A Sermon for Proper 20C
And the master commended the dishonest manager... (Luke 16:8)
Have you ever been puzzled by the story in today's gospel? A rich man's property manager who is about to be fired does some shady bookkeeping. He reduces what his boss's debtors owe so that they will take him in when he gets kicked out on to the street. So far, it makes sense. The puzzle comes at the end of the story: "And the master commended the dishonest manager." Why in the world would the master commend the manager for acting dishonestly? The puzzle just gets worse when we look at the text more carefully. The Greek work translated "master" is the same word that means "Lord." It is quite possible that Luke meant us to hear this: "And the Lord" -- meaning Jesus -- "commended the dishonest manager." If it is a puzzle why the master commends the manager's dishonesty, its even harder to imagine why Jesus might. What's going on here?
The answer offered by most NT scholars is that the manager is praised for his resourcefulness in dealing with the crisis that has come upon him -- a crisis like the sudden coming of God's Kingdom. By telling this story, Jesus urges his hearers to act as the manager did: In a crisis, you have to seize the moment and do what needs to be done with courage and decisiveness.
The crisis that came upon us 12 days ago was the opposite of the coming of God's Kingdom. It was an attack of evil, not the arrival of God's goodness. But in that crisis, we have seen many who acted with the kind of courageous decisiveness that Jesus praises: the passengers on Flight 93 who charged the hijackers so that more innocents would not die on the ground; the firefighters, police and EMTS who rushed into the burning World Trade Center to save lives; the Pentagon workers who got others out before the building collapsed. These courageous, decisive deeds are incomparably beyond what the dishonest manager did to save his own skin. They deserve praise of commendation beyond what any words -- even those inspired by the Gospel -- can give.
It is fortunate then, at least for this preacher, that today's Gospel story offers something in addition to more inevitably inadequate praise for these national heroes. There is another quality to the manager's action which the lord and master commended: his "shrewdness." The manager was not only courageous and decisive, he was shrewd, imaginative -- catching both master and debtors off guard by his unexpected action in the crisis. It is this imaginative creativity that gets the master's praise.
The manager's shrewdness reminds me of some other puzzling and misunderstood words of Jesus that have been brought to mind by the question we now wrestle with -- how America and its allies should respond to the terrorists attacks of September 11th? Though they are seldom heard this way, the sayings I have in mind teach that an imaginative shrewdness like the manager's is vital when we must respond to evil. The words of Jesus I mean are these:
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
Now, the traditional take on these words is that Jesus teaches us to be passive in the face of evil, to be pious doormats who suffer in silence for the good for our souls. Not surprisingly, we usually dismiss these words as possibly well-meaning, but highly impractical. In times like the present, we think them downright dangerous, since they seem to say we should let evil do its destructive work unchecked by any countermeasures for good. And if, in fact, that is what Jesus meant by these words, such objections would be more than justified.
But -- you knew that was coming, didn't you? -- some careful work on these texts by NT scholar Walter Wink has convinced me and many other Christians that our usual take on these sayings is incorrect. These sayings do not teach passivity in the face of evil; to the contrary, they teach us to respond actively to evil -- with courageous, imaginative deeds of non-violence. Jesus teaches that such deeds have the power to stop evil in its tracks when victims reclaim their dignity and power, and refuse to play by evil's rules. Let me explain.
In the culture of Jesus' time honor was very highly prized. A slap on the right cheek was considered a deadly insult, the way a slap on the face once led men to duel, or how among some teens today being "dissed" can lead to school shootings. But what if someone unjustly dishonored by a slap on the cheek should turn the other cheek, saying in effect, "Go on -- hit me again! So what? Your slaps have no power to take away my dignity and honor." Suddenly the tables have been turned. The person dispensing insulting slaps is revealed as the one acting dishonorably. Evil is revealed and disarmed by this creative response.
Jesus' words about the coat and cloak tell the poor how to act shrewdly when being sued for debt by the powerful. In open court, Jesus says, give the rich person not only your coat, but your cloak, too, your last possession -- and stand naked for everyone to see. The shame of your nakedness will reveal and condemn the evil of a person greedy enough to take your last stitch of clothing.
And, Jesus continues, if one of those Roman soldiers occupying your homeland compels you to carry his pack for a mile as the law allowed, volunteer to carry it a second mile. Expose the abuse of power for what it is; force your oppressor to recognize you as a human being with dignity and a will of your own, not the mere pack animal that he takes you for.
Such imaginative moves, Jesus says, disarm evil at its source. A more recent story shows the power such actions can have. In South Africa in the days of apartheid, a black woman walking with her children down a narrow lane was confronted by a white man going the other way. When she refused to step aside as she was "supposed" to do, the man spit in her face. She looked him in the eye and said, "Now, will please you do that for the children, too?" The man, ashamed, stepped aside and let them pass -- and I suspect the evil of apartheid began to crumble in his heart.
