TRINITY IX – Ecce Deus
Introit: (Ps 54) Behold, God is my helper: the Lord is he that upholdeth my soul: he shall reward evil unto mine enemies: destroy thou them in thy truth, O Lord, my defender. Ps. Save me, O God, for thy name’s sake: and avenge me in thy strength. Glory be … Behold, God is my helper …
Collect: Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful: that we, who cannot do anything that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: Then David blessed the Lord before all the congregation: and David said, Blessed be thou, Lord God of Israel our father, for ever and ever. Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all. Both riches and honour come of thee, and thou reignest over all; and in thine hand is power and might; and in thine hand it is to make great, and to give strength unto all. Now therefore, our God, we thank thee, and praise thy glorious name. But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly after this sort? for all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee. For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding. O Lord our God, all this store that we have prepared to build thee an house for thine holy name cometh of thine hand, and is all thine own. I know also, my God, that thou triest the heart, and hast pleasure in uprightness. As for me, in the uprightness of mine heart I have willingly offered all these things: and now have I seen with joy thy people, which are present here, to offer willingly unto thee. (I Chronicles 29.10-17)
Gradual: (Ps 8) O Lord our governor: how excellent is thy name in all the world. V. Thou hast set thy glory above the heavens.
Epistle: Brethren: I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all eat the same spiritual meat; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand. Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents. Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer. Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. (I Corinthians 10.1-13)
Alleluia. Deliver me from mine enemies, O God: defend me from them that rise up against me. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus spake this parable unto his disciples: There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. (St Luke 16.1-9)
“All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”
Once in a while we look at an appointed Scripture lesson and want to ask: “What were they thinking?!” Of course, covering only fifty-two Sundays and a few weekdays, even including all the feasts and fasts and commemorations of the Church Year, no lectionary can include all passages of the Bible, but that is not the point nor the purpose of the Mass lectionary. That is why we have the Daily Office, with its own more comprehensive lectionary. Still, the lectionary is, by definition, selective. But out of all the wonderful teachings, parables, and miracles recorded in the Gospels, one struggles to understand why the parable of the “unjust steward” was chosen. (And it is interesting to note, that the American BCP of 1928 replaced this Sunday’s Gospel with S Luke 15.11-32, the “prodigal son,” which is a much “nicer” parable—easier to hear, and certainly much easier to preach on!) But sometimes the lectionary gives us these more difficult passages to wrestle with, in order to encourage us to think, and work, and grow in our faith. That is, after all, the theme and thrust of the Trinity Season. Such is surely the case with today’s Gospel.
Most commentaries or sermons on today’s Gospel quickly make the point that is it just a strange and difficult text; and it is. On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. A dishonest employee is commended by his boss? That is certainly not the sort of behaviour one would expect Jesus to encourage! So, from the outset, we need to rule out one interpretation: Jesus is not teaching us that cheating and stealing in a ‘clever’ way is virtuous or something to be emulated. But at the same time it is a great story, because it is one of those times where Jesus shows that He has a sense of humour. He uses a bad guy to show the good guys what they are meant to be doing. The main character in this parable is a liar and a cheat, a thief and a scoundrel, but he is also exceedingly clever. And he is an especially astute judge of character. He knows his clients, and he trusts them to take the deal. But more importantly, he knows his boss, and trusts him to honour the deal. In fact, he stakes his very life on it. He is in danger of losing his job, and if this scheme doesn’t work, he will starve to death. But he trusts. And that is the real upshot of this story: he trusts his lord. He knows his master’s character, and trusts him to be faithful. We need to remember this, as we try to make sense of the punchline in verse 9. Jesus tells the story, and then says, “Pay attention now: Make friends for yourselves by means of your unrighteous mammon, so that when that fails you, they may receive you into eternal dwellings.” Now without the context, it sounds like Jesus is saying that one can buy one’s way into heaven. Spend your money, make some friends, go to heaven. Ba-da-boom! Which is why we need carefully to unpack the rest of the parable. When we do, we see that this story is not about a trade or transaction or a quid pro quo, but about trusting our Master. And the story only works if the Master is true: if He is honest and trustworthy, if He is generous and merciful and forgiving and honourable. In other words, this story finds its entire meaning in the character of Jesus. But it still requires some careful thought and exegesis.
