1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
September 22, 2013
My Dad was an undertaker. Cliff Stenberg, my Mom’s cousin by marriage, was an accountant with the IRS. They both belonged to the same civic service club. When they arrived or sat together, other members said, “Look, death and taxes.”
In our unstable, changing world, with grim humor we identify death and taxes as dependable certainties.
After every industrial accident, mass shooting, child abused at school or church, or terrorist attack we call for action so this will never happen again. Wise protections are a good idea, but we cannot guarantee total safety.
Today’s Scriptures assure us that God’s generous mercy is life’s most dependable certainty.
Luke 16:1-14 may be the most puzzling of Jesus parables. Far greater minds than mine have confessed they could not understand it. I am not presumptuous enough to claim that I can. However, in keeping with my promise to listen for the voice of God in the Scripture lessons from the lectionary, I can point us to the reliability of God’s generous mercy.
I looked at a lot of commentaries that point in many contradictory directions. Without suggesting which are right and which are wrong, Ken Bailey shed insightful light on this parable for me. Here are a few things that I hope make it understandable for you.
Jesus told this parable to the disciples, knowing that the Pharisees were listening in.
Whether Jesus spoke them in close chronological proximity, Luke put it in the sequence of the banquet parables, the cost of discipleship and the lost and found parables we have just looked at, and the rich man and Lazarus we come to next week, all of which touch on Luke’s typical challenges about money.
Jesus used ironic, sarcastic language to convey, probably with gesture and tone of voice, the opposite of the direct meaning of the words.
Jesus told the parable in Aramaic. The words for dishonest and wealth in Luke’s Greek translation are almost identical. Mammon from KJV is worldly wealth in NIV and dishonest wealth in NRSV.
This is a parable, not intended to be a realistic story or an allegory where each element symbolizes something. Rather, it invites us to a singular “ah-ha” moment of insight and enlightenment.
Jesus had told the crowds about the cost of discipleship and told the lost and found parables to the Pharisees who grumbled that he welcomed sinners and ate with them.
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’
3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’
5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Yes, the Pharisees ridiculed Jesus, thinking him absurdly impractical about money. But I think they also ridiculed him for telling such an inscrutable story. Yet I think we can get it if we imagine the dynamics this way.
The manager knew his master was generously merciful, and he was right. He could have been thrown in jail, not just fired. So before anyone knew he had been fired, he reduced the tenants’ debts, letting them think the master was being generous. They were understandably thrilled to have a generous landlord and praised him in the community. When the manager handed over the doctored books, probably the end of the same day, the master recognized his shrewd move. Rather than damage his reputation for generous mercy, the master absorbed the cost, fully paying for the manager’s dishonesty himself.
As I have listened for the voice of God in Jesus’ parable of the dishonest manager, my “ah-ha” insight is that God’s generous mercy is life’s most dependable certainty.
Just as the master paid in full for the manager’s dishonesty, Jesus has paid in full for our redemption.
We sometimes think of God’s generous mercy as a specifically New Testament emphasis, but it permeates the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew word hesed occurs 249 times to both describe God and the character of God to be emulated by people. Hesed is a big Hebrew word that can’t be captured in a single English word. It is often translated “loving kindness” but means also mercy, grace, favor, fidelity, goodness. Psalm 130 conveys the dependable certainty of God’s generous mercy.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love [hesed], and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.
As we appropriate the dependable certainty of God’s generous mercy we are empowered for lives of exuberant freedom. Knowing we have received God’s generous mercy, we are motivated to serve God faithfully. Trusting God’s generous mercy, we can depend on God to guide us on our journey. Confident of God’s generous mercy, we do not fear taking a wrong turn or making mistakes.
The dependable certainty of God’s generous mercy is affirmed when 1Timothy 2:4 says, “God desired everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”
Because of God’s generous mercy, 1Timothy 2:1-2 calls us to pray for those in high positions so we can peaceably live as Jesus’ disciples and proclaim the Gospel. The word for “herald” in verse 7 was used for someone who made official announcements for the Roman Emperor, indicating the high priority of the Gospel announcement.
Praying for people in high positions is tied to Christian discipleship and evangelism, since no one, not even the Emperor, is beyond God’s generous mercy. The Emperor at that time was Nero, who eventually executed both Paul and Peter. The early Christians had no expectation that the Empire would promote Christian faith or be run on Christian principles; only they prayed that it might promote stability in which they could live in godliness and dignity as Jesus’ disciples proclaiming the Gospel.Our Disciples of Christ tradition has avoided written creeds as human creations. 1 Timothy 2:5-6 is a proto-creed that comes directly from the New Testament and affirms in theological language that Jesus paid the cost to make God’s generous mercy life’s most dependable certainty.
There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.