Sunday 22 September 2019
Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1 & Luke 16:1-13
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I am out and about with non-Churchy people, they are often really curious about what it means to be a Vicar. They ask all sorts of questions: the most common is: ‘do you have to move wherever and whenever the bishop tells you to?’ I have to gently disabuse them of the notion that I am an 18th Century Jesuit and that the Church of England doesn’t work that way, much as some may like me to be sent to South America!
The second most common question I get is: ‘how do you choose what to talk about each week?’
Many people think that I simply get to choose my favourite bits of the bible and, in some churches, the preacher does have the freedom to do that.
But, once again, the Church of England doesn’t work that way. The readings we have week by week follow a three year cycle, called the Lectionary, and although we have some limited choices within that on the whole we preach on what we are given.
I am usually very grateful that we have this system, I am wedded to it, and I believe that it stops us focusing just on the bits we like and the bits we find easy. Following the lectionary means being prepared to go to those bits of the bible that we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves. Perhaps there is some crossover there about being sent wherever the bishop would have us go – we are not forced to go to the most challenging and difficult places physically but we can still be sent to the most challenging and difficult parts of the bible.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where we find ourselves today. Jeremiah is always an ‘interesting’ prophet to preach on and, today, he is at his most Jeremiahish. And the parable from Luke about the dishonest or, possibly, the shrewd manager has interpretive challenges all of its own. The commentaries on both passages start by saying that they are difficult and, today, we have them both together. We are being sent to places we might not find easy, there may not be easy answers but we have to trust in the wider wisdom of the church in sending us there.
The passage from Jeremiah shows us a prophet in despair for his people. Interestingly it is not always clear from the reading whether it is Jeremiah who is pleading with God on behalf of his people, much like we had with Moses interceding for the people last week, or whether we are being shown God’s despair for his people through the voice of Jeremiah, or a bit of both mixed up together. Perhaps one could say that for the prophet who stands at the intersection between humanity and God it is natural for there to be some conflation between the words of the prophet and the words of God, and that may be what we have.
In any event there is huge despair for the plight of God’s people. If you ever feel tempted to believe the lie that it was easy being a person of faith back in ‘biblical’ times compared with how hard it is now, because of iPhones or something, then I can only suggest that you go back and read the bible a bit more closely. Much of the story of the Hebrew Scriptures, one could argue from the stories of creation right to the last of the prophets, is that of a waxing and a waning of closeness to God.
At the time of Jeremiah there had been a significant falling away from Judaism and a turning towards the practices of the Assyrians or simply an ignorance of the faith coupled with cheating and oppression of the poor.
Jeremiah and God seem to be wailing and mourning for the people, and similarly the people seem to be wailing for the absence of God from the land and for healing for the people:
“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.”
And that most evocative line:
“Is there no balm in Gilead?”
Anyone who has read or watched The Handmaid’s Tale will have all sorts of associations with Gilead, as it is the name adopted by that part of America where the action of the story takes place, but Gilead was actually that part of Judah which produced a healing balm, mentioned in Genesis 37:25 as being an export of the region. We can only presume that it was a natural antiseptic used to heal wounds.
But the healing balm appears to have deserted the land – the people have deserted God, the people feel that God has deserted them, there is no healing to be found in the land, even in the place where it is produced, there seems no end in sight and no answer other than endless tears:
“O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”
This feels like the worst stage of a divorce or a bereavement. How can anything ever be good again?
Now, there is a temptation for the preacher here. The temptation is to say that there is balm in Gilead, there is hope, there is healing, there is redemption because…Jesus! And, of course that’s true, and you do need to hang onto that big-picture truth.
But, the danger of rushing to that resolution is that we undervalue the real pain we find in Jeremiah. Suffering, loss and lack of healing was a reality not only for these ancient people in a far-off land but they are a reality for many people today, both in far-off lands where people live in abject poverty and they are a reality for many people right here and right now.
Do you remember Job’s Comforters? Arguably the best thing that Job’s Comforters did for him when he was suffering loss and pain was not to argue him into a theological resolution, but rather to sit with him in silence, acknowledging his pain and suffering and showing their compassion through their companionship.
Although none of us want to be sent to sit with pain and suffering, we would all rather move onto the feel-good ending, it is important to acknowledge that for many people for much of the time that is the reality of their lives. If God and the prophet Jeremiah wish they could weep endless tears for the brokenness of the people and the world then perhaps we should have the courage to be there too.
I hear too often people who say they cannot or can no longer believe in God because there is suffering either in their lives or in the world generally. There seems to be a misconception that God and suffering cannot co-exist. Perhaps we are to blame for that by always rushing on to the happy ending and ignoring the fact that God is there in the suffering too – in the silence with Job, in the weeping with Jeremiah and on the cross in Jesus.
As already hinted at, if Jeremiah is uncomfortable reading without a quick resolution then the parable we find in Luke today is a mystery wrapped inside an enigma.
We are presented with a manager who works for a rich man, managing his property and his contracts with many customers. The rich man discovered that the manager had been squandering his wealth and told the manager that he was going to be sacked. At the risk of acting like Dominic Cummings I suspect the best thing the rich man could have done would be to sack him on the spot and have him escorted from the premises, possibly at gun point. However it seems that he allowed the manager to continue to squander his wealth because he met with many of the rich man’s debtors and unilaterally reduced their debts. He did not ‘forgive their debts’ simply to be kind to them but so that they will be indebted to him and perhaps offer him work in the future, because this man does not fancy either manual labour or begging.
The manager has been negligent with his master’s property and he is now being fraudulent with it in order to look after his own future interests. I can see no redeeming features to the manager’s actions.
But then it gets a little odder. The rich man in the parable, the one who has been cheated now several times, seems not to condemn his manager’s actions, but he now condones them and praises him for acting shrewdly. It feels like a old Mafiosi recognising a kindred spirit in a young hoodlum coming up the ranks.
Finally we have what feels like a number of different theological glosses piling up on top of one another, trying to get to the moral of this story. In my humble opinion I am not sure that any of them get there quite enough. At first it seems to say that we should use dishonest wealth to win friends for ourselves, as the manager did, but then it goes on to say that whoever is dishonest in little will be dishonest in much and, if we have been dishonest then we will not be entrusted with true riches. Finally, it seems to me, that Luke himself stops trying to square the circle and ends simply with “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
That last may be of some comfort to both our treasurer and the diocese as they seek to deal with budgets. We are certainly not serving wealth.
I’m not going to seek to offer trite conclusions or easy answers – that would be insulting to us all and do damage to the text. A bit like Jeremiah and Job, sometimes you have to sit in the uncomfortable place in order to do it justice. As I have said before parables are parabolic curve balls and not always amenable to easy catches.
Thank you for travelling with me to a couple of hard places. Having been there and having said that I don’t get to pick my own verses to preach on, I am going to pick my own verses to finish on and if you remember nothing else today remember this:
“God is love, whoever lives in love lives in God, and God lives in them.” (1 John 4) Amen.