Ordinary Sunday 25: 19 September 2010
Today we have the particular honor of dealing with the strangest story in St Luke’s gospel today, and I want to tell three stories as a way to make sense of it, so bear with me.
First, several weeks ago I rented the Vincent Minnelli film, “Meet me in St. Louis.” It has some good moments, but there was one scene I particularly wanted to see again. It happens when Margaret O’Brien playing a very strange child with the preoccupation of death, needing some pastoral, clinical and chemical intervention -- she keeps burying her doll’s with elaborate funeral liturgies, is obviously some kind of closet Anglican -- goes trick or treating on Halloween.
It’s a great scene! The children of the neighborhood are gathered around a camp fire trying to figure out what neighbors they will visit to demand a treat our issue a trick. There’s one house that none of the children want to visit -- let’s say it belongs to Mr Jones -- but Margaret O’Brien volunteers to go and through flour in the face of the dangerous neighbor.
Violin music builds with as the wind comes up and leaves blow past the little girl as she slowly walks up the front steps of the big house where the bad Joneses live. She looks in the front window and the old man and woman are gathered by the fire: the man looks stern, preoccupied, capable of anger, and there is an English Bulldog with thick jaws laying on the floor next to his chair
The little girl goes up the steps to the front door and stretches up to ring the bell. There is a long pause and the door slowly opens by the big man who, with the dog stands silently looking at her; the dog sniffing in a way that makes you think he might be hungry. And Margaret O’Brien rises to her full five-year-old height and says, “I hate you Mr. Jones, I wish you would die!” throws flour in his face and runs for her life. The music goes away and the camera fixes on the face of Mr. Jones as he wipes the flour away, and smiles like a patient old man who has lived through many Halloween this and still looks forward to the next one. Then the camera pans down to the floor of the porch where the bull dog licks up the flour with a great appetite. All this as Margaret O’Brien rushes away, with the violins wailing up on the soundtrack behind her as she prepares to celebrate the great victory that only exists in her mind.
Hold that in your mind as we look at the parable for today. Here I want to quote at length (and borrow very heavily here from) one creative take by Sarah Dylan Breuer in her blog (sarahlaughed.net). I’ve edited a bit here, but she writes most of the following and this is her take on the story:
A very, very rich man lives in a big city with a lifestyle of luxury from the income of the estate he owns in the countryside, run by a manager, where all of the work of planting and harvesting is done by tenant farmers, peasants. The harvest is never quite enough to pay the rent plus what the peasant families needs, so the peasants are slipping further and further into debt, working harder and harder to pay what can't be paid. The immediate face of this system is that of the steward.
But things change. The landowner fires the steward because of rumors that the steward is squandering the landowner's resources. So the steward is in a desperate and dangerous place, he’s going to be homeless. The farmers aren't about to take him in either, since he's demanded exorbitant rents, run the first century equivalent of the company store, and generally dealt unjustly with the farmers. So maybe he’s without hope.
But what he does is something extraordinarily clever. He gathers all of the farmers who owe him money, and he declares that their debts have been reduced from something very large, to something that maybe could be repaid, all with a few strokes of the (forger's) pen. The steward doesn't tell the farmers that he was fired any more than he tells them that the landowner didn't authorize any of this generosity. But the result is that the farmers believe the landowner is more generous than just about anyone else in his position would be. The landowner is now a hero in the farmers' eyes -- and, by extension, so is the steward.
So when the landowner comes for his customary visit to pick up the wealth the steward has collected for him, he gets a surprise that is both exhilarating and challenging: The streets for miles before he reaches the estate are lined by cheering farmers. They're shouting his name, telling him he's a hero. Then he finds out (probably when he arrives at the estate house) he meets his old manager who trembling tells him what he’s done. And they stand there and look at one another.
Sarah Dylan Bruer says that the landowner can go outside to the assembled crowd -- the people shouting blessings upon him and all his family -- and tell them that it was all a terrible mistake, that the steward's generosity was an act of crookedness, unrighteousness, won't hold water legally. But the cheering will turn to boos. Alternatively, the landowner can go outside and take in the cheering of the crowd. He can take credit for the steward's actions, but he'll have to take the steward back. Mistreat the steward, and the crowd might turn on him. Either way, the steward has forced a deal, gone from victim to victor, made friends and influenced people. If the landowner won't take him in, the farmers gladly will. And they stand there looking at each other.
Years ago when I was at university and was quite shy, my mother said, “when you don’t know what to say to someone or the conversation is lagging just ask someone a question, people love to talk about themselves.” One evening at a church supper at St Martin’s, Davis, I decided to test this out.
I was seated next to a student I had not met. She said she was from a town called Yuba City, I said, “That’s interesting, what that’s like?” she talked for a while and mentioned her father had been in the Air Force. I said, “That’s interesting, what that’s like?” She said that it meant that they moved around a lot, and I said, “That’s interesting what’s that like?” You get the idea. For a good hour and a half I asked questions and she held forth and the conversation went on. Finally I left the church hall and met another friend at the end of the evening and I said: “I had a really rotten time!” and he said, “But you looked like you were enjoying yourself so much!”
And I looked at myself for a moment and I realized that I had enjoyed myself, I had learned a lot about growing up the daughter of an Army sergeant in a variety of towns around the world and I had even made a new friend without really trying. People in Alcoholics Anonymous know a great one liner, “Fake it till you make it.” Sometimes you can do the right thing for the wrong reason and it will still take you closer to where you should be, who you should be, lead you to learning something about the world, things that you never thought you needed to know.
Listen: what the steward does is clearly dishonest, yet Jesus uses this as a example for us. What does the steward do that is somehow right? He forgives. The steward forgives debts. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain, to compensate for past misconduct, for the wrong reasons, and that might be the moral of this story: Simply forgive, forgive it all,. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all. Simply forgive, it doesn’t even matter if your hears not in it. Just do it!
And maybe God stands at the big door on the front porch of life and death and resurrection and smiles at you and me and Margaret O’Brien and our little attempts to trick the world and master dangers and get home safely while he still set stands ready to offer us the treat of our lives. So, in that hope, let us make Eucharist. Amen.