administration of the estate.

The manager is a paid official, housed on the property. His job is to negotiate the rents at the beginning of the year (for which he was entitled to a fee), keep the accounts, keep an eye on conditions on the estate and renegotiate rents if it was a bad year, then collect in the rent, which was paid in kind, at harvest time. He might have received extra payments ‘under the table’ but these were regarded as normal and not dishonourable. Neither his fee nor his ‘cut’ would have appeared in the bills, which would have been written by the tenant and countersigned by him. The tenants were men of substance, judging by the size of the rents.

The manager was happy to take his salary and fee, but wasn’t doing the work to ensure the estate produced the maximum crops. The estate owner finally decided to sack him, called him in, gave him his notice and demanded he handed over the accounts for his successor. The master was merciful though: he didn’t sue the manager for his loss, put him in jail, beat him or even harangue him.

Unusually, the manager didn’t argue or make excuses or blame others. (Jesus’ audience would be really surprised at this). He knew he had a just and merciful master,whom argument wouldn’t sway, but getting the sack meant he would lose his job, his home and his reputation. He would be doomed as soon as the news got out, so if he was to salvage anything he had to act quickly. He acted as if he was still employed, called the tenants individually, so there was no chance for gossip, and gave them each a reduction in the rent they owed. The tenants assumed he was at last taking his job seriously and was reducing the rents because of bad conditions, with the master’s agreement.

When they left him, the news would have gone round the village like wildfire, and there would have been great celebrations. Both the steward and his master would have been praised for their fairness and generosity. If the sacking stood, the manager would be in a good position to get a job in another household.

Then comes the twist in the tail. When the owner of the estate got the accounts, he knew what the manager had done. He could have told everyone that the manager had been sacked, no longer acted on his authority, and the rents would stay the same; but then the villagers’ joy would have turned to anger against him. But he was a merciful man, so he decided to let it stand, and commended the manager for acting swiftly and with wisdom to ensure a future for himself. Again, this course of action would have astounded Jesus’ original audience. What sort of master was it who was prepared to take the cost of his employee’s unrighteousness on himself?

The manager faced a crisis, relied on the mercy of the landowner, and won a future for himself. If the unrighteous know their need of mercy, says Jesus at the end of the parable, and act decisively to ensure their position on earth, how much more should the ‘children of light’ know their need to act swiftly and throw themselves on God’s mercy to ensure a place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus’ original audience would have understood all this. But later generations, including Luke’s readers, would not. To them it would have looked as if Jesus was recommending a person who failed to do his duty and cheated his master as an example for Christians to follow. So Luke appended verses 9  to 13, (which Bailey is sure was originally a memorable poem, composed in Aramaic by Jesus, about the use of worldly wealth, and trust and the need to put service to God before any worldly concerns), just to reduce that impression.

But as we have seen, the parable is not about the use of money at all. It is about God, and his mercy, and his willingness to pay the cost of sin. It is about sinners, who more than the righteous, recognise their need for God’s mercy and trust in it, and are justified. It is a warning for the ‘children of light’ (the Pharisees then and the members of the Christian community afterwards) that they too must recognise that the Kingdom of Heaven is here now, and make decisions and take action to manage this crisis in a way that ensures their future within it.

Sometimes, the New Testament is no easier to understand than the Old. Just as God called shady characters to lead his people (men like Jacob, the trickster; Moses, the murderer; and David, the adulterer), so Jesus uses unsavoury characters, like the man who bought a field and pocketed someone else’s treasure, the judge who wouldn’t listen to the poor widow, and the shrewd manager, as the lead characters in his parables to teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven. When we understand the background, that becomes plain. The parable of the Shrewd Manager follows that of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel. In both, someone wastes the resources that are given to him, but throws himself on the mercy of his father/master, and is restored.

That’s what God is like, says Jesus, and that’s what you should be like. That’s how you manage any crisis in the Kingdom. Go, and do likewise.