So let us begin with something that, while not necessarily easier, might be a bit more understandable and familiar: “Give me an accounting of your stewardship.” We have all heard those or similar words. At some time in our life, an accounting has been demanded. And it is never easy. No one likes to have to be audited, and we are pretty private about our books. Giving an accounting can be an uncomfortable and anxious time. We review all our words and actions, wondering, “What have I done? What have I left undone? What will happen to me?” Not only do we not want others to see the balance sheet, but often we do not even want to see it ourselves, because it is really an accounting of our life. But that is exactly what this accounting asks of us—we must open the books and examine what we have been doing with our life, and whom we are serving. It raises important questions: How are we using the resources, assets, and gifts entrusted to us? Time; money; talents and abilities; ideas, passions, and concerns; people and relationships; love, forgiveness, and mercy … if we were to give an accounting of our stewardship of these, what would our books look like? And what do they reveal about us? Where, how, in what ways, and on whom, are we spending and investing these God-given assets?
Today’s Gospel calls us to account for our stewardship of all that we are and all that we have. The demand for an accounting often implies that someone is in trouble. That is how today’s parable begins. Whether we’ve lived it, heard it from a friend or colleague, or read it in the news, it is a familiar story: Someone in a position of trust has been bad, and has gotten caught. Good! we think. And now they are going to get what they deserve! That is what we expect. But parables rarely give us what we expect, and that is not how the Kingdom of God works, either.
But we ought not be too quick to come to a definitive interpretation of this parable. First, we are given no details as to what this man did to be charged with squandering or merit being fired, or whether the charges were even valid. Second, while the word “unjust” is often, in modern versions, translated as “dishonest,” it simply means the quality of unrighteousness: that is, the steward’s relationship with his master is not right; it is broken and impaired. It may be that this steward had chosen self-interest, self-loyalty, and self-serving over interest in, loyalty to, and service of his master, (that can easily happen to any of us), in which case this man is the epitome of Our Lord’s admonition, “You cannot serve two masters.” But that is not necessarily the case. It may well be that what this steward did in reducing the debtors’ bills, was to write off his own commission, charging only what the person actually owed. Thus, he had the praise, not only of the debtors, who thought they were getting a break, but also of his master, who was still getting all that was owed him. It was really quite ingenious, so no wonder he was commended!
The point is, that life is not just about our brief stay here on earth, and it is not about accumulating things—even though we may very well accumulate things and enjoy them. But above all, we must remember that, as children of God, we are but strangers and pilgrims here. Our citizenship is in heaven, so we are to live with an eye toward eternity. Yet even the children of light are sorely tempted by earthly things. The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh do not want us to hallow God’s Name, to live as children of light, or to sacrifice anything in order to serve God or our neighbour.
The theme of today’s Propers is what S Augustine would call, “disordered loves,” or as we might say today, misplaced priorities. The principal message is that all things come from God, and we will be held accountable for what we have done with that which has been entrusted to us. When, in our disordered, fallen human state, we see the things as ends in themselves and objects of our desire, as things we “deserve,” or as our own possession, then we are in trouble. In fact, we do not possess them, rather they possess us. They become our gods, and consume our lives. As our Lord Jesus would say in the continuation of this discourse, “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve both God and mammon.” (Lk 16.13) The word “mammon” is usually thought to mean money, but the original Aramaic word actually has the much broader application of wealth, possessions, profit, and ultimately, “that in which one trusts” (think Ferengi, for you Star Trek fans). The lesson Jesus is teaching in this parable, as Robert Crouse says, is:
[Just] as worldly people – “the children of this age” – are prudent in doing what is necessary to attain their worldly ends, so should “the children of light” be prudent in doing what is necessary to attain “everlasting habitations.” The unrighteous steward used worldly goods – “the mammon of unrighteousness” – to provide himself with a worldly refuge. The children of light must use their worldly goods, which must finally fail, in such a way as to prepare for their everlasting habitation. … Christian wisdom, Christian prudence, will use this world’s goods for everlasting spiritual ends. … Our spiritual life, must not be some vague, unrealistic dream, but must rather be a matter of decisive, practical action day by day; that the children of light must be prudent—that is to say, practically wise—in their quest for the “everlasting habitations” to which they are called. All this is summed up in the Collect for today, when we pray for “the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, who cannot do anything that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will.”
