September 18, 2016 Sermon
I don’t usually do this, but today I am going to brag about something great my home country did. At the centre of my home town Seoul, there is a park called Sky Park. This is an amazing park because the whole district where it was built used to be a huge garbage dump. I remember from my childhood the mountains and mountains of garbage that not only looked bad but also smelled terrible. The city of Seoul turned this site into a nature park. They planted different plants, trees, and flowers; and built paths where people can take a walk. Moreover, there are 5 wind turbines that provides electricity for the whole park. This park is designed to restore the natural ecosystem, which hasn’t been completed yet but stay tuned.
Hopefully this positive and nice story distracted you from the troubling gospel text we read today. This parable that is called the “Dishonest Manager” or “Shrewd Manager” is one of the most troubling gospel parables for biblical scholars. We are all puzzled by this story and there are different theories about how to understand it. For example, we are divided about whether this manager/ steward is really bad or not, what he did wrong, or why he was commended for being wise. I will spare you the headache of scholarly debates and point out several things we need to take today for our lesson.
First, the steward was accused of squandering his master’s property. What we don’t realize as readers of the translated versions is that the original Greek word that we translate as “was accused” is diaballein, which means to slander, or to lie about. Diaballein is where the word devil and diabolic come from; because devil is the one who lies and tricks. So a more accurate translation would be “he was falsely accused”. Anyway, he was accused and the master believed his accusers and planned to fire him. Desperate, he tried to secure his future by reducing the debts of the people who owed his master money; you do them a favour and later when you are unemployed they will return the favour and help you out. What we also don’t know is that what the steward is sacrificing is not really his master’s money but the commission he is to receive for managing his master’s business.
At this point, there is one more thing to consider in understanding why Jesus is telling this story to his disciples. The Galilean society at the time of Jesus was moving toward commercialization of farming. Peasants were either forced off the land or became indentured servants for larger estates. Often, this consolidation of the land was accomplished through debt. To be able to pay taxes and tolls, peasants had to borrow money, and if harvest was bad, you are done for, and your farm is confiscated. So when the immediate followers of Jesus prayed “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”, they are dead serious. That is why those people in the story owed money to the steward’s master, and the practice of charging interest was common. But here’s another thing; according to the Jewish Law, you’re not supposed to charge interest! It’s unlawful! So by sacrificing his share of commission, the steward unwittingly fulfilled the requirement of the Jewish Law, although his intention was to secure his own future. Oh how the Lord works in a mysterious (and ironic) way!
Scholars tend to believe that his dishonest act was commended because he used his soon-to-end authority and the resources to prepare for the future. Strictly speaking, he didn’t steal from his master. It’s a little bit like Robin Hood who stole from the rich and helped the poor; because in an unjust society, what the privileged people have is unjustly acquired. But here’s a disclaimer; I am not condoning stealing and breaking the law. Remember that this steward’s “dishonest” action actually fulfilled the Law by cancelling the interest.
One thing most scholars agree on is that this parable is about how to use our resources. Here’s a question to consider; when we know we have a time limit, what do we do with the resources we have now? We could be like the prodigal son and spend it all for our pleasure, or we could be like Joseph who was sold into slavery by his own brothers but became a high government official in Egypt. He stored all the excessive harvest so his people can be fed during the future famine. It’s like having a savings account to prepare for the future, which is a wise thing. This is what wise people do.
We are in the Creation Time and meditating on God’s Creation and our relationship with it. We also have resources and time limit. Just as our lives on Earth will not last forever, neither will our resources. So as a part of God’s Creation family, what do we do with our resources? We have been exploiting the Earth’s resources in the name of progress, development, and civilization. Now we realize that we have been abusing our resources and that they won’t last if we keep on doing what we have been doing, such as relying on fossil fuels. Now our knowledge and technology are seeking solutions to develop sustainable energy. I mentioned the wind turbines that generate electricity. We also develop solar power; I am proud that our own Kimberley has the Sun Mine. We’re supposed to have a lot of sunny days, so why not use it to create energy? Wind and sunlight won’t run out (well, at least the sun will not die for the next 5 billion years), so why not use them? Scientists keep discovering sustainable ways to generate power, and I hope that in the future we won’t have to use up Earth’s resources to live a civilized lifestyle.
A lot of people think, “Hey what do I care about the future? All that disaster you speak of is after my lifetime”, and they keep using up Earth’s resources or cause pollution to save money in their businesses. These people are like the prodigal son who used up all his inheritance for pleasure; they are foolish. Although the steward from today’s story acted in a morally suspicious way, he prepared for the future instead of only thinking of the present (and of course, unwittingly fulfilling the commandment not to charge interest). This is God’s Creation among which we live. If we only think of our present comfort and pleasure, we are destroying the future of God’s Creation; we are destroying ourselves because we are an integral part of God’s Creation. We are created to be interdependent; it’s called the ecosystem. Little things we do thinking that it’s little will have consequences. Karma will come back and bite us. It’s time to start working toward the healing of God’s Creation. Listen to Jeremiah who lamented, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then the health of my poor people not been restored?”
We are called to be the balm, the physician to heal God’s Creation. This week, let us learn more about sustainability and how we can lead a sustainable lifestyle as individuals, not as business owners who can cause pollution and other environmental damages on a massive scale. And let us actively participate in whatever we can do in our lives. Let us be God’s wise stewards who prepare for the future and work towards healing God’s Creation.
Rev. Sunny Ki,