Lost and Found

September 12, 2010

Proper 19 Year C (1 Timothy 1, 12-17; Luke 15, 1-10)

When the M25 was first completed, there were several stories of people getting lost on it. One man, 84 year old grandfather William Allen drove himself to exhaustion, having circled the motorway for two days, looking for the right exit for his daughter’s home; and George Tilbury, aged 49, also spent two days driving round on his motorbike until he was rescued by traffic police. The AA said such incidents were far from unusual, and they ware regularly called out by people who keep driving till they run out of petrol! And they believe there are others who get lost but are too embarrassed to call for help.

The problem is that we grown ups are not supposed to get lost! We are supposed to be able to read maps, plan our routes, follow directions or set the sat nav, and end up where we set out to go. If we do get lost, we feel as frightened as a lost child, but twice as silly!

Can you, I wonder, think of a time when you were lost and remember what it felt like. I can. Once, when my children were small, I took one of them away with me on a parish youth group weekend to a big house in Sussex. We arrived by coach in the dark. On Saturday, when we had some free time, I borrowed a car from one of the other leaders and went off to visit some relatives who lived nearby in Bexhill. I found my way easily via a couple of lanes and a main road, as I had been to the house before and the town was well sign-posted. It was on the way back that I ran into problems. I took the wrong turn off the main road, and went down a lane that turned out to be a dead end, so I had to back out. I retraced my route, but when I drove through Battle for the third time, I knew I was hopelessly lost. It was before the days of mobile phones, I had no local map in the car, it was getting dark, and all the shops where I could have asked for directions were now closed. My small son in the back of the car was beginning to panic, and so was I!

Then I looked in my handbag, and among the clutter was the letter we had sent out to the parents, with the phone number of the house on it. I found some money in my purse and a phone box which worked, rang the warden of the house, got directions, and within 20 minutes I was driving through the grounds towards light, shelter, food and friends.

I was lucky. When I was lost, there was someone I could contact who could put me on the right path, and with that help, I could find my way again. But we can all think of others who get lost in circumstances where they can’t contact anyone: people who lose their way on mountains or in rain forests, or at sea, out of the reach of mobile phone networks. They just have to sit tight, hoping someone will realise they are missing and send out the search parties. There is very little then can do to help the searchers find them.

Our readings today are both talking about being lost – not in the physical sense but spiritually. They are talking about people who cannot find satisfaction in their lives, people who can’t find internal peace; people who don’t know how to behave or what to believe; people who don’t know God. Anyone who has been in that condition will tell you it can leave you feeling just as empty, just as angry, just as panic-stricken as you would feel if you were alone in the middle of a desert or an ocean.

The reading from the first letter to Timothy recalls how Paul was once lost in his own conviction that Jesus was dangerous and blasphemous, lost in his own self-righteousness. It sums up his position as ‘ignorant in unbelief’. In that conviction he held that his pious purpose (the eradication of unbelief) justified any violent means.

Nowadays, we are only too well aware what damage that sort of belief can cause.

Yet, God responded to Paul’s persecution of his Messiah with mercy, grace, faith, love and patience. God sought him out on the Damascus road, showed him through personal experience that the heart of the gospel was forgiveness and salvation for sinners, and changed his life. From an extreme persecutor he changed into the most ardent missionary. The response to this insight is a shout of praise: “To the eternal King, immortal and invisible, the only God – to him be glory and praise for ever and ever”. (v 17)

Rejoicing over the finding of what is lost is also at the heart of the two parables in today’s gospel reading – the lost sheep and the lost coin. Unlike Paul, and the prodigal son in the parable which follows, neither the sheep nor the coin could be held responsible for being lost. Neither of them contributes anything to their recovery. The parable is telling us that salvation is absolutely unconditional – we don’t even have to turn towards God and ask for help.

Yet the parables record just how much effort is expended in recovering what is lost: the shepherd searches tirelessly, then carries the heavy, smelly sheep on his shoulders to get it home. The woman lights a lamp, using up expensive oil during daylight hours, and sweeps the entire house until the one small coin is found. And when they succeed, both shepherd and housewife share their joy with their neighbours and friends.

