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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 25, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
September 19, 2010

Luke 16:1-13

True riches’

My friend, a cycling enthusiast and advocate, imagines a renewed inner city where an enforced speed limit of 30km per hour (car speeds in and around the city average 22km per hour) would encourage traffic flow (for cars and bikes) and promote safety for all road users. 30km per hour. Safer, friendlier, cleaner. I suspect he is right – and yet it’s difficult to imagine while ever we hold to our car-centric assumptions – our “right to speed”. Likewise, in order to understand today’s parable we need to think outside our own economic (and religious) assumptions.

Under a capitalist system we are likely to feel aggrieved for an owner let down by his steward’s inept or corrupt service. Under capitalism it’s primarily money that generates money, mainly when borrowed from elsewhere. Borrowing gives one the opportunity to make money, but likewise the one from whom the money has been serviced must also have opportunity to make money, so interest is charged. This taking of interest is what differentiates capitalism from the economic precepts of the Scriptures. Thus the people of the Book prohibited the charging/taking of interest (Catholicism forbade interest as recently as a century ago; Muslims maintain the prohibition).

The Torah is quite specific about not charging interest on loans (Exodus 25:16, Leviticus 25:16, Deuteronomy 23:19-20), a measure designed to protect the poor from indebtedness. Means of circumventing the Law, however, were known. One method, as argued by some in the pharisaical tradition, was to say that if someone already had some of the desired good (some of that which was borrowed) s/he was not really poor. Even the most destitute person was likely to have, if but a little, some oil for a lamp and some grain. The trick, therefore, was to write the value of all debts in terms of oil or grain, which is precisely what we see here.

The poor, we may well imagine, were alert to such trickery. Where we might feel aggrieved for the owner they would have understood clearly his evading the demands of the Law established to help them, and wasted no sympathy on him.

Our parable begins with the owner hearing accusations against the steward. Interestingly, the term used for accusation is diaballein, a term related to the devil, the diabolical one. The devil figure is the false accuser, so perhaps there is intimation here that the accusations are false.

Called to account, the steward knows he is in great danger. He will lose everything. This person of comfortable living will have two choices: to dig ditches (to work in the mines), or to beg. Either will involve a loss of face. This aspect of shame is central to the story. To this day the avoidance of shame is a central aspect in Middle Eastern cultures. To save face and in order to secure his future the steward hits upon a plan. He will take each amount owed by debtors and secure their favour, and perhaps his own future, by cutting the amount they owe to the owner.

In due course this action comes to the attention of the owner, but what is he to do? He has been acting contrary to the Law of Moses by charging interest. If he complains now about the steward’s actions he will bring shame upon himself. He thus commends his steward for quick-thinking enterprise. When others, ignorant of the facts, praise his generosity, the owner himself will receive honour.

What, then, are we taught in this parable? The parable takes place in a section of the Gospel where Luke has gathered stories of Jesus highly critical of the Pharisees. Their legalism, serving as a means of avoiding the demand of the Law, is laid bare. The owner and steward, in their dealings with debtors, represent the Pharisees. Paradoxically, the just ending where the debtors pay the correct amount of their debt, rather than an inflated amount with interest, comes about by means of unethical self-interest. Perhaps, in the kindom, ethical ends are wrought from unethical actions. Jesus, we might add, is again critical of religion that is self-serving and self-righteous when in reality it negates the intention of the commandments: caring for the poor.

The people listening to this story would have chuckled. These two rogues only acted rightly out of self-interest, the desire to save face. Jesus had a very wry and dry sense of humour. The crowd would be in on the joke. Those who make a big show of meticulous law-keeping in fact negate it, while these two rogues, irreligious scoundrels concerned only to save face, end up doing the right thing.

Self-righteous piety is the target of the parable. We shouldn’t be too sure that the piety of the “religious” heralds the reign of God. In this story, those acting out of muddied motives herald the kindom’s coming. What a delightful irony – and good news for all of us aware of our muddied motives.

I should have mentioned that my cyclist friend is someone who feels very uncomfortable in a religious setting – and someone who regards himself a socialist.

We can avoid leaping to conclusions. Jesus refers today to the “true riches” of the kindom, and delivers the oft-quoted punch-line: “You can’t worship both God and Money/Mammon” (Mammon is another devil figure). Serving God and caring for one another in the Spirit of Christ determines what we do with our money. Does it? How so? Let’s complete the homily together. … Amen.

Draws on reflection by John Queripel.