What is yours?

19 September 2010
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20C (RCL)

Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

This passage from Luke’s Gospel always provokes comment. How could Jesus tell a story in which (by extension) he appears to approve shady conduct? Commentators through the ages have contorted themselves to make sense of it. Even Luke attaches a number of different possible interpretations to the parable: the children this age are more shrewd that the children of light; make friends for yourselves by dishonest wealth; whoever is faithful in a little will be faithful in a lot. Which is it?

The question that strikes me is, “If you have not been faithful in what belongs to another, who will trust you with what is your own?” That seems exactly backward to me. The standard moral would be, “If you aren’t careful with your own stuff, who is going to trust you with their stuff?” But this is backward. It raises the question, “What is ours, and what belongs to another?” With this question in mind, read the parable again.

Presumably, the landowner let his land out to be farmed by others, and they owed him a portion of the produce. A hundred baths of oil is about 900 gallons, so this isn’t tenant farmer — this is commercial farming. So, if this guy owes 900 gallons of oil, how much did he produce? Does he think the steward still works for the master? If so, this is really unexpected generosity. The farmer is now deeply indebted by honor to the master, so this isn’t all bad for the master. And the steward, of course, will be welcomed by the farmer. Same with the man who owes wheat.

So, clearly, the oil and the wheat do not belong to the steward. Do they belong to the master? the farmer? The question, “If you are not faithful with what belongs to another, who will trust you with your own?” echoes Jesus’ response about paying taxes: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” If the money, the oil, the grain belong to someone else (God perhaps?), then what belongs to us? Our own person, where the image of God is stamped?

I think the point of the story is that only that which is given to us as a gift truly belongs to us, and only to the extent we recognize the gift of it.

The story certainly rings true for us. How many people are afraid of losing their jobs? How dishonest is wealth in our society? What is truly ours is only ours among the friends we make for ourselves within the contexts in which we live. So, you cannot serve God and wealth does not mean you can’t have money. It’s a reminder to think about from whom you get what belongs to you.

In the Jeremiah passage, it’s hard to tell who is speaking. God? The prophet? The NRSV punctuates it so that the prophet speaks the words of lament, and God speaks the words of judgment. Why would God not speak both? Makes more sense to me. God laments the foolishness of God’s people that has brought them to this pass. Without minimizing their errors, God still loves them.

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