These stories are told by Jesus to the Pharisees, the righteous religious people of his time. Who are the righteous religious people of our time? Do we still hear the parables with the same force as they did?

We don’t share the cultural background against which the stories were told. We don’t think of shepherds as dirty and dishonest. We tend to think of sheep as cuddly and part of an attractive rural scene. We don’t think women are inferior and of no importance. So, a little background may help us feel the impact a bit more.

Jesus begins the first parable, “Which of you having a hundred sheep and loses one of them……”. Now, no Pharisee would have looked after sheep. It was designated an unclean occupation in the writings of the rabbis, because a shepherd came into contact with blood and excrement. Village shepherds were regarded as dishonest, because they grazed their sheep on other people’s land.  Although some of the greatest heroes of the Jewish faith, like Moses and David, had been shepherds, and in the psalms and Ezekiel and Zechariah, God is spoken of as a shepherd, by the first century a religious person would have regarded it as an insult to be asked to imagine himself as a shepherd; and equally, as a woman. Both shepherds and women would have automatically come into that category of ‘the unrighteous’ whom Jesus was criticised for welcoming into  his house and eating with.

In the ancient Middle East inviting a person to dine with you was a great honour. It was an offer of peace, trust, fellowship and forgiveness. This was why Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners so offended those who considered themselves righteousness. It was giving honour to those who didn’t deserve it – and bringing dishonour on the person who offered it. But  in Jesus’ view, his meals with sinners were an expression of the love of God, and of the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven, when even sinners, the ‘lost sheep’ of the house of Israel were restored to the fold.

The parables reflect this inclusiveness. There is a parable about a man, and the public world of work, followed immediately by a parable about a woman, and the private, domestic world she inhabited.

The parables also emphasise that the rejoicing over the recovery of what was lost is a community event. The shepherd would not have owned all the hundred sheep (if he was rich enough to do so, he would have hired another shepherd to look after them). Some of them would have belonged to his family and neighbours, and he would have had other shepherds to share the care of them. If he lost one of them, it was a community loss, for the sheep represented its wealth and its food supply. Its loss would brand him an unreliable shepherd.

Most evenings, the flock would be taken back into the village. So when he went off to search for the lost sheep, others would have taken the 99 back, and waited anxiously for news, both of the sheep and of the shepherd. The shepherd rejoiced when he found the sheep, and, in spite of all the effort needed, rejoiced again at the restoration of the one to complete the flock; and the rejoicing was shared by the whole community for both their friend and their property had come safely home.

The coin was probably worn by the woman on a necklace. To lose one was to mar the effect of the complete necklace. Again, one out of ten represented a large part of her household’s wealth. It was not a cash economy; most trade was carried out by barter, but you needed coins for some things and especially to pay taxes. The coin was known in Aramaic as a ‘zuz’; it was small and uneven in shape. It was so easy to lose that the plural ‘zuzim’ came to mean something or someone that had moved away or departed. In a windowless house, with a dirt floor or a stone floor covered by rushes, it would be difficult to find; but until it was, normal social interaction could not continue, since anyone who came into the house could be suspected of stealing it. Hence the use of valuable oil and physical effort to find it. Hence the rejoicing among the women when it was found.

With both sheep and coin, finding them restored something – the flock and the necklace – to wholeness. When this happened the whole community rejoiced.

I have read (Poet and Peasant by Kenneth E Bailey. Eerdmans. 1983) that in the original Aramaic of these parables there is a word play. The words for ‘one’ and ‘rejoice’ sound very similar, emphasising again that the loss of just one is a tragedy, and its finding an occasion for rejoicing. We may not be able to hear that in English, but we can appreciate the repetition of lost and found, and the climaxes of rejoicing in these two poetic parables.

