What Christ Didn’t Die For

September 22, 2013

Preaching Text:

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” (Luke 16:8)

One of the main points of contention between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformers had to do with the Bible. While the Reformers held that scripture should be available to the laity, the Catholic Church insisted that only priests should have access to it.

So contentious was this issue that Jan Hus was burned at the stake in Prague in the year 1415 for, among other things, translating the Bible into his native Czech. Over a hundred years later, in England, William Tyndale was similarly martyred for the same offense.

So it’s not without irony that we Protestants today tend to avoid reading the Bible – and at all costs! The reason is obvious. It is, simply put, difficult to understand. In addition, it has been used too often in unfortunate ways.

Which brings me to one of my favorite quotes, one you’ve probably heard me use on other occasions. It was displayed on a poster that hung on the door of one of my friend’s divinity school dorm room. It read simply, “Christ didn’t die to take away your brain.”

I invoke this saying repeatedly in Bible study whenever we’re confronted with a particularly difficult passage, such as the one this morning from Luke about the dishonest steward.

God gave us both intelligence and spiritual discernment that we might read the Bible not woodenly or dim-wittedly, but with creative insight and skill. We are advised to do this because, for one, the biblical writers were not stupid. On the contrary they were deeply thoughtful and spiritually wise. If we approach scripture thinking they were less than this we do it and ourselves a great disservice.

Of course, given the presumptions of modernity, we too easily dismiss that which either confounds or affronts. But upon closer inspection, with the aid of serious reflection and scholarly investigation (and no small amount of common sense!), we can discover the author’s intent, which is frequently quite profound.

No doubt like you, I initially responded to today’s gospel reading with alarm. There, Jesus appears to commend the actions of the shady characters in his parable.

The dishonest steward, for one, is applauded for being devious and shrewd. Realizing that the jig is up, that he has been found by his employer to be a common thief, an embezzler, he hatches a brilliant scheme.

He decides to lower the payments each of his debtors owes, thus accomplishing two things at once. First, he puts himself in a good light with his “customers,” whom he hopes will take care of him when he loses his job.

But even more cunningly, he makes them complicit in his scheme so that he has the option, assuming the worst, of future blackmail! Their actions, in other words, are decidedly less than stellar.

Then, when the land owner learns what the unethