Saturday, September 21, 2013

Upside-down values

Luke 16:1-13

When I was growing up, one of the family stories was about how my mother came to be raised by Alma, her grand aunt, instead of Martha, her mother, my grandmother. As I recall the story Mom told, my grandmother had been caught running bootleg liquor from Chicago to Michigan, and she went to prison for a time. My grandfather said he did not know what to do with a girl, so Mom went to live with Alma, while the boys stayed at home with my grandfather.
I always thought it was kind of cool that my grandmother had defied the law that way. I wondered if she knew people like Al Capone. Sometimes, we have upside-down values from what we normally think is right.
As it turns out the true story was much different. I asked my Uncle Bill about it, and he told me it was my grandfather who went to prison for bootlegging, and Mom had to live with Alma because my grandmother had run off with another man. The truth doesn’t seem nearly as cool to me. Now, it just seems sad.
Our culture admires and even celebrates the audacity of hard-to-catch criminals. From Al Capone to the Boston Strangler to Mack the Knife, we are fascinated with powerful bad guys.
We love the legends of Robin Hood because he stole from the rich and gave to the poor. We overlook the fact that he was a thief because he had a nice motive, and the people he stole from were not nice guys. Our values are sometimes upside-down.
… Jesus told a parable about an unscrupulous manager. The rich man for whom he worked discovered that he had been mismanaging the accounts. It is not clear just what he had done, but when rich man said, “You’re fired!” the manager had time to alter the books before he handed them over. The manager called in all those who owed the rich man something and readjusted the amount they owed.
This made the debtors happy, and for some reason we struggle to understand, it made the rich man happy too. He praised the manager for his cleverness. It seems like Jesus’ values are suddenly upside-down as he tells this parable.
One commentary I read noted that this text has been in the lectionary from the earliest days of Christianity. The first official lectionary was established in 471 CE. It was a one year lectionary, so this text came up every year. Therefore, there must be something very important we can learn about Jesus and God from it.
There are at least four ways to understand what this parable is all about.
Lots of sermons have been preached about how we view money and possessions. Do we own our possessions, or do they own us?
We can relate this parable to the stories of clever bad guys, as I did at the beginning of the sermon, and assume that Jesus is praising the cleverness of the manager. We should all be so clever and focused that we will do whatever we can to have a relationship with a forgiving God.
We can assume that Jesus is the rich man. However, it’s hard to figure out why he would he be pleased that the manager reduced the debt of each debtor. He loses out on all that income. Yet, we can admire the way Jesus is tricked into forgiving the debts of the sinful people.
It makes more sense if we assume that Jesus is the manager, and God is the rich man. We know that Jesus came to eliminate the punishment for our sins – in other words, reduce our debt to God. However, the idea that the rich man – God – is happy to have our debt reduced is radical.
The ancient belief was that God blesses the rich, no matter how justly or unscrupulously they became rich. Debt was a fact, and if you were so deep in debt you couldn’t get out of it, you sold yourself into slavery until you could work off your debts. For the debtors to have the amount they owed reduced was a huge relief in Jesus’ time. It is an upside-down value they welcome gladly.
It would be the same for us. Many of us own houses we bought at a price much higher than the current value. Imagine if the banks all wrote and told us we only owed the current value, not the higher value. The banks would absorb the loss and forgive us that much debt. The remaining amount owed is manageable on our currently reduced income; we can afford to feed and clothe our families; we can afford to repair our houses to maintain the value; we can sell our houses without having to make up the difference to the bank. If this would happen, we would sing for joy, raise our hands and shout “Hallelujah!”
This is how the debtors felt when the manager reduced the amount they owed to the rich man. They probably went home and told their families, and shouted “Hallelujah!” Jesus is also saying this is how we can feel when he reduces the punishment we owe for our sins.
The people who first heard this story were amazed and overjoyed, or dismayed and appalled. “Only God can forgive sins! How dare Jesus speak for God!” thought those who were upset with this news. And, “Only God can forgive sins! Maybe Jesus speaks for God,” thought those who were happy with this news.
Today, we can rejoice with the debtors that Jesus does indeed have the power and authority to wipe away our debts to God, and to eliminate the punishment for our sins. The difference between Jesus and the manager is that Jesus doesn’t simply reduce the debt, he wipes it away, crosses it off the ledger book as if it never existed. We can rejoice in the upside-down values of God and give thanks for divine mercy.
We can take a look at our own lives and notice those things we have done that seem unforgivable. We can take them to Jesus and ask him to reduce our debt, erase our sins, totally forgive us.
This is good news we should not keep to ourselves. We can have conversations with our friends, too, and invite them to ask Jesus to lower their debt, forgive their sins. They may never have heard this kind of good news before. Don’t they deserve to hear it, especially from you?
Go this week and offer your sins to Jesus, and recognize his forgiveness. Hear it in the words of forgiveness as we begin worship with confession each week. Taste it today in the bread and wine we offer every week at the table. Feel the joy as your debts are removed, and shout “Hallelujah!”

Please pray with me. Holy One, you have some strange values, so different from ours. We offer up our debts, our sins to you. Take them from us, and fill us with joy in you. Amen