When my daughter Sarah was in elementary school and was a student of Marilyn Day, we had a movie about Mother Teresa of Calcutta at the house. Sarah and some friends were moved and inspired by the story of her life and the work she did. They formed a Mother Teresa club and decided to raise money to give to the sisters for their work.
They made bead bracelets and homemade chocolates and began to sell them at school. I am sure this was in violation of all sorts of rules at Culver Elementary, and maybe that is an important part of the story in terms of today’s Gospel. They sold these things as fast as they could make them. Sarah soon came to us with a dilemma.
The children had a sense of fairness. A certain amount of profit was OK. Beyond that was ripping people off. I think they figured they had 35 cents invested in some chocolates, and they would sell them for 50 cents. They could not make these things fast enough, and they were selling out of inventory almost as soon as they got to school. I have to say the chocolates were good.
Sarah said she could sell them for a dollar and make more profit. She felt bad about that because this amount of markup did not rest easy with her sense of what was right. We told her we thought it was OK. No one was making anyone buy the chocolates, and the money was going for a good cause. She went with this counsel and began making money at a much faster rate. The chocolates still sold out almost as soon as she arrived at school.
The Gospel reading today is a difficult one because it commends the shrewdness of the steward. We are uncomfortable with this, and it does not work well with our sense of fairness. It does not work with our sense of morality and our 21st century code of behavior.
In the Gospel reading we hear of a steward who is let go. He decides that he is going to need to survive after losing his job, and so calls in the debtors of the master and gives them deep discounts so they will be inclined to be kind to him later. The master commends him for being shrewd.
I want us to look at some other examples in the Bible of “shrewdness.”
In the book of Genesis, Abraham twice passes his wife off as his sister. He benefits from the deceit both times. Pharaoh is punished by God for committing adultery. God warns Abimelech in a dream not to marry Sarah, and so he avoids the sin, but he then restores Sarah and gives Abraham gifts.
Genesis also tells the story of Isaac going to the region of Gerar due to a famine. Because he fears for his life, he tells them that his wife Rebecca is his sister. The story ends well for Isaac.
An interesting story in 2 Kings 7 may provide some insight into today’s Gospel too. The Syrians were besieging Samaria, reducing its inhabitants to starvation. Four Samaritan lepers who were sitting in the gate decided that they had nothing to lose. ‘Why sit we here until we die? If we say, we will enter into the city, then the famine is in the city and we shall dire there; and if we sit still here, we die also.’ So they fixed on a bold move. They would go out to the Syrians. They could only be killed by them, which was their likely fate in any case, and they must might be taken prisoner and so survive. When they go to the Syrian camp they found it deserted. God had frightened them away…The lepers helped themselves to food, drink and booty. They had a quantity of valuable spoil. Then they said to one another, ‘We are not doing right. This is a day of good news; if we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us; now therefore come, let us go and tell the king’s household.’”
The lepers were maybe not the most ethical, but they were survivors. Abraham and Isaac were survivors as well. The parable of the shrewd steward is about survival as well.
Jesus exhorts his disciples to make friends for themselves by dishonest wealth – “dirty money.” He is not using a noble model. He wants his followers to become survivors for the Kingdom in the same way the Steward is trying to survive. How are they supposed to do that? How do we do that?
Today’s parable shows that money can be used for gain. Compassion for the poor leads to eternal reward. This no allegory. A spiritual truth is being illuminated here.
“Make for yourselves friends” seems to suggest alms-giving as a means of survival. Help the poor now in this world, and they will help you in the next. We are reminded of the upside down nature of God’s Kingdom. The last will be first and the first will be last. The poor will become rich and will welcome us into the Kingdom. Helping the poor in this world serves to bridge the chasm that separates. But if we are selfish like the rich man in the story about Lazarus we will hear next week, that selfishness will create an chasm that is too wide to cross.
In some cultures, beggars are seen as providing an important service. Those people see beggars as giving others opportunities to attain merit. The beggar gains a material blessing; the donor gains a spiritual blessing. Perhaps we need to adopt that kind of thinking here.
I will leave you this morning with quotations from St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom.
First St. Basil:
The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person,
the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it,
the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes,
the money which you hoard away belongs to the poor.
Now St. John Chrysostom:
Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups,
when he himself is dying of hunger?
First, fill him when he is hungry;
then use the means you have left to adorn his table.
Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water?
Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother,
for he is the most precious temple of all.
I have said these words in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Sermon preached by Fr. Tom at St. Thomas Episcopal – Plymouth
September 18, 2016; Eighteenth Sunday of Pentecost – Proper 20
1 Timothy 2:1-7