A Very Secular Lesson

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

A Very Secular Lesson

Scriptures: Amos 8:4-7 Luke 16:1-13

Today’s gospel lesson is another one of those memorable sayings where Jesus shocks us with a story that seems to go against his own teachings.

We’ve had a number of those in recent weeks which is a reminder that Jesus really understood how to make a point in public. He wasn’t afraid of courting controversy.

The main story about the dishonest manager is followed by a series of statements about honesty and the impossibility of serving two masters. While the scholars who try to figure out what words originated with the historical Jesus may dismiss some of these statements, they agree that Jesus really did warn us that trying to serve both God and ill-gotten gains was impossible. So, this really does look like we have two contradictory lessons out of the mouth of Jesus. What do we do with that?

I believe that one of the best things we can do is recognize that Jesus could be very subtle. He had a deep sense of human nature and the ways life can be complicated. He was also aware that in the field of faith and religion, people are always trying for easy answers: black and white rules to follow, or simple statements that relieve us of the burden of having to think to make value judgments.

The branches of Christianity that record the fastest congregational growth these days are typically the ones that provide the simplest answers: “follow these four spiritual laws”; “follow the ten commandments”; and other variations on that theme.

People may respond to this simplicity, but so much of the bible shows us a picture that captures some of the deeper twists and turns of life, that we really can’t stop at that two-dimensional level of faith.

Our Amos lesson is a wonderful example where the prophet is accusing people of injustice through subtle fiddling of the economy: “tinker with the weights and measures so we increase our margins of profit”; “shorten the time we have to let people rest so we can get them working again and maybe keep them on call”.

Can you imagine what Amos would have said about smart phones and the bosses who demand instant replies from their employees 24/7? Just working seven days a week was being condemned – Amos would have blown a gasket.

One could argue that Amos wanted to be strict about following the law. As true as that is, he wasn’t being legalistic. Rather, he knew that so much of the law was written to protect ordinary people from abuse. The Sabbath day law remembered the time of slavery in Egypt: being driven by managers to work with no rest: to bake bricks with inadequate materials; being given inadequate food and water.

According to Deuteronomy, these laws were written to prevent that from happening to anyone, including their own slaves. Amos was remembering that the law was founded in justice. He wasn’t being legalistic; he was criticizing those who were finding ways to bend the laws for profit. He had a subtle eye and he could see the sneaky tricks being used to take advantage of others for gain.

Jesus has taken this to the next level in this parable, telling us about an absentee landlord with a manager who is cooking the books. I was reminded this week that there are people in Canada whose ancestors fled similar situations in Scotland, where absentee landlords might take up to 90% of a farm’s production for themselves, leaving the tenant farmers with too little to live on.

Jesus’ audience would have no love for the landlord; they’d be cheering on the crooked manager for trying to create a future for himself, using unjust means to survive an unjust situation.

It’s uncomfortable. No one comes out of this looking very good, although the manager at least looks clever and that’s what he is praised for: his shrewdness in working the unjust system to his advantage.

If you have the luxury of stepping back from the situation then the obvious answer is to fix the unjust system and that is exactly what should happen. But of course, the manager doesn’t have that luxury; the manager can’t change the system, only try to survive within it.

It’s remarkable how often these sorts of examples are given to us. Tamar, one of the three women Matthew includes in the genealogy of Jesus is denied her rights under the law by her father-in-law, Judah: her right to marry the youngest son of Judah after her previous husbands, the two older sons of Judah had died leaving her childless. Her first son should inherit and be able to care for her. She was being denied her pension plan, her very future, and her status as the mother of the senior heir who would be the next patriarch of the tribe of Judah.

To overcome Judah’s refusal, Tamar went ahead of Judah to a village and disguised herself as a prostitute from a pagan fertility cult. Judah, whose wife had died months before, sought out her services and promised payment, leaving his ring, staff and cord as security and promising her a goat when he came back. The goat would serve as both payment and as a sacrifice for the fertility god she was pretending to serve, probably Ba’al.

Judah was being a bad boy at many levels: morally, legally, and in terms of his faith.

Tamar quickly went home, was found to be pregnant a few months later and Judah sentenced her to be burned to death for prostitution. When she produced his ring, staff and cord, he had to admit that he had been unjust to her and that her trick to have his child and gain justice was a success.

How many laws were broken in that story? The unjust manager was only guilty of fraud, but what Tamar did would have ended in her death! (the law required death by stoning: burning to death was a nasty touch).

That fact is a comment on that society’s views of the place of women and double standards around sex. Judah was in no danger of being punished for visiting a prostitute or worshipping Ba’al.

But the message in each story, hundreds of years apart, is that people who are at a disadvantage are smiled upon by God when they use their creativity to overcome their weakness and gain real justice, despite powerful people trying to stop them; despite corrupt and unjust systems and rules that trap them in impossible situations.

This really is radical stuff but it’s fascinating to see how Jesus is right in line with other Biblical characters, like Jacob, who tricked so many people: and Tamar whose example I just mentioned; and with other people whose stories are told over centuries of scripture.

Personally, I like things to be clean and clear-cut. I like the idea of fixing the system and getting rid of systemic injustice. But Jesus is reminding us here that this isn’t enough, that all of those programs to catch welfare cheats and others who try to get more out of the system doesn’t change the fact that they can’t live on what the system provides.

These Biblical stories demonstrate that every society, every generation, has a version of the people who work hard and simply can’t get enough to feed, clothe and house their families. And if you listen to economic warnings these days, we are producing a whole generation in Canada who will never be able to buy a house.

We have to fix what is broken in the system. That’s a big job, and we have to take it on. To do anything else is to accept permanent injustice.

But until the system is fixed, we have this call from scripture to be shrewd, to be creative, to do what it takes to help vulnerable people, even if it involves breaking a few rules,

Amen.

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