Our gospel lesson from Luke today once again asks us to consider who orients our life and the decisions we make in our dealings with others. Jesus tells us a parable about a manager who was squandering the things he’d been entrusted with by his boss. When the boss catches wind of this he asks the manager for an accounting of his actions. The manager recognizes his guilt in squandering what he’d been entrusted with and says, “oh dear, what will I do? I don’t want to pay the consequences. I don’t want to beg, and I can’t actually physically work, what will I do? Cunning and shrewd as he is the manager says, “I know, since I’ve already ripped my boss off and he’s going to fire me, I might as well try to gain favor with those who owe my boss the money so that they might take me into their homes.”
So the manager goes and asks them each how much they owe to the boss. When they tell him, he says, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll only collect from you part of what you owe and you’re in the clear.” Of course the manager is hoping that this will lead to them thinking he’s a swell guy so that they might take him in now that he’s been fired by his boss; little does he care about not returning to the boss what it is that he owes as the one entrusted to manage the accounts of these others.
The boss, surprisingly, most especially when the parable comes from Jesus, commends the manager’s actions as shrewd; a smart self-protective move to be sure. But as Jesus’s commentary on it indicates, also very much in keeping with the ways of the world in which both the boss and the manager operate and by which they order their lives.
In this case, both seem to believe it prudent to ground not only their basic survival; but their success in the world, on the ability to support themselves even if it comes with unjust dealings at the expense of others.
Sure you might say, but the wealthy boss could afford it and he helped those who were likely more financially stretched than his boss. Oh how we like to rewrite our dishonesty in the guise of self-defined righteousness don’t we? But what happens when the shrewd boss goes to collect his money from those who owed him, who, thinking they were in the clear, might have spent it already? And what happens to the manager when he seeks a place to ‘lay his head’ and he encounters those who not only had to repay the boss eventually, but perhaps give up something they had come to possess with the extra money they thought they had by grace?
And what happens when the manager goes to look for another job, his reputation as a liar and thief now widespread in the little village in which he lives? And in communities where trust is easily undermined by the shrewdness of the age, someone might say, "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much,” as Jesus does. How could we trust him to hire him, let alone let him stay with us? So also, would the manager’s act not simply confirm his boss’s sense that he too must operate shrewdly if he is to succeed? Always watching out for himself, never able to trust those who work for him?
By the sin of one man all fell, we hear in Genesis. And we can see here both the effect of that one man’s sin and its tangled and pervasive web in which all have become ensnared, becoming shrewd managers of a sort. This is what we hear about in our reading from both Jeremiah and from Psalm 79: the pervasiveness of sin that keeps Israel apart from God. Jeremiah and our Psalmist cry out and lament Israel’s greed, their disobedience, and their turning away from God. Both lament the natural consequence: God allowing people to ‘have it their own way,’ which results in their submission to their foes, the surrounding nations. Our alternative reading from Amos says that Israel has “sold the righteous for silver (recall Judas’s payment to the Pharisees that condemns Jesus), by forsaking the poor, those who struggle mentally and physically, they take up their own desires in sexual sins and they forego God’s provision for their material and sexual lives.
These acts of the Israelites aren’t unique of course. We have seen and heard and ourselves struggled with them all in our Churches, our communities, our workplaces, and one look at social media or one search of ‘Church or Christian’ alongside ‘greed, sex scandal, abuse, jail, fine, imprisonment, harm, suicide, death, etc’ will bring up millions of hits concerning events that have taken place across time and history.
These acts, where we prioritize our desires, and hunger and thirst after what will satisfy them, are a rejection of the lives we’ve been given by God. For if we cannot even be trusted to act in accordance within the faulty laws and systems of a fallen world, how on earth could we even recognize grace and grasp hold of its true riches that free us from the fears that enslave us to the ways of this world? “If then you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches: the grace of God that demands witness to him alone?
Jesus continues, “if you can’t be faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own.” While Jesus uses money in the parable here, the money stands for something more fundamental: the gift of life and of the particularities of someone’s own life and of a neighbor’s life. And what Jesus is driving at here isn’t merely the money exchange in the parable, but rather one’s refusal to return to God (the owner) what the manager (us) owe: everything, every aspect of our lives (all our gifts, all our relationships, all our resources).
If you cannot be faithful in tending to the gifts that God gave to you of your life and all its capacities, God will allow you to live out the consequences (as he did with Israel, as I suggested above might happen with the manager). If you can’t be faithful to God, no one else can or would give you the fullness of life for which and by which God made you; and you will have simply thrown those away. It is you, or I, who will have created that separation from God, when we squander what he gave to us.
But so also does the symbol of money stand for God’s graciousness to us that frees us from being enslaved to the things of this world. Recall that Jesus is indeed turned over to the Pharisees for 30 pieces of silver, who in turn take him to Pilate who orders his execution. And yet on the Cross Jesus takes with him our own betrayal of ourselves in giving up the gifts we were given by God to steward and offer to others.
