St Bride's: Sermons

Whoever is faithful in a very little

Luke 16. 1-13

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16 And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods.

And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward.

Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.

I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.

So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord?

And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty.

Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.

And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

10 He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.

11 If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?

12 And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own?

13 No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

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What on earth was that gospel reading about?  It must be one of the oddest parables in the whole of the New Testament.  A manager working for a rich man gets the sack, because he has been squandering his master's property.  And because he is, by his own admission, not strong enough to do manual labour and too proud to beg, he sets about trying to ingratiate himself with his master's debtors, by letting them pay less than the full amount that they owe his employer.  In other words, he attempts to buy himself popularity at the expense of his master.  But when his master gets wind of this, bizarrely, instead of being outraged, he actually commends his manager for his shrewdness.  And if that were not peculiar enough, Jesus then caps it all by saying the following to his disciples:

Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

'Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth'?  Surely that can't be right!  And having consulted various commentaries on Luke's gospel in recent days, I have to say that I find it somewhat gratifying to find even world-ranking biblical experts tying themselves in knots over this particular biblical passage.  And it is easy to see why.

So, what are we to make of this?  As a starting point it seems to me that probably the best way in is to remember that, although Luke recounts the stories of Jesus superbly - all the best and most memorable of the parables are found in his gospel - nevertheless, he does not always refine the details and iron out the inconsistencies in his account in the way that, say, Matthew does in his gospel (which is rather more sharp and focussed in this respect).

So sometimes the secret of understanding Luke is to step back and deal with the bigger picture - go for the gist of the story, rather than get bogged down in the detail.  And it seems to me that the first clues to what this story is saying can perhaps be found in the passage that comes immediately before it in Luke's gospel - the parable of the Prodigal Son, with which you will all be very familiar.

Because there are some interesting parallels between the two stories.  As in today's parable, the Prodigal Son is the tale of a young man who behaves appallingly to someone to whom he owes both loyalty and trustworthiness.  (The Prodigal demands his inheritance before his father's death and then wastes it on loose living, just as our manager squanders his master's estate).  And so, in both stories, the central characters, as a result of their own self-indulgence, end up in deep trouble, and are forced into taking desperate measures for their sheer survival.  And, in both stories, the one whom they have wronged, shows extravagant and unwarranted kindness and mercy to them, even though neither of them deserves it.  Because ultimately these are both parables about the boundless generosity of God's love and forgiveness.

But perhaps there is more going on here as well.  I often find in the parables that Jesus told, a kind of harsh, uncompromising honesty, which one has to acknowledge and admire - because Jesus never shies away from recognising that we are all broken, and fallen, and complicated human beings; and that sometimes we are often driven to act from motives that are, to say the very least, questionable.  There are times when all of us are capable of doing good things for bad reasons, just as we are capable of doing bad things for very good reasons.  Such is the glorious complexity of human life and human motivation.

Of course, what we are not told in either of these two parables, is what happened next in the lives of their central characters.  How did the experience of being accepted and forgiven and loved transform the life of the Prodigal Son?  How did the manager's reinstatement by his master change the way that he behaved?  At one level that is a silly question, because these are simply stories - but nevertheless, I do find the thought an interesting one.

Some years ago, the then vicar of one of the toughest inner city parishes in Birmingham told me the following story.  His church had appointed a youth worker, whose brief was to get to know the local kids out in the streets.  (The parish recognised there was not much point basing him in a building and expecting the kids to come to him - and in any case, the building would only get vandalised - so instead, he went to them.)  It was a tough area, with a very high crime rate. 

A few months into the job, the youth worker was annoyed to discover one day that all four of the hub caps on his car had been stolen - and he happened to mention this to the kids on the estate whom, by that stage, he was starting to befriend.  The following morning, much to his utter astonishment, he went out to his car, to discover that it was now proudly displaying four brand new gleaming hub-caps, which had been fitted some time during the night.

Now this, of course, posed something of a dilemma for our good Christian youth worker, because it was patently obvious that he was the recipient of stolen goods - which, of course, he couldn't condone in the slightest.  But he was also aware that something incredibly important had now happened in his relationship with those kids.  Because within the very distorted world view with which they had been brought up, with its very warped notions of right and wrong - those kids had in fact, and entirely of their own volition, done something really special for him. 

And he was deeply touched by their action, however misguided and reprehensible he knew it to be.  Because their 'gift' to him had actively put the relationship between them on a completely different footing - which in time, opened the door to a host of much more constructive projects and activities that they were able to do together.  And when that happened, at last he had a chance of helping them to learn to see the world around them in a rather different light.  In the same way, however reprehensible the actions of the untrustworthy steward might appear, he was in fact displaying mercy to his employer's debtors.  However reprehensible his actions may have been, from their point of view, what they were receiving from him was mercy.  After all, they were only in debt in the first place, because they had been in need.

Jesus says in our gospel reading, 'whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much'.  Perhaps the stories I have just shared with you, in which it proved possible to glimpse the jewel of a new possibility within the heart of something that, at face value, might appear utterly reprehensible- we are starting to get close to the true meaning of this bewildering parable. 

Jesus knew all about the importance of starting conversations with people from where they actually were - rather from where he thought they ought to be - and that is a lesson from which we can all learn from time to time.

I have given you one story on the subject of car hub caps this morning - now here's another one!   One morning about ten years ago, I set off to drive to the ballet school where I was chaplain, to take an assembly there.  And when I looked at my car, which was parked on the road outside my house, something immediately looked wrong.  It took me a moment to realise that, as in the previous story, during the night some blighter had nicked all four of the wheel trims from my Renault Clio.  Now, although I was well aware that there are far more important things in life to worry about than stolen wheel-trims, nevertheless I was both annoyed and quite upset about this - not least because my wheel trims were neither valuable nor in good condition, so they were of absolutely no use to anybody other than me.  Their theft was completely pointless.  The incident left me feeling deeply gloomy about the society we live in today, in which human beings seem to have so little respect for one another, and for one another's property.

Anyway, I didn't really give the matter much further thought until a couple of mornings later, when I went out to my car again, and this time found a note tucked under one of my windscreen wipers, which said this (and I quote - because I still have the original!):

'My friend took the wheel trims off your car whilst he was very drunk and I have now returned them to you.  I have put them under your car.  Sorry for the inconvenience caused.'

And, lo and behold, investigation revealed the presence of a black bin-liner, which proved to contain all four of my missing wheel trims, safely returned.

To this day, I have absolutely no idea who it was who returned my wheel trims, or why he took the trouble to do it.  But I have to say that his simple act of kindness touched me really quite deeply.  Because in doing what he did, he not only made good the harm that his friend had done when they were stolen, but he also helped to restore my faith in human nature.  His actions reminded me that there is kindness, and goodness, and thoughtfulness out there, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  When someone takes it upon himself to right the wrongs of another - wrongs for which that individual is not himself responsible - then there can be real healing; a real repairing of that which is broken; a real 'making good'.

It was such a small thing to have done - and yet, as Jesus teaches us in today's gospel reading, 'whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.'  Small things count, because however small they are, they can prove to be the start of something much more significant.  An act of kindness or generosity, even if it is misplaced or inappropriate, is still a generous act, from which more can follow.  Which is why our collect today asks that we may be granted the ability to see and to understand what it is that we ought to do, and then have the grace and the power to do it faithfully.

Amen.

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