The point of these parables is the wholeness of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is not complete if even one soul is missing, however undeserving. Every sheep back in the flock, every coin back on the necklace are signs of the kingdom. Through these stories, Jesus is providing us with a new map of the route to the kingdom, a map with which no-one can get lost.

He is not saying it is easy. He emphasises the cost and the effort that will be needed to achieve it. And he is challenging us, as he challenged the Pharisees to whom the parables were originally told: how much effort are we prepared to find the lost; and are we a community which rejoices together when the lost sheep and the lost coins of our community are found and restored to their place in the whole?

Lost Sheep Video http://tinyurl.com/3xhrket

Carry your Cross.

September 5, 2010

Deuteronomy 30, 15-20; Luke 14, 25-33.

In today’s readings we get two different pictures of the religious life.

In Deuteronomy we get what might be called the ‘prosperity gospel’ – which was a theme which ran through many of the books of the Old Testament and is still preached by some strands of the Christian church today.

This approach says if you do what God wants, keep the rules and perform the right rituals then you will prosper, have a good life and live a long time. If you don’t, you won’t.

The trouble is, so often real life doesn’t work out like that. We all know really good people who have suffered enormously; and nasty and evil people who have prospered. And saying that the apparently good ones must have secretly sinned doesn’t wash; if, like Job, they maintain they are unjustly punished, what answer is there for them?

In the Gospels, and particularly in our reading today, we get a very different picture of the life of the faithful. Jesus doesn’t promise prosperity to those who follow him. Rather, he warns them to expect family conflict, loss of possessions and even death as his disciples. In that time, to carry your cross meant you were a dead man walking, on your way to execution.

This picture runs counter to all our normal human priorities. We try hard  to ensure life, prosperity and health for ourselves first and our family next. In today’s consumer society, it would be a very incompetent advertiser who  tried to sell a product on the basis that its unique selling point was poverty, suffering and death.

Luke places this warning at the point where Jesus is beginning his journey to Jerusalem, a journey that will end in his arrest, trial and death. He is being followed by enthusiastic crowds who have heard his teaching and seen his miracles, and probably believe he is about to bring in the good times for them. What he said is shocking enough to us – even in this individualistic time, we don’t expect to be told to hate our families by a religious leader. It would have been even more shocking in a time when individuals had no significance apart from family and community. What this passage emphasises is the experience of Jesus, and his disciples, and the early Christians – that following Christ can be an immensely costly undertaking, and that we ought not to commit ourselves to it without proper thought  about the cost.

Nowadays, we do tend to think a bit more about becoming a Christian. It is not the social norm that it once was in this country. But we don’t expect church membership to be very costly. We don’t expect to have to carry a cross. But when we do have a cross to bear, sometimes it makes us give up our faith altogether – because deep down we secretly hold to the Deuteronomic teaching that faithfulness to God will bring us health, worldly success and prosperity.

It’s not so everywhere. A recent Gallup Poll found that the poorest countries tend to be the ones where religion is felt to be most important in people’s lives. In countries like Bangladesh, Niger, Yemen and Indonesia 99% of people thought religion was important in their lives; in Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Hong Kong and the UK less than £27% did so. Yet these prosperous countries are places with with high numbers of people suffering from stress related illness – countries with crosses of a different kind from the very poor ones.

As human beings, we cannot escape the cross. Everyone suffers in some way at some time in their lives. There are many different sorts of suffering. There is the suffering we see in the media every day of the week: suffering caused by natural disasters, as a consequence of war and civil strife; suffering from poor sanitation and lack of medical facilities. There is suffering from persecution for your faith, or your race, or your gender or your sexuality, made even worse when the persecution comes from your neighbours and even those who share your faith.

There is suffering from sickness, whether physical or mental, both our own and the illness of those close to us. There is emotional suffering, when relationships break down, or our sense of self-worth is damaged by unemployment. There is suffering from depression and the loss of the sense of the presence of God.