He takes with him to the Cross, all the brokenness that separates us from God; all the ways we misuse our gifts hoarding, hiding, burying, storing up, using in harmful ways, manipulating with shrewd cunning so often to protect us from the pervasive effects of sin and our own fears and misdirected desires. He returns to God, with interest, what we cannot: his own life, and the life of every man, woman and child whom God made in his own image. Perfect love returning perfect love, casting out fear.
For as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable … we will not all die, but will be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable and will be changed … death has been swallowed up in victory. Where O death, is your victory, where is your sting? Therefore, be steadfast, always faithful in the work of the Lord [whatever your vocation in the life you’ve been gifted by God] because you know that in the Lord, your [honest] labor is not in vain.” AMEN
So this letter we read this morning from Philemon is an interesting and potentially strange one to our modern ears. And I think that, if we tried to read it from the perspective of righteous judgment of modern people, we might in fact miss what’s really going on in the letter and why it ended up in our canon of Scriptures i.e. why it ended up in the bible to begin with.
So here we have Paul, along with Timothy, writing a letter from his jail cell, to another Christian, Philemon. Philemon is apparently a fairly wealthy Christian and who likely hosted at least a group of Christians in Colossae for worship and fellowship in his home. Paul gives thanks to Philemon for his ministry in Colossae, for his faithful proclamation of the gospel and perhaps for his leadership.
Then Paul makes a really specific request though. You see while the background is a bit fuzzy, Paul encountered Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, the latter of whom we are led to believe left Philemon likely without permission. At this point, Paul takes a stand and says, ‘listen Philemon’, I am going to make a specific request of you. I have the right to ask this of you, and you have the obligation, as a Christian, to fulfill this command. But rather than appeal to my authority or power here, I’m going to appeal to your mercy, to your charity and to your sense of love for others. So please, Philemon, Paul says, out of love, would you be willing to receive Onesimus back NOT as your slave, but rather as your brother in Jesus Christ.
That is, forgive him, do not count his fleeing from you against him. Do not punish him as you could do by the Roman law (a slave was subject to any punishment an owner saw fit to enact should that slave leave the owner without permission). Forgive him, Philemon. But not just that. Do not leave him in the place of a slave. He is no longer a slave to you, Philemon, there is not longer slave or free, gentile or Jew, male or female. In Jesus Christ, he is your brother, Philemon; in Jesus Christ he has been elevated from the position of slave, to a free man in Jesus Christ. If you were loved by Christ, forgiven by Christ, redeemed by Christ, and elevated from your status as a slave to sin; then would you not do the same for this son of God, who as a brother by the blood of Jesus Christ, is made your equal, would you not receive him as he is in God?
This is the claim that Paul has made: if you have been forgiven your sins and elevated to the status of a child of God, how will you treat your neighbor? Who is my neighbor? Is my slave my neighbor? Did not Jesus tell us a parable about precisely this just a few weeks ago? It is the one who comes near, who forgives, who binds up, who heals, who cares for, indeed, who loves, that is righteous before God. This is the new reality to which Paul is appealing when he speaks to Philemon.
Paul says: I would be very happy to keep Onesimus with me, but actually, I think it’s right to send him back to you, Philemon. And in fact, I think, Philemon, that you will find that Onesimus has gone from useless before his conversion, to being useful; that is, in his conversion to a child of God, Onesimus has been elevated so that his service as a mere slave to Philemon is surpassed by the equal witness that he can now join with Philemon in sharing with the people of Colossae. Paul here poses a question of Christian morality to Philemon: what is more important to you, Philemon? Receiving works of the flesh, recompense for an earthly wrong, or letting go of your claim to flesh and fleshly ownership and desires, and opening your home, your heart and your life, to God’s redemption in the form of a brother and colleague in witness to the Gospel?
We don’t get Philemon’s answer of course. Standing this side of the judgment table with the whole of Scripture unfolded for us in Jesus Christ, we’d hope, I’m sure, that Philemon would see the wisdom in Paul’s ‘gentle, yet, instructive’ moral question, and that Philemon would see the work of the grace of God in Onesimus’s conversion and would accept him back as a brother and fellow witness to God in Christ.
Lest we think this is a letter solely to Philemon, let’s put ourselves in his shoes: what about our own desires, our own possessions, our own inclinations, do we cling to? What ways of living or things we have, or things we do - things of the flesh - might we be tempted to covet, as if they are more important than our relationship to or our moral position before God? For that is what this letter is challenging us to think about I think. Surely it challenged Christians in the first centuries to think about the morality of owning slaves.
Do you know that slavery was actually almost eradicated by Christians by the Middle Ages? How unfortunate that the Philemon’s of the early modern period did not heed the lessons of this letter, and of the Scriptures as a hole, disastrously coveting the labor and flesh of those they could enslave, imprison, torture, and malign.
What harm did such a blight of Christian witness echo in Africa and Asia, in South, Central, and North America i.e. in the whole world? So my friends the moral question Paul poses to Philemon remains for us this day: having been forgiven your sins by being joined by Jesus Christ to become a child of God, will we let go of those things of the flesh – people, possessions, emotional reactions, ideologies, economic presumptions – that prevent us from recognizing Christ in others, and allowing their elevated status in Christ to be joined to our own witness? AMEN.