September 22, 2013
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Canon Donna G. Joy
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Luke 16:1-13
This past week I watched the most recent season finale for the popular TV series ‘Mad Men’. Many of you have heard me speak of this series before, and very possibly you may hear me speak of it again. I believe it points toward what is wrong with this culture in which we live; it helps us recognize that we are shaped by an advertising industry that exists for the sole purpose of convincing us that everything we need for fulfillment and happiness can be found in the purchase of some particular product. The whole purpose of commercial advertising is to help increase the demand for goods and services by the consumers, so that sense of fulfillment and happiness changes almost daily. Whatever purchase offered that sense of perfect fulfillment and happiness yesterday will be replaced with something different tomorrow.
The most recent season finale for ‘Mad Men’ includes a scene with the infamous Don Draper, popular Advertising Executive, trying to sell a particular advertising strategy to a group of Hershey Chocolate Bar business executives. He suggests that the advertising strategy begin with the story of a little boy who receives some money for having mowed the lawn. The little boy’s dad takes him to the store and lets him buy whatever candy treat he chooses with the money he had earned. The little boy chooses a Hershey Chocolate bar and as he excitedly opens it he knows that the packaging reflects the quality of the contents inside. The little boy for the rest of time will equate the quality of that treat with the quality of his dad’s love. Finally, Don Draper suggests that this advertising campaign conclude with the words: ‘Hershey: the currency of affection – the childhood symbol of love.’
I, on the other hand, suggest that this would be a good advertising campaign for our Atrium, where our children are given the opportunity to experience the love of Jesus, the Good Shepherd - ‘St. Peter’s Atrium: the currency of affection – the childhood symbol of love.
As we listen to Don Draper’s campaign for Hershey chocolate, we are reminded that this is what the commercial advertising industry is all about: convincing us that our hearts will be restless until they discover this perfect piece of chocolate – or this perfect piece of clothing – or this perfectly designed home - or this new piece of technology – or this particularly sexy car ….. And yet, our faith tells us something different. And we are called to be shaped, not by Madison Avenue, but instead by Augustine’s advertising campaign, “The heart is restless until it rests in thee.”
One of the greatest challenges for the church today is to become shaped by the teachings and tradition of our church, rather than the commercial advertising campaigns that permeate the very air we breathe. This problem of the People of God - worshipping idols orather than God - as we know, is nothing new. God has struggled with this human tendency ever since Adam and Eve. And it is this challenge that the prophet Jeremiah is addressing in our first reading. We find idolatry at the very heart of his complaint in verses 19-20.
It seems that the people are looking for fulfillment and happiness everywhere other than with God. Jeremiah can see where this is heading, and he is lamenting the waywardness of God’s people. We can see his mood becoming more and more desperate. He speaks of his eyes as a fountain of tears. These tears are a sign of relinquishment, a letting go of false hopes and false gods, an admission that we are in sad shape and in need of deliverance. Jeremiah is grieving for his people, and this grief is an honest admission that we are a people who need a God who loves and saves.
Jeremiah speaks today to a culture by which we are all shaped in various ways, a culture that is terribly lost, a culture that follows the gods of Madison Avenue far more faithfully than the God who creates us and calls us to follow.
Jeremiah’s tears, as it turns out, were an opening to the possibility of divine deliverance. And that opening was fulfilled in the coming of God’s Son. And although there are countless interpretations and commentaries on today’s Gospel, I am personally convinced that it primarily speaks of the divine deliverance made possible through Jesus. I am speaking, of the parable of the unjust steward. Following the work of Robert Capon, I am convinced that Jesus himself is the unjust steward who has ‘reconciled the books’ on our behalf.
This story speaks of a rich man who fires his manager because of charges made against him. The rich man summons the manager, asks him to prepare a full report of his accounts, and when that is complete – without any kind of a fair trial – he is fired. The manager – first – laments this turn of events and then – shrewdly – decides to cut a deal for those in debt to the rich man – in the hope that once he is dismissed they will take mercy on him and invite him into their homes. He says to one, “… that hundred jugs of olive oil you owe my boss – well, take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” To another he says, “… that hundred containers of wheat you owe – take your bill and make it eighty.” So, you get the point: he is cutting a deal for those in debt so that their load may be made lighter. And, when the boss recognizes what the manager has done he commends him for being shrewd (wise).
