Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 22, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the great archetypes in all of storytelling is the antihero. An antihero is a character who is utterly lacking in all the qualities you usually see in a hero, and yet, you can’t help but root for them. An antihero is a character who lacks typical hero qualities like, oh, say, morality or honor or respect for the law, and yet, you can’t help but like them.
One of the most famous antiheros of all time is Robin Hood, a character who has been around in various forms since at least the 15th century. Robin Hood, of course, breaks laws left and right. He is constantly on the run from the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John. He steals from the rich and gives to the poor. While he is a thief and a lawbreaker and exceedingly crafty (and thus portrayed as a fox in the Disney classic), he is also a beloved hero. There are plenty of other examples we could point to. Han Solo was a smuggler. Jack Sparrow was a pirate. Sherlock Holmes describes himself as a “high functioning sociopath.” These aren’t “good” guys, but somehow, they’re the good guys!
The archetype of the antihero was common in the ancient near east as well. Poverty-ridden peasants of Jesus’ time loved stories about crafty antiheroes who stuck it to the privileged and the powerful. Today we hear Jesus use just this kind of character in one of his parables.
“There was a rich man with a manager…” Jesus begins. The rich man accuses the manager with squandering his property and gives him the sack: “You’re fired!” Well, what’s this suddenly unemployed manager going to do? He knows he isn’t strong enough to dig ditches for a living. He knows he doesn’t want to beg. So he cooks up a plan. Before any of his boss’s clients know he’s been fired, he goes out to them to settle their accounts. He cancels their debts left and right! Oh, I see you owe a hundred jugs of olive oil? Make it fifty. What is that, a hundred basked of wheat? Make it eighty. (This, by the way, is why when someone in a modern corporation is fired, all their company credentials are immediately scrubbed and they are escorted out of the building by security!) This manager goes around unilaterally cancelling the debts of his boss’s clients! It is unethical. It is illegal. And it is….celebrated?
Yes, it is indeed celebrated! When the boss finds out what his former employee has done, he COMMENDS him for his craftiness, for his shrewdness! And not only that, but when Jesus himself finishes the story he lifts this character up as a positive example! Jesus encourages his disciples to emulate him! 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.”
Now we need to understand what Jesus is saying here. He is clearly not telling his disciples to acquire wealth through illegal and unethical means. That’s not how the antihero archetype works. I loved Han Solo as a kid, but it has never occurred to me to become a smuggler – though it did inspire me to do brave things for the good of others. I don’t know anyone who has heard the story of Robin Hood and then thought it would be a good idea to go out and start mugging people in Bellevue – though perhaps it has pricked some consciences into thinking about the plight of the poor. The antihero is a hero in spite of their negative qualities, not because of them.
The point of this story is that the disciples are to be crafty and clever and shrewd in how they manage their money. They are to use it in ways that benefit others, with an eye towards eternity. They are to use it while always keeping in mind where their true riches lie. They are to manage their resources while always remembering that they cannot serve both God and wealth.
Jesus is telling this antihero story to put his finger on what he knows will be the biggest temptation for the disciples, which will be to feather their nest rather than build the kingdom, to worship the almighty dollar rather than Almighty God. Martin Luther writes in the Large Catechism that “money is the most common idol on earth.” That was true in Jesus’ time, it was true in Luther’s time, and it is most certainly true in our time as well.
You’ve probably heard the old observation that $20 looks huge in the offering plate, but not so significant when you’re spending it at the movie theater or the golf course or the tavern or the yarn store or the bookstore. (Did I manage to poke everyone at least once?) People can be extremely clever and resourceful and driven when they want something. What if we were as clever and resourceful and driven in the funding of the kingdom of God? In investing in God’s work in the world? In tending to our neighbors in need?
Many of you are. We make a point here at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church to protect your privacy in giving. There are very few people who see the year-end giving statements, and I’m not one of them, so I don’t know who gives what around here. But I do know that we have many people here who have been very clever and resourceful and driven and so very generous in giving to this congregation and to the ministries we support. We have people who give regularly to support our budget. We have people who make additional gifts to support our ministries of the month or when there is a need. We have people who give through their smartphones with our Tithely app. We have people who give to our church through Thrivent Choice dollars and through the Amazon Smile program. We have people who have made clever arrangements to make this congregation one of its beneficiaries in their wills, with large contributions designated for our endowment fund so they will continue to support this congregation for many years after they have entered the Church Triumphant. How very shrewd all of this is! How very resourceful! Thank you!
This is all great, but I also know that it is part of our sinful nature for all of us to cling to that idol of money, that idol of financial security. And when we cling to this idol, we are no longer clinging to God. When we put our trust in our bank accounts and our purses and our checkbooks, we are no longer putting our trust in God. When your chief purpose in life is to make money, then your chief purpose is no longer to serve God. “You cannot serve both God and wealth,” Jesus says.
This story is told to the disciples, and to us, so that we will let go of that idol and begin to use our resources for the sake of our God, for the sake of our neighbors, for the sake of those eternal homes Jesus points us to. This story with its antihero is told to begin to peel our fingers away from our wallets so that we might take hold of the true riches of his grace.
The parables of Jesus are never just a morality tale. They are never simply a way to cajole people to do something. The parables of Jesus can usually be understood on more than one level, and much of the time they are not just about what we are to do, but what Christ has come to do for us. This story is no exception. Because, you see, Jesus is the ultimate antihero. It might feel slightly irreverent to think of him in this way, but consider the work of Jesus from the perspective of the Pharisees. They had just been complaining that he ate with tax collectors and sinners. That’s not typical hero behavior! Not to them! They complained that Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, which they saw as a total disregard for the law. Jesus was going around just announcing that people’s sins were forgiven – like he was God or something! From the perspective of the Pharisees, what Jesus was doing was immoral, illegal, even blasphemous. And so Jesus is the ultimate antihero. He didn’t have any of the qualities the Pharisees expected their hero Messiah to have.
You could even say that Jesus bears a striking resemblance to the clever manager in the parable. He was going around cooking the books on the debt sinners owed to God. He was writing off people’s sin left and right – making a lot of friends in the process and making it possible for them to enter into those eternal homes. It was an epic scandal! And all the while, his boss, God the Father, sits back and smiles. God commends him for it! God pats him on the head and says, “You are my Son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
When Jesus died on the cross he said, “It is finished.” What Jesus says here in the biblical Greek can also be translated as “paid in full.” It is the very same word that was stamped on the bills of the ancient world whenever an account was settled: tetelestai. This is what Jesus has done for all of us. Jesus is like the clever manager in the parable – only he didn’t just reduce our debt, he paid it in full.
This is where we find true riches. As we receive the riches of his grace, his mercy, his forgiveness, his love, our hearts are set free to live for the Giver and not the gifts, to worship the Giver and not the gifts, the serve the Giver and not the gifts. Our hearts are set free to cling once again to God and to God alone.
And as our hearts cling to God, a funny thing happens – we find that they don’t need to cling quite so tightly to our wallets.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church