XV Pentecost 22 September 2019
Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Having recently become a podcaster, I find myself in many conversations lately that are at least adjacent to my time recording independent music. One such conversation moved to the realm of how artists protect their intellectual property and how subtle distinctions can have big implications in the world of music publications. I used a kind of a famous example from way back in the early nineties. Some of you might remember the artist Vanilla Ice, the hop-hop nom de plume of Rob Van Winkle. Just after his breakout record, Van Winkle and his team were in some legal hot water. It was over their use of a little piece, a sample, of Under Pressure, a great song by the legendary rock band, Queen and the archetypal rock star, David Bowie. If you listen to Van Winkle’s Ice Ice Baby, you’ll notice the bass sample sounds a lot like the iconic bass lick from Under Pressure, and people were taking notice. Famously, Van Winkle defended the fair use of the beat by defending its musicality in an interview. In one of the most cringe-worthy moments of that era of MTV, Van Winkle quoted the Queen lick by singing their bass lines, and then emphatically singing his own. He did not come off real well, though he had a point in that his version had an extra sixteenth note or something. I’ll let you google that episode to see how it ran its course. In any case, for that and for other reasons, he became a bit of a laughing stock.
The crazy thing is, that in many ways, Van Winkle’s seemingly half-hearted attempts at showing the distinction between basslines might have come off as terrible and insincere artistry but it was kind of a shrewd business move to attempt to fend off having to pay very, very expensive royalties.
So why, you might ask, am I talking about the trajectory of Vanilla Ice’s career this morning? Because today’s confounding Gospel lesson speaks to the odd virtue of a good last ditch business decision.
As we dig into this parable, let’s recall what we’ve heard over the past few weeks from St. Luke’s account of the Gospel. In chapter 14, Jesus told the multitudes that were gathering around him about the high cost of becoming his disciple thus placing his in the prime position above all other loves in life. In chapter 15, Jesus told parables to the sinners AND the pharisees that referred to how God was looking for and ready to receive sinners with heavenly enthusiasm likened to that of a shepherd who recovered a lost sheep, a lady who found a lost coin, and a Father who had received back his lost son. Luke tells us that this parable in this sixteenth chapter was meant especially for his disciples, but I think that even with this distinction, we as an audience should not forget the implicit contrast Jesus was drawing with the Pharisees as emblematic actors of the current age. Therefore, most of what we find in Jesus’ teaching in this section of the Gospel is about reorienting the expectations of what it means to live as if Jesus is first, an arrangement that calls into question all sorts of behaviors, systems, and status rules.
All of those things are at play in this parable as Jesus taught it. We hear of a household manager who is not so good at his job. As the householder calls him out and sets out to fire him, the manager realizes that his job in the household is not only his means of income but also his only claim on status and security. He’s not set up for manual labor and I think it’s safe to say that this character has grown accustomed to his comforts. The plan that Jesus created for this character is rather interesting. He settled the accounts with several of the household’s debtors by reducing what they owed. In so doing, he made some friends out of these debtors, to the effect that they would be more likely to invite him into their homes as a friend. He wouldn’t steward of a household, but at least he wouldn’t be on the street.
Next, Jesus sets a brief scene with the householder. Interestingly, the householder thinks well of the dishonest steward for his last ditch effort to stay above water. The steward’s shrewdness in this deal has afforded some provisional security. But even as Jesus appears to commend business sense in this regard, he still describes the entire situation as a deal worked out by the “children of this generation,” with all the attendant broken values, expectations, and systems that he seeks to upend. And as Jesus concludes, his disciples might receive some encouragement to think carefully about about their use of their practical sensibilities, being “wise as serpents and Harmless as doves” as Jesus taught in the Gospel according to Matthew.
But there seems to be something more to hear than Jesus simply telling his disciples to be on their hustle for the Kingdom, important as that is. Verse 9 of this text indicates this when we hear: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.” What I think Jesus means here is that disciples ought to be in the business of forgiving debts, making ways for people thrive without being stuck under the thumb the children of this generation, without much expectation of bare earthly security but in expectation of both of the immanent (that is, here and now) and eschatological (that is, the things to come at the end of this age) security of God’s eternal kingdom. I think what I’m reading then, is that the values of Christ’s Kingdom should and will upend the expected orders of this world, and that Jesus’s disciples should be better at working for his Kingdom’s flourisihng than the so called “Children of this generation:” people like the pharisees, like the steward and householder from the parable, and probably like Vanilla Ice.
And before we can get wrapped up in thinking that we should be getting super comfortable with mammon (sometimes translated as wealth), we might look seriously at the turn Jesus makes in verses 10, 11, and 12. We heard:
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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
Jesus reminds us that to avoid being stuck in mammon’s grasp is to live faithfully with wealth, to recognize that the things we have are God’s first, and that in only in Him do things have their ultimate value because God (and those made in His image) carry intrinsic value that mammon only seeks to parody. We cannot serve God and mammon or wealth because it is not possible to do so once we have truly found the Eternal worth of His glory, perfection, and beauty. We can only seek to use our wealth that He has given us to serve him and aid in those things that show the world that which reflects the love of Jesus Christ.
Which is to say, kind of a tough sell perhaps. But if you’re ever wondering why God’s people should exert the things they have on behalf of His Kingdom,we do well to remember the kind of work that God does for us first. Perhaps we can start by remembering the final words of Psalm 113:
[Our God] takes up the weak out of the dust *
and lifts up the poor from the ashes.
He sets them with the princes, *
with the princes of his people.
He makes the woman of a childless house *
to be a joyful mother of children.
Or perhaps we could recall what Paul wrote to his friend Timothy, that we know that God in Christ, “who gave himself a ransom for all,” “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” When Christ’s people are generous, it is because they rightly remember that God is generous in His love for us.
But in order for those things, that love, to be made manifest to the world, God’s people in the Church must live lives in accordance with that truth: Loving God and our neighbors with increasing humility and charity. Thus, may we truly enjoy today’s appointed collect prayer, that we would not be anxious about earthly things: preferring instead to offer them back to God for his honor and for his purposes. May we love things heavenly: being fully aware of their real and eternal power and value; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; even the Gospel of our Savior and Redeemer, Christ Jesus.
To Him be all Glory; from age to age. Amen.
The Very Rev. David Bumsted
Emmanuel Episcopal Church