So, no-one has a monopoly of suffering; nor can we say that one person’s suffering is worse than another’s. We cannot know how heavy a cross feels on another person’s shoulders, and all suffering has the potential to darken and destroy.

So, how can we ‘carry’ the cross and follow Jesus? How can we bear our suffering in the way that he did, so that we can find life and meaning in it, rather than it overwhelming us with bitterness and despair?

Let me share with you some insights from a marvellous book I have been reading this week, called ‘Finding Meaning and Hope in Suffering’. ( SPCK 2010.) It is by Trystan Owain Hughes, the Anglican chaplain of Cardiff University. Recently, at the age of  37, he was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition which means he cannot stand or sit for long without pain. But instead of increasing his unhappiness, he drew on insights from his reading, his faith and and his pastoral work to seek out sources of hope and meaning in his ‘cross’.

It’s impossible to summarise the whole book in a short sermon, but I hope that I may inspire you to read it for yourselves,  to help you to carry your crosses, whatever they may be.

Though we cannot escape suffering, we are not entirely without control, Hughes says. We can decide how to cope with it, and what we decide to do can contribute to our suffering, or allow us to overcome it. Changing our way of thinking about suffering is not an easy journey, but doing so can help us. Hughes quotes often from Victor Frankl a Jewish psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz. Frankl said that those who survived the concentration camps were not necessarily those who had robust constitutions, but those who developed a sense of spirituality, a life of inner riches and freedom.

Hughes uses the metaphor of building a tower (from the parable in today’s reading) to set out a plan of how to carry our cross. The foundations of the tower are awareness and acceptance. Awareness means living in the present – not worrying about the future or constantly going back over the past. It means searching out the moments of beauty and love in whatever situation we are in, what is called ‘practising the sacrament of the present moment’; not rushing through life, but standing sometimes like a child in wonder at the intricacy  of life. It means looking for God’s presence even in situations where God seems absent.

Acceptance involves admitting the reality of the present situation and relinquishing the struggle for control. It involves saying “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be”. This is not the same as minimising suffering or passivity or fatalism, but involves embracing  a vision of life that is bigger than the suffering.  It often involves waiting patiently, not trying to explain suffering, but believing there is growth even in darkness. It means trusting that God has a plan even if we cannot yet see it; believing, as Julian of Norwich wrote, that ultimately “All things shall be well”.

We Christians can do this because our faith tells us that God is not absent in our suffering. The one who Moltmann called ‘The Crucified God’ came through suffering, including the sense of the absence of God, to resurrection.  We need to practise awareness and acceptance daily to help us to step back from our suffering and begin to build our tower of hope and joy.

Hughes suggests five building blocks for our tower. The first is the beauty of nature – the appreciation of the wonder of our world which we tend to lose as we leave childhood. The second block is laughter. Only humans in the animal kingdom laugh and cry, and it seems a faculty without any evolutionary purpose: but  laughter is a way of rising above suffering and tragedy to a spiritual realm. G K Chesterton said “The reason why angels can fly is they take themselves lightly!”

The third block is memory. Although unhappy memories can keep people in bondage to the past, happy personal memories can help us to find hope and purpose and see meaning in the present , and God with us; so can Bible passages, poems, sounds and pictures. So we need to store away a memory bank of grace that nothing can take from us, to draw on in times of suffering.

The fourth block is art in all its variety – music, painting, sculpture, poetry, drama and film. Somehow art helps us to feel things more deeply and to bring order into the chaos of suffering.

The final block is other people. Suffering can push us into isolation and self-obsession. But it can also help us to empathise with others, and to reach out to help. If we chose that way, then we can grow through our suffering, and, in a way, take revenge on it and deny its power.

Many of us will have met people who, in spite of the most intense suffering, exude joy and hope. They are living symbols of the truth that ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’. (John 1.3)

The Gospel reading calls on us today to carry our cross and follow Christ. So consider. What is your cross? Have you prepared yourself to bear its weight? How will you carry it bring you fullness of life and to give glory to God?