You Can’t Serve Two Masters
A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, Minnesota
September 22, 2019
Proper 20, Year C
Any time we pass a Burger King, undoubtedly one of my children will shout from the backseat, “Dad, didn’t you get fired from Burger King?”
They love that story, for some reason, the rehearsing of yet another of my more memorable youthful embarrassments. I was 14 and not good at following direction. The jury is still out if that remains a growth area for me or not. But, our small town of barely more than 1000 residents had opened its one and only chain restaurant, a Burger King. And, I was one of its first employees. Barely in high school, newly enamored in my widening awareness of the culinary world, I took to the fish and chicken station earnestly and with great care. Perhaps a bit too much care.
In my short tenure of just over a month, I was the slowest sandwich maker on the team. I failed to embrace the “fast” in fast food. Instead I poured over each sandwich, smoothing condiments perfectly to the edge of each bun, dabbling with adjustments to the recipe, sharing too many of my experiments with my colleagues, I was justly accused of being a waster, both of time and resources. Chances are, in spite of my shortcomings, there was abundant grace enough that I could likely still have that job, my lack of speed notwithstanding. But, my mouth got the better of me, and my smart retort at these accusations led quickly to my dismissal.
Little did they know that there was good cause, above and beyond my lack of speed and abundance of sass, to make me redundant – over the weeks I had been there, I and my colleagues had taken to squirreling away the “expired” burgers and sandwiches. Instead of trashing them as per company policy, we’d stash them in a box near the door so that once checked out, we could share the abundance with friends and classmates. Our dishonest wealth made us popular with everyone!
I thought of this story almost immediately when I began to work on this week’s sermon, not that it sets a very good moral lesson for you to follow. But, then again, the gospel today seems to confound us on this front as well. How often do we turn to the parables for moral teaching, an applicable lesson on how to behave in light of our faith, something that neatly maps to everyday living, something practical and insightful? Yet, how often do the parables confound this desire with audacious and, quite frankly, shocking stories – like a scoundrel son who wastes his inheritance and is still welcomed home with a feast and rejoicing, or a shepherd who neglects his flock in order to find one wayward lamb, or a man finding a treasure, selling everything that he owns so that he can buy the land in which the treasure is buried.
Today the gospel seems to have Jesus extolling the virtues of a dishonest employee, accused of wasting his master’s resources, who then turns to a series of dishonest transactions in order to curry favor with his master’s debtors. On the surface the manager appears weak and dishonest – only interested in saving his own hide and surviving his pending termination by his master. But here it appears Jesus is lifting him up, praising his behavior as shrewd and worthy of emulating. What exactly is going on here?
To be sure, this gospel resists easy interpretation, which is why there are so many competing explanations and theories as to why Luke decided to include it. One interpretive lens that most scholars and theologians seem to take is that this gospel is saying something about the dangers of wealth. The lesson ends with the simple warning, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Many a sermon, including probably some by yours truly, have been preached about the dangers of wealth. And, to be sure, this is not the only time Luke’s gospel in particular seems to take aim at wealth and those who possess it. In the opening of the gospel Mary sings a hymn praising the acts of God,
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”
Luke tells the story of Zaccheus, a tax collector, who upon meeting Jesus, realizes the enormity of his ill-gotten wealth and empties his coffers to repay those whom he has extorted. Luke’s Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool who stores up all his riches in barns and then dies and is called to judgment. Jesus reminds his hearers to be on guard against greed, that “life does not consist of wealth”.
One of the interpretive lenses that holds promise is to hear Jesus’ characterization of “dishonest” as applying to all wealth. After all, we now know just how dependent our economies and incomes are with systems of injustice, inequality, and oppression. Our investments are fed by the extraction of precious resources from the ground. Our products are kept cheap because of underpaid labor. We cannot speak honestly of wealth today in our country without tracing lines back to slavery and the forced removal of indigenous people from their land. Yet, we all are participants in these economies of exploitation, both as victims and victimizers. In his song about the legacy of slavery, local rapper Brother Ali says,
“Everything that the passenger do the driver experience too
So if humanity is one then we all get burned when it’s hell that we’re traveling through.”