Modern history shows that creative, courageous non-violence has enormous political power on a larger scale, too. The most famous examples, of course, are the liberation of India by the soul-force of Ghandi's non-violence, and Martin Luther King's use of the direct non-violent action in our own Civil Rights movement. The People Power Revolution of the Philippines and the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe that brought the Berlin Wall down and stopped the tanks in Moscow also used similar tactics. And if you recall the many Indians who died at British hands or the old TV footage of freedom marchers being attacked by dogs & clubs while they prayed, you know that these people were as courageous in their day as the heroes of September 11th were in ours. We should never think that the challenging, decisive, imaginative non-violence that Jesus teaches is a tactic for wimps or the faint of heart.
Nor should we forget how often this strategy has been worked to overcome evil & bring freedom. When St. Paul wrote: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good," he was not mouthing pious words. He was describing one of the world's more effective strategies for engaging and winning battles with evil.
What has all this to do with the question of how America should respond to the terrorist attacks? Just this -- that along with all the diplomatic, legal, financial, and military plans now being made, Jesus' style of shrewd, imaginative non-violent strategies just might be among the most effective, not to mention moral, ways of dealing with terrorism. It is said that the bad news about facing such an elusive enemy is that the usual means of waging war are of very limited use. The good news could be that necessity will prove the mother of invention, with creative non-violent ways of overcoming evil being put into practice and working.
During the past week in conversations and on the Internet, several such strategies have crossed my path. Once comes from a retired Air Force Major, a veteran of Desert Storm and former War Planner, who knows better than most of us, I'm sure, what military force can and cannot do to capture terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan. So the major has proposed this way to wage unconventional war on an unconventional enemy. He points out that "Osama bin Laden and his followers have profaned Islam" in a variety of ways, and so he urges the US to "persuade and provide support to the Taliban and every other Islamic authority with jurisdiction or access to bin Laden and his network [to] arrest and try him according to the Islamic laws he and his organization have violated." The benefits of such an imaginative strategy are many, says the Major: "Ómerica doesn't sink to the tactics of bin Laden; the Taliban and Islamic authorities save face; the international community acknowledges the integrity of Islamic Law, we demonstrate American commitment to the rule of law, and an evil criminal is brought to justice in the near term."
Another creative idea has appeared in several versions: that the US should "invade" one of the devastated urban areas of Afghanistan -- not with bombers or fighters, but first with Special Forces Units who can secure a perimeter & protect the people who would come next: the Army Corps of Engineers, transport planes full of building equipment, field hospitals, communications specialists, a commissary, and an Islamic chaplain: in short, all the people needed to sweep up the rubble and rebuild an entire area of a city complete with communications, housing, hospital, mosque, schools, a market place and a commissary -- a kind of Marshall Plan before the war, not after.
Such a move would have its risks and might well cost lives, but in the face of that kind of creative "attack," how long would the Taliban be able to sell the Afghani or other Islamic peoples on the idea that the US has evil intentions? By using the best of American skills and the American spirit to capture the hearts of people in a non-violent war, the capture of bin Laden and his networks could become much easier and less costly than by going after them with bombs, missiles, and ground troops from the first.
I'm not claiming that either of these ideas is the solution to the exceedingly complex challenge of dealing with terrorist evil. But I am claiming that the imaginative, courageous non-violent strategies Jesus teaches can have enormous power for overcoming evil in the struggle between freedom and fear we now face -- and that is a power to which we all we need to have our minds open.
Though I hope that the new challenge terrorism poses will lead us to new and creative ways of acting, I'm also afraid that ideas like these will be quickly dismissed as impractical by those with the power to make the decisions. Today, our second lesson urges that "supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving's be made for ... all who are in high positions." Part of my prayer for our leaders and planners these days, and I hope yours as well, is that they will have not only the courage to act decisively, but the shrewdness to act imaginatively: to overcome the evil of terrorism in creative, non-violent and effective ways.
But I'm not just concerned about whether those in high positions will be see the strategic possibilities that Jesus' teaching offers -- I'm concerned about us all. You know, its an odd thing. We Christians say we believe that Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God and Savior of the world -- yet we routinely dismiss his teachings as being impractical. We act as if the One who made and saved the world is too stupid or dreamy to have any useful ideas about dealing with the evil that he came to save us from. What might happen if we acted as if the incarnate, creating God actually knew something about doing good and disarming evil? What might happen if we lived as if Jesus actually knew what he was talking about? Maybe in our present crisis we would act courageously, decisively, and imaginatively. Maybe we'd find creative ways to urge our leaders to take Jesus' practical non-violent shrewdness with the seriousness it deserves. And if we did, I suspect that the world would never be the same.
The Rev. Jack Zamboni
Grace St. Paul's Church
September 23, 2001
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