In the Epistle, St Paul recounts for the Corinthians how the Israelites of old were given every blessing by God. He had redeemed them from slavery in Egypt and promised to bring them safely into the land of Canaan to be their permanent homeland and inheritance. Then, at Mount Sinai, He gave them His holy Law. But instead of being careful to obey the Lord’s newly given commandments, they took His grace and promise for granted. They thought they could do as they pleased, that they could grumble and murmur and disobey God with impunity. They even took their wealth—the gold they had collected from the Egyptians—and used it, not to serve God or their neighbour, but to make a golden calf—an idol to worship, in direct violation of the very commandments God had just given. This is a vivid example of children of light who fall into temptation. And we hear St Paul’s solemn injunction: that the Israelites were repeatedly punished by God for their many falls into idolatry and disobedience, and that this serves as a warning for us, “written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”
The parable of the unjust steward is undoubtedly one of the most difficult of Our Lord’s sayings, but the main theme is clear: faithfulness and accountability. Jesus has a strong admonition for His hearers: Remember that we are stewards of our Master’s goods. Even our bodies are not our own; all belongs to God—twice, because He created us, and then redeemed us (i.e., bought us back) at the price of Christ’s own Blood. He is the owner of everything in heaven and on earth, and we will be held accountable for our stewardship of our little piece of it. The steward in the parable was initially negligent, and took his position for granted. He finally became clever, ambitious and intentional, and for this his master commended him: Finally he is taking his stewardship seriously! And who knows? He may not have been fired after all.
By His grace we have been given a place in God’s Kingdom. And while we wait for Our Lord’s return, He has given us work to do, and goods to manage in this world. But Christians likewise may begin to take their position for granted, and be tempted into laziness and carelessness, neglecting the work and stewardship to which God has called us. Today’s Lessons serve as a wake-up call, a call to repentance, to those who have begun to take for granted our position as children of God and stewards of His household. We may think we are in firm standing, but it is possible, and all too easy, to fall from grace; but there is also the possibility of redemption and restoration if we take the message of today’s parable to heart. What if the accounting asked of us is not so much about discovering wrongdoing, as about changing our lives—about grace, rather than punishment? That certainly changes our understanding of “giving account.” And that is what parables are supposed to do: they change the way we see and understand things. In fact, if we think we have understood a parable at first reading, we have probably totally missed the point.
We can be so brutal to one another, and for what? Money? Profit? Esteem? No doubt we have all had these “what’s in it for me” relationships, where we know we are just being used. But do we have relationships in which we are only using someone else? Or what about power? Even miniscule amounts of power can turn friends into the most mortal of enemies. Meanwhile, we serve a God who has forgiven us everything through the Blood of Christ, even though we have been squandering His goods; who has not just slashed our debts but totally expunged them, and who couldn’t be happier in doing so. But does God’s forgiveness have any bearing on the rest of our lives? Does the one who has been forgiven so much also forgive, and does this spread out into the rest of our dealings, forgiving one another, so that when it all falls apart, we will still be friends, based not on what I can get from you, but on what has been forgiven me? There is a reason why the Church has survived the rise and fall of so many empires, kingdoms, and nations! Why? Because all of that “stuff” will fail. What will you have when it all falls apart? And it will all fall apart; Jesus is very clear about that. Notice He doesn’t say, “if it fails,” but “when it fails.” All we have is faith, and no one can take that away. No explosion, riot, disaster or disease can take away what has been given us from the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit: love, grace, mercy, hope, joy, peace, forgiveness, and eternal life, through faith, through Baptism and Holy Communion. None of this can be taken away, not even by death itself.
So, it is either God or mammon. You cannot serve both. And perhaps that is why we don’t exactly love this story of the “unjust steward.” It topples our tinpot self-made gods and tells us what we already kind of knew to be true, but were hoping would be avoidable: It can all fall apart, and it will all fall apart. Anything that is not flowing from the cross of Christ and the love of God will fail. But He is there, delighting in forgiveness, showing us a better way—a way of life, even in a world of death—a God who outlasts and destroys all our other gods, be they money or followers. For Christ Jesus is crucified and raised from the dead, even today, for you, for me, for the world.
So instead of trying to audit the steward’s books, perhaps we ought to examine our own. Instead of being shocked that this “dishonest manager” is commended, maybe we can see grace, hope, and possibilities for our own redemption and commendation. While the master may have wanted an audit of past numbers and transactions, this man saw that his old life was empty and bankrupt. New life would be seen only by looking forward—by being a different person and doing things differently. This steward claimed for himself the grace hidden in his master’s demand for an accounting, and he was commended in the end. The accounting that should have been the man’s ruin became the starting point for a new life, new relationships, and a new home. The accounting was both an ending and a new beginning, a death and a resurrection.
So likewise, the accounting of our stewardship is not about numbers, tallies, wrongdoing, or punishment, but about helping us to re-evaluate and re-orient our lives and our loves. It opens us to new possibilities, and points us to our eternal home.
“Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine.
All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee.”
Collect: Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honour thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.