Jesus says, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” If you study stories of the Antebellum south, you will find stories of slaves who deceived their masters as a means of gaining their own dignity or liberty, and sometimes lied, stole, and extorted as a means of just surviving.
Like these stories, the dishonest manager could be seen as one who liberates ill-gotten wealth in the service of achieving his own survival and even the lessening of other’s debts. He is, to Jesus’ point, being faithful with dishonest wealth. At this point in the sermon, it would be common, perhaps even predictable in theologically progressive churches to pivot toward the moral lesson, to instruct you to be and do as the dishonest manager, to liberate wealth for the good of the oppressed. And, such a pivot might even be faithful. But, as I said at the outset, parables resist easy interpretation. Moreover, to make that pivot would be to make this a lesson about what WE can do and not about what GOD is doing.
The great preacher and teacher of preachers Fr. Robert Farrar Capon captures this idea perfectly by an even more shocking interpretive move. To Capon, the character of the Dishonest Manager is himself to be interpreted as Jesus. Like Jesus the dishonest manager undergoes a sort of dying and rising (he is going to be fired and thus destitute, yet he manages to find new life by forgiving debts), and like Jesus, his dying and rising somehow raises others (we think here of those whose debts he forgives). Capon writes:
“The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing which is the only kind of grace there is.”
So yes, on one level this story is about wealth and what we do with it. But, if we dwell only in what we are called to do, we will miss what God has already done, in Jesus, in the world, for us and with us. If we dwell only on what we are to do, we make this parable into bad news, a call to let go of not only our wealth, but all the lesser gods we serve, the idols to which we often devote time and energy and faith, in the vain hope that these too might save us and restore us. For it is not only wealth that we try to serve – there is our pride, our love of comforts and worldly pleasure, fear of rejection, we nurse old injuries, serve our ambition, try to be the most balanced person, fittest person, and ah, to be well-liked. But, whatever efforts we put to serving the idols and lesser gods who might grant us these wishes, are fruitless. We are not being faithful with dishonest wealth, how can we ever attain to true riches?
Yet, the gospel is replete with invitation after invitation to the shocking and audacious reality that God is ready to stand with us in our pain, to love us through our brokenness, and to even liberate us from the sin that clings so close. As Fr. Capon points out, “This parable… says in story form what Jesus himself said by his life. He was not respectable. He broke the sabbath. He consorted with crooks. And he died as a criminal. Now at last, in the light of this parable, we see why he refused to be respectable: he did it to catch a world that respectability could only terrify and condemn. He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead.”
The gospel is, in short, the reversal of the wisdom of the world. Where the world teaches that some lives are worth more than others, in Christ we see that all have inestimable value. Where the world says only some are welcome, where we build higher walls to keep out the needy, in the gospel we see that we are all in need and God welcomes all. Where the world says we must work off our debts, in Jesus we learn that our debts are already forgiven!
Such a truth ought to inspire us to lives of joyful response and generosity in the world. Such a truth might draw forth our praise and devotion to God. As Dr. Mark McInroy described in last Sunday’s forum, our worship is meant to be doxological, that is praise directed to God, so too, the point of our lives as Christians might be construed as doxological, that our actions and habits might give praise and glory to God. In this gospel we can see that God is calling us to surrender our whole selves, our wealth and our ego our accomplishments and failures, into his loving hands, that we might return our praise to God in service of the world. Steve Garnaas-Holmes, oft quoted in this pulpit, sums it up beautifully in this poem:
God I admit: so often
I am trying to look good.
I’m serving the master of being right.
I’m loyal to the boss of my ego.
But I can walk away from that master.
I am free to serve you,
to belong to your grace alone,
to seek only to receive and give love.
Faithful in small things, to be faithful in great,
I submit to your grace.
Help me each moment to examine my loyalty
and serve only your love, absolutely devoted.
Where the world says love is earned. God says I have already loved you and claimed you as my own. Jesus says we can not serve two masters. Let us serve only this love and then share it with the world.