The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Let’s face it, some things are really hard to get past. Take this morning’s parable, as a case in point. When confronted with this story, most folks never think about the wisdom in it, because they can’t get past the dishonesty. So, rather than seeing the dishonest steward as a person worthy of emulation, a good number of us (perhaps even the majority) just want to see him in jail.
Here's a recap. The steward in question is the bookkeeper for a rich man, a landowner. His fortune comes from cheating the landowners’ tenants by adding false charges to their bills. Two ends have resulted from this bad work. First, the steward made the landowner wealthy by doing this—and secondly, he made himself an indispensable employee to the landowner.
Then the economy changed. It always does. The landowner begins losing money….fast. And the bookkeeper. Well, he takes the temperature of the times and begins to worry about his own future. So he switches his loyalty. And so, he takes more off people’s bills than they had actually paid, wiping out their debts faster than they had ever imagined. And suddenly, he’s the best friend of the tenants. And the bookkeeper thinks to himself, when the economy crashes, I’ll be out of work; and I’m too old to do manual labor; but some of these folks I’ve helped will look on me kindly and make certain I don’t starve.
About this time we might rightly ask ourselves “Did Jesus really say this?” And if he did---what could he have possibly meant?
But look again, Jesus isn’t asking his disciples to be dishonest—he’s encouraging the followers of God to be wise. In this parable, Jesus is urging us to be resourceful and pragmatic when it comes to the business of crafting a future worth living. Think of it as a parabolic means of Jesus saying to his disciples “Show some chutzpah. Take a page from the playbook of the dishonest bookkeeper. True enough, the bookkeeper may be traveling in the wrong direction, but his practical wisdom and moxie are worth emulating. In other words, be as crafty and creative in finding ways to be generous to your impoverished neighbors and world as this bookkeeper was in finding a future for himself. Apply that same effort and acumen to the work of love and justice for which you were born!
This is a parable about the importance of understanding the true nature of what is in our best self-interest as the people of God. In this parable Jesus takes the down-to-earth view that self-interest isn’t the problem. Rather, the problem is understanding what is truly in our best self-interest, and what is not. Genuine self-interest (from God’s perspective) is served through generosity and justice, sharing resources and taking care of one another (bear in mind where this particular parable is placed in Luke’s gospel—right in the midst of Jesus telling people of the importance of caring for one another.) Tight-fisted greed, as it turns out, isn’t truly self-serving at all—and in the long run, is corrosive. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Genuine self-interest, Jesus insists, always involves the health of the broader community as well as the state of our hearts, and so while sharing our resources may on the surface seem to make us individually poorer, in truth, on an entirely different level, we receive “true riches,” “unfailing treasure in heaven,” and “a purse that does not wear out.” Ultimately, this is a parable about the importance of taking steps to secure a future—a future worth living.
This makes sense to me. I’ve just returned from a few weeks out west on an environmental tour. One of our visits was to Mono Lake. To be honest, Mono Lake is not particularly picturesque. It’s an ancient saline lake located at the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada. It’s home to trillions of brine shrimp—of absolutely no use to humans and flies. Lots of flies. So, we should not be surprised that in 1941 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting water from Mono Lake’s tributary streams, sending it 350 miles south to meet the growing water demands of Los Angeles.
As a result, over the next 40 years Mono Lake dropped by 45 vertical feet, lost half its value, and doubled in salinity. It wouldn’t be long before it was dry. And folks reasoned—who would miss it—certainly humans wouldn’t miss the flies. But a small number of citizens who lived at the lake disagreed. They knew Mono Lake was important … and not just to them.
And this is where science became a friend to Mono Lake—and really, to all of us. In 1976 a group of students from UC Davis and Stanford conducted an ecological study of Mono Lake and they discovered that while the lake may not appear important to humans—it is a pivotal stop for billions—billions of migratory birds. Without Mono Lake, the frightening truth is, billions of birds could die—resulting in tremendous ecological devastation.
So, the fledgling, grassroots Mono Lake Committee, without many people or money, took the city of Los Angeles to court—and remarkably, they won. But here’s the thing, Los Angeles still needed the water. So, a compromise was reached—one which would save Mono Lake and at the same time continue to provide some water to Los Angeles as well. It remains a struggle, drought and an increasing population in California still threaten the lake, but an understanding was reached that the greatest self-interest involves not simply human beings, but avian beings as well. Imagine a world without 80 species of migratory birds such as the California gull, osprey, western snowy plovers eared grebes and red-necked phalaropes. The world would indeed be poorer.
It took chutzpah for a small group of citizens to challenge an entity as large as the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles—but they had right on their side. They understood that the business of securing a future involved taking great risks.
These, I believe, are the types of risks Jesus is asking us to take—savvy risks, not simply for birds and lakes, but for people as well—all done in the interest of securing a future worth living. Think of it this way. When Jesus talks about “treasure in heaven” and “eternal homes,” he’s not simply talking about later—he’s also talking about now. Right now, at this present moment. Now. Rather than simply sitting back, praying and hoping for God to make changes in our world and community, this parable is a call for us to reach out, and to build the beloved community—and to do so with gusto, with insight, a bit of chutzpah and plenty of savvy.* In Jesus’ name. Amen.
*portions of this sermon were inspired by Saltproject.org.