Beyond Motive

Sermon for Sunday, September 22, 2013 ||  Proper 20, Year C ||  Amos 8: 4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2: 1-7; Luke 16: 1-13 ||
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

“The most difficult parable of them all…” “A difficult text…” “One of the strangest of the strange…”

These are among the many phrases used to describe this morning’s gospel — and by biblical scholars clearly more qualified than I am to make sense of it.  This bizarre story about wealth and how it’s managed, a parable that seems for all the world to commend dishonesty, praise self-serving magnanimity, and endorse distributing other people’s wealth generously, to “win friends and influence people” for oneself.

Luke tells the story of a man entrusted with managing his boss’s accounts, who’s fired after accusations of squandering the boss’s assets.  The man realizes that once he’s jobless, homelessness may well be around the corner.  So before he cleans out his desk and turns-in the key to the men’s room, the man hedges his bets in a dramatic display of dishonesty and deception:  He feigns divine-like mercy and generosity to his boss’s debtors– forgiving huge chunks of what each one owes– presuming they, in turn, will extend to him the same divine-like mercy and generosity when he needs it.

The boss, much to our surprise, praises this man for what he’s done—no matter the fundamentally flawed motive at its core (of which the boss may, or may not be aware).

Now, this man’s story follows directly on the heals of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  That’s important because given what we know about Luke as a master story-teller, we can be sure this is no coincidence.  Like the father in the story of the prodigal, who forgives not only the fact that his son has totally squandered his inheritance but that the son’s motives for returning home are essentially self-serving, the boss in this morning’s gospel does not seem to be concerned with his manager’s motive. He is simply pleased with what results: wealth he might well have lost forever has now been returned to him because of the man’s actions. Whether or not the boss knows he was really due much more, or that his manager took it upon himself to forgive a big chunk of change in the process, we don’t know.  Luke doesn’t tell us.

What we do know is that like the prodigal son who squandered his father’s inheritance, the unjust man in this story has squandered his boss’s wealth.  (Luke even uses the same Greek word in both stories). Yet the son is offered compassion and the wealth-manager praise for doing the right thing—even though it was for entirely the wrong reasons. The father gets his missing son back; the rich man (as far as he knows) gets his wealth returned.

We might imagine that this parable is a first century tale of the 21st century truism that “attitude follows action.” We might imagine that after doing the right thing, the prodigal son’s heart is so moved by his father’s love that he becomes loving himself; we might imagine that the unjust man is so astonished by his boss’s praise, that he actually becomes praiseworthy.

After all, isn’t it just like God to take our less-than-virtuous motivations and use them to accomplish virtuous ends?  To redeem them (and us) by using them for good—sometimes even in spite of ourselves?

I wonder if you’ve ever done something kind or charitable just to look or feel good—only to discover that in the doing of it you were inspired to become a better person?  Or if you’ve ever behaved lovingly toward someone you didn’t particularly like only because you had to, then discovered your heart had softened toward that person somehow when you weren’t looking?  Or maybe you’ve prayed for someone towards whom you held a grudge because you were told it would make you feel better, only to find yourself forgiving the person in the process?

See, as unfathomable as parts of this story are, doing the right thing for the wrong reason is a story I totally get.  It’s part of my story, too. And I’m guessing it’s part of yours.

When I was still a journalist and returned to the church after many years away, it wasn’t because I wanted to worship God or serve God’s church, it was because I wanted God to heal my broken spirit and frankly, I wanted the church to meet my needs. A few years later when I cleaned up my life, it wasn’t because it was the good or virtuous thing to do, it was because I just wanted to feel better. When I went to seminary years later, it still wasn’t because I wanted to serve God as much as I wanted to read, study, and talk about God.  And when I finally committed to tithing at the first church I served, I can assure you I didn’t do it out of generosity– I did it because my bishop said I had to! Little did I know that by doing so I would become, in spite of myself, a more generous person.

That God was okay with all of that and used even my most willful motives to make me act in behalf of His will–well, that’s the very definition to me of God’s mercy and redemption.  And that I would then be fundamentally changed in spite of myself into becoming a better person—that attitude really would follow action — that is pure gift, the very definition of God’s grace.

When God commands us to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, and all of our soul, and all of our mind—and our neighbors as ourselves, God is not commanding us to feel a certain way, but to act a certain way.  We are to act as if God is the most important part of our life until God is the most important part of our life.  We are to treat the unlovable ones in our lives as if we love them until we love them.  We are to act with mercy and kindness and generosity and forgiveness, until we become –by the grace of God –a people who are merciful and kind and generous and forgiving.

This, it seems to me, is the story of how our sinfulness is redeemed and given value:  God uses it.  God transforms it.  And God transforms us for His use in the process.

Each of us has a story of God’s gifts we have squandered.  Each of us has a story of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.  Each of us has already been forgiven, embraced and praised by a divinely merciful and generous God.  And every single one of us on this journey together is being transformed by God’s grace–sometimes even in spite of ourselves –into better people, into God’s people, into more faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

May God grant us, in the process, the wisdom and the strength (as we prayed earlier) “to not be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly…and to hold fast to those that shall endure.” Amen.

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