Sunday, September 18, 2016

Tales of the Bizarro World

Luke 16:1-13

All over the world this morning there are priests who will be preaching on the Epistle. Why? Because this morning’s gospel lesson, what is sometimes called “the parable of the unrighteous steward,” is a real head-scratcher! I studied this passage earlier this week with some local clergy, all of them very capable interpreters of scripture, but honestly we all really struggled with this one.

It may be helpful to first understand the setting of the story. It involves a rich man who owns a substantial piece of property that he rents to tenants probably for agricultural purposes. It was common in those days for people to rent and work farmland, orchards, and vineyards, and in return give the owner an agreed upon amount of the proceeds. It was also common for the owner to appoint a steward to oversee and manage this arrangement.

The “hero” in this story is the steward. His character is established from the beginning. He is untrustworthy and only interested in himself. Reports come to the owner of the property that his steward is squandering his property and he is called to account and fired on the spot. In order to get in good with the locals and cover his back, the sneaky steward goes behind the owner’s back and collects on the all the accounts, lowering the amount owed in order to ingratiate himself with the people.

This puts the owner in a bind. No doubt he was being celebrated all over the land as a most generous manager.  If he were to renege on the steward’s settlements and punish the steward he would lose the people’s goodwill and instead appear harsh and unforgiving. The master can only commend the steward for his shrewdness. We are not told whether he was given his job back, but it seems to be implied.

 The problem is that this irresponsible, self-serving, dishonest, and conniving individual is held up by Jesus to be admired and emulated! He says, “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

A Roman Emperor who rejected Christianity, Julian the Apostate, used this very story as evidence that Christians were liars, thieves, and con-artists who were not to be trusted! He said that this parable proves that Jesus was a mere man and not a particularly worthy man either! 

Is Jesus encouraging us to be the type of person who only looks out for himself? Far from it! We have to remember that Jesus is a storyteller. When we read a novel or watch a film about a charming criminal who pulls off an ingenious heist we might smile in admiration and slap our knee to watch him get away with it even though we would never approve or endorse such behavior in real life. We suspend our judgment. We understand that—at least for the sake of the story—we are entering the world and the values of the characters which may be very different than our own.

We should resist the urge to read Jesus’ parables as pious or moralistic illustrations, and instead approach them more like stories. When we tell stories we may playfully take on a persona of a character with values opposite our own in an ironic way. For instance, would you call Mark Twain racist because of the opinions expressed by characters in his novel, Huck Finn? No of course not, he was being satirical!
Jesus often uses unsavory characters in his stories. This isn’t the only example. He uses surprising and paradoxical comparisons. He has a keen sense of wit and irony. Like other satirical storytellers, his purpose is to critique the status quo and create a new awareness in his listeners. He wants to turn our assumptions on their heads.

Do you know what the Bizarro World is? (At this point I’m going to reveal what a complete geek your rector is.) Bizarro is a villain from Superman. He is a kind of evil doppelganger of Superman. He comes from a world where everything is the opposite of how it is in this world, the Bizarro world. So for instance the “S’ on Bizarro’s uniform is backwards as it would be in a mirror. He says ‘Goodbye’ when he comes and ‘Hello’ when he leaves. In Bizarro world, up is down and down is up and people love ugliness and hate beauty. The sitcom Seinfield spoofed the idea in one of their episodes and since then in popular culture "Bizarro World" has come to mean a situation or setting which is strangely inverted or opposite of normal expectations.

But what if it us who live in the Bizarro World? In our reading today Jesus sets up a series of opposites that mirror one another. There is this world and there is the world to come, the Kingdom of God. There are the people that belong to this age that is passing away and there are the Children of Light, those who belong to the Kingdom. There is God and there is Mammon.

Who is Mammon? Some scholars identify Mammon with the Chaldean god of riches and wealth, similar to the Greek god Plutus. He is a personification of wealth and worldly gain, but is also associated with general excess and selfishness, with lust, power, gluttony, and pride. Mammon is the opposite of the self-sacrificing God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. In Bizarro World people worship Mammon instead of God.

In the Kingdom of God everything is reversed. Those who humble themselves are exalted, the way to freedom is service to God and neighbor, the first is last and the last is first, the way to greater life is to take up one’s cross, and the way to store up riches for oneself is to give away all that you have in the service of others. This feels backwards to us, but only because we live in the Bizarro world!

In this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story that takes place in the Bizarro world, but it is really about the Kingdom. He does this in order that we can understand, like an adult who stoops down and baby-talks to a toddler. Even though this steward lives in the Bizarro world, he is shrewder than the children of light. See how ingeniously he serves his god Mammon? He knows how to work the system and get just what he wants. Also even though he is acting in the service of Mammon, of greed and self-interest, he ironically does the right thing for the wrong motives. He is generous to the debtors and has mercy on them while at the same time bringing honor to their master.

In the Bizarro world, the shrewd steward uses deeds of righteousness—or  the forgiveness of debt—for his own worldly advantage. What does that look like if we turn it the right side up? It is using worldly gain for the sake of righteousness! This is what Jesus means when he says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” The command is literally translated as, “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon.” It refers to the riches of this world which are polluted by human sin and liable to be a snare to us. 

Jesus is teaching us the proper use of wealth in this world. A person cannot serve God and Mammon. We must never allow ourselves to be captured by worldly wealth, but the shrewd child of light will find ways to use the things that she has in this life for the sake of the next. If you have riches in this life, don’t hoard them for yourself, but give them away in the service of the Kingdom. That way you will store up true treasures in heaven. If the rich are generous to the poor in this life, they will be blessed when the last become first and first become last. They will be welcomed into their eternal homes.