SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
(23rd SEPTEMBER) 2007
Jeremiah 8.18 – 9.1
1 Timothy 2.1-7
It is not surprising that only Luke that recalls this teaching of Jesus. Matthew is concerned to demonstrate that the community of Jesus is beyond reproach, and this story is slightly embarrassing: excuse me? The followers of Jesus are supposed to emulate a corrupt and self-serving petty middle manager? To Matthew it seems awkward.
Luke sees the potential of the story: Luke’s telling of the Jesus story often focuses on priorities, and in particular the need for followers of Jesus to place their possessions in the service of the gospel. So Luke can take the words of Jesus and use them to emphasize the complete claims that Jesus makes on us, claiming not just our religious practices, but our financial, moral, environmental practices. The list of whole of life claims made by Jesus is inexhaustible, for it is a whole of life surrender to him that he demands.
It is okay to see the humour of Jesus in the Parable of the Disingenuous Steward. The humour of Jesus should not escape us here. So often we portray him as some kind of sombre and joyless teacher-figure. Matthew was perhaps troubled, or concerned at the vulnerability to criticism, entailed in retelling this story. But it is funny. A worthless and corrupt person as a sign of the values of the Reign of God? The parable acknowledges that we are all, followers and non-followers of Jesus alike, a crazy mix of honour and dishonour. Commentators who have attempted to clean up this parable by suggesting that the steward was simply sacrificing his own commission from the debtor’ bills have missed the point: this man was desperate, and desperation is the mother of ingenuity. We too are called, as Luke tells the story, to be this desperate in both in our longing for and our service of the gospel.
Luke’s presentation of this Jesus story offers some other angles, too. The desperation of the steward is the desperation of a person whose life has reached crisis point. It is the desperation of a life that has reached rock-bottom and can see no way out but for the course of action he takes. We have probably all heard conversion stories from those who have reached a similar crisis point, and we know well that many who have battled with the various isms of alcohol, gambling and other forms of addiction have reached that point before allowing their lives to be invaded by the presence of a higher power and sobriety or its equivalents. But there are also many who have never reached that point: as a society, we, like every society in history, find ways to numb ourselves from the deeper questions of existence. Perhaps we need to, psychologically, but nevertheless this makes proclamation of the gospel a difficult task. Why would we need Jesus – whoever he might be – when we have sport, sex, television, the accrual of wealth and power? The list is endless, but we who would live and proclaim Christ in the twenty-first century West are swimming against a tide of anaesthesia and disinterest.
So if we are to proclaim Christ into our culture and our era we must do so with credibility. There has been much that has no more than masqueraded as Christianity in our culture, and our culture is highly critical of religious hypocrisy. We tolerate hypocrisy in other fields, such as industry and politics, but not in religion. Perhaps this is because as a society we find the last vestiges of religion irritating and embarrassing, and want to be rid of them, though with what we are replacing the narratives of hope I am not sure. Perhaps as a society we want to be rid of religion because, for all its faults, it speaks, at least in its Christian form, of a God who judges us, and we prefer to be unanswerable for our actions.
Ours is a society that will see through any form of phoneyism in the sphere of faith. To avoid phoneyism we must surrender, daily, the whole to Jesus and to the reforming work of his Spirit. We can do that by recovering the passion of the disingenuous steward: some who have been converts to the way of Jesus will remember the first flushes of faith in early months and years. Others who grew up in the faith will remember days of great closeness to Jesus, of the high points along the journey. They can’t be sustained day after day, decade after decade.
But there can be moments, thin moments as the Celts call them, when the Spirit of God breaks through, enfolding and renewing us, and we rediscover the passion of the unjust and devious but desperate steward. As a church and as individuals we can but pray for those moments of touch once more. Moments of touch that are never manufactured, but are the result of God’s response to our prayer: Lord, touch, transform, renew us in the service of your gospel, that we may again know the urgency of faith and the potency of your love.