Some commentators suggest we are to assume that in encouraging his clients to adjust their bills he is actually waving his own commission. The rich man also makes that very strange comment, “… make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes.” And then there is the piece about those who are faithful which will lead to the greater good. And finally, the importance of not trying to serve two masters.
When working with this passage:
some commentators focus on the piece where Jesus is offering a teaching on the perils of squandering what we have;
others suggest that he is primarily commending the unjust steward not for his thievery, but for his shrewdness, saying that he wishes the ‘children of light’ (referring to this disciples) could be as savvy in getting what they want as this crook in this story;
others tend to focus on the piece which says, “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”;
some commentaries will go on to extrapolate that teaching attributed to Ghandi, which is the need to be mindful and faithful of the small things, so that we in our own small way(s) may create the change we wish to see in the world;
others see in this parable a bottom line that challenges the need to address economic justice – a common theme throughout the whole of Luke’s Gospel;
others dismiss this parable as something that Jesus probably never actually said.
With the exception of the last one, I would affirm that each of these nuggets offer some good and necessary wisdom in terms of living our lives in faith. Indeed, we must not squander the blessings that we receive / we must learn to be shrewd/wise in our role as disciples / we must be faithful in small things so that in our own day to day living we may inspire the change that is part of God’s plan / and – yes – we are definitely called to do all we can to promote economic justice. HBut despite the wisdom that is evident in each of these areas of focus, I have never been convinced that any of these nuggets of wisdom manage to reach into the very core of what this parable is intended to offer. It was only when I discovered in ‘Parables of Grace’ Robert Capon’s interpretation that I found an interpretation that I believe accomplishes this more challenging task.
Robert Capon over and over again makes the point that Jesus often said outrageous things that were intended to uncover deep and abiding truths. According to Capon this is a parable that is, “a grassroots lesson connecting the ordinariness of life with the extraordinary nature of God.” This parable, in fact, identifies the very nature of God made manifest in Jesus.
Robert Capon reaches the conclusion that Jesus is the unjust steward because, when we really think about it, we will recognize that charges were brought against Jesus, and as he suffered death on the cross, he cut a deal for each of us. On the cross, he lightened our load, and he did so with the expectation that we might find a place for him in our heart or home, wherever that may be. I believe that this truth lies at the very heart of this parable.
Capon says, “As far as I am concerned, therefore, the unjust steward is nothing less than the Christ-figure in this parable, a dead ringer for Jesus himself.” He says that the most important piece within this parable is the realization that the unjust steward – the moment he realizes he is being fired (metaphorically – in this story – a type of death) he reaches into the messiness of debt/sin and adjusts things on the debtor’s behalf. This parable, therefore, says in story what Jesus himself has said through his life, death, resurrection. The unjust steward was not considered to be terribly respectable, and Jesus himself was not considered respectable, at least not according to the standards of his time. He broke the Sabbath, spent time with, dined with, befriended those who were despised, and he died as a criminal, with known criminals beside him, one on his right and one on his left. And now, according to R.C., we see in this parable, that in Jesus’ death he became immersed in our sin and cut a deal for us with God. Through him, we have been forgiven our debts – forgiven our sins – and made free to live in his likeness – to invite him into our hearts and our homes – and transform this world with that same brand of love.
As disciples of Jesus, this is the advertising campaign that is to shape our lives: “The heart is restless until it rests in thee.” I believe that – by and large – the church has dropped the ball in terms of overriding the powerful, all pervasive impact of an advertising industry that shapes us in ways that we have hardly begun to comprehend. Jeremiah speaks to us today, weeps for a consumer driven culture that is looking for love in all the wrong places. Jeremiah’s tears serve as an opening to recognize and embrace the truth that lies at the very heart of our faith – that is, Jesus’ love on the cross, cutting a deal for us to reconcile the books – to reconcile us with God.
Our task as disciples is to live into that state of reconciliation with God, one tiny faithful step at a time. When Jesus becomes the very centre of our lives – ‘the currency of affection / the childhood symbol of love’ - when the gift of his love and sacrifice on the cross is truly embraced, we become empowered to resist being shaped by an advertising industry that is designed to promote and perpetuate a consumer driven, narcissistic society. And as we learn to live into this extraordinary brand of love, we will become channels through which his love may be made known in this world.
Let this be the gift that shapes our lives.