Like many clergy, I read mysteries in my spare time. The revelation of the inner workings of the heart become oh so familiar for those of us who journey with others through life’s most intimate and troubled times. My favorite series—bar none—is the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novels wonderfully written by Louise Penny and set in Quebec (begin with Still Life if you are new to the series). The most recent book in the series was published just a few weeks ago, and I devoured it immediately.
Throughout the course of the novels, we learn that the Chief Inspector teaches his agents four key statements that can guide them toward wisdom in their detective work: “I don’t know,” “I was wrong,” “I’m sorry” and “I need help.” I can’t imagine many real-life detectives encouraging their agents to say these things, but perhaps now you might begin to imagine why I love the series so much. “I don’t know,” “I was wrong,” “I’m sorry” and “I need help.”
The gospel lesson we read this morning boggles the mind. Listen to the wisdom I gathered from four different Biblical commentators on this passage: “Parables are usually gifts of clear insight into God’s choices for our lives. However, this parable is difficult to read and difficult to preach.” “The parable of the dishonest steward poses significant theological challenges.” “None of the parables of Jesus has baffled interpreters quite like the story of the dishonest steward.” “It is no exaggeration to say that the parable’s meaning has stumped even the best and most creative interpreters of Scripture.” 1And if distinguished professors and pastors get befuddled by this text, where does that leave a simple parish priest? Perhaps Armand Gamache is right. Perhaps when asked the meaning of this parable the best response is simply, “I don’t know.”
Which is not the sort of thing one wants to say when one has just begun a 9 month sermon series on the marks of 21st century disciples. If I’m stumped at week 2, we could be in serious trouble going forward. But let’s muddle on together and see what comes to be.
There’s a manager, Jesus tells the crowd, who’s cooking the books for his own gain. His boss—the wealthy owner—got wind of what he’s doing and tells him to clean out his desk. The cheater freaks out. He’s too proud to beg, and he’s not been working out like he should so manual labor isn’t option. That’s when he hatches a plan. When he gets to his office he sends out a couple of last quick emails asking his clients what they owe his boss. When they reply, he tells them to significantly reduce their debt. He does this, Jesus says, so that when he’s dismissed, people may welcome him into their homes.
The boss, rather than flying off the handle, has to hand it to the manager because he’s been so shrewd. Jesus finishes this parable by saying, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” At these words you may, like me, be scratching your head and asking, “Jesus, what exactly should we emulate in this shyster? Cause I got nothin’.”
And that’s when I came across this enlightening idea from one of those commentators, a Professor of Theology named Scott Bader-Saye, written in response to that question: “The clue comes in the…phrase… ‘[they may] welcome you into the eternal homes.’” 2 The word translated ‘homes’ here is meant to parallel the use earlier when the manager reduces the debt in order that others would invite him into their homes—oikous in the Greek. However in Jesus’ phrase “eternal homes” the Greek word is skenas meaning tents. The good professor writes, “The parable… turns precisely on the fact that Jesus does not promise ‘homes’ but ‘tents.’ “Jesus does not promise to provide what the unjust steward sought, the stable abode of those who have possessions and security. Rather, Jesus promises the unstable abode of the wanderer, the refugee, and the pilgrim, whose mobility requires the dispossession of goods.”
In about a month our Jewish friends will celebrate Sukkoth—the Feast of Tabernacles, or Feast of Booths as it sometimes known—a celebration lasting a week. Sukkoth are temporary structures used during the harvest when farmers would sleep out in their fields rather than returning home so they could make the most of the daylight. Additionally, and likely more important for our Jewish neighbors, Sukkoth were used during the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Hear these words from the Torah in the Book of Leviticus describing the Feast: “Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” By living in these structures for a week God desires for them to remember that God had delivered them; that it was only God who provided for them during that sojourn in the desert, and even through today. And yes, in case you’re wondering, the Hebrew word sukkoth is our skenas in the Greek. So Jesus promises us eternal sukkoth, eternal tents. Eternal unstable dwelling places made out of sticks and straw.
Which anyone who’s ever read The Three Little Pigs knows is not a good idea. We need bricks and a fat retirement account and well-stocked pantry. We need to know that we can survive if the day comes when we get our own pink-slip like that tricksy manager.
But perhaps that’s why Jesus goes on to explain that we, as his disciples, can’t serve both God and wealth, because we’ll be loyal only to one of them and the other will get the short shrift. That we need to let go of our wealth—even write it off or give it away—so that when it is gone, we may be welcomed into eternal tents. Listen to Professor Bader-Saye’s conclusion, “Perhaps the Jesus who told this parable calls us to dissipate our wealth as the steward did, but in order to be dispossessed of the desire that our gifting produce the benefit of indenting others to us—indeed, to be dispossessed of the illusion that wealth gives us security and stability. Only as we are freed by our holy squandering are we able to live the pilgrim life of those nomads who have relinquished the possessions that possess them.” 3 Putting it another way, perhaps more to Armand Gamache’s liking, as disciples of Jesus we need to learn how to say, “I need help.”
Being a disciple of Jesus means quite clearly that we must depend on God in all things. That we cannot put our future in the hands of the stock market or job security or who’s elected President. That we cannot be possessed by those things we possess. We need to let go of the things we have and have us.
That’s what I want to say to Maddison who comes to the waters of baptism this morning, and to us all. If we want to become Jesus’ followers then we must loosen our grip on the values of our culture—being entertained and becoming good consumers and looking for personal joy with no regard for other people—and follow Jesus on the way. If we want to live in eternal sukkoth—in the wonderfully simple tents pitched among the journeying places of God—then we must work in the currency of Jesus, the currency of love. Touching the hand of a person who’s suffering, alleviating the fear in someone who’s been wrongfully maligned, standing up for those who cannot speak for themselves, offering water to a thirsty one, helping a child succeed, visiting with one who is dying. If we invested our time and resources in love, we’d experience the rapturous joy of the eternal in the here and now and would be well on our way uncovering the mystery of wisdom, that it is found in our vulnerability. May we choose wisely whom we will serve. May we walk in the steps of Jesus, the one who who traveled lightly giving himself to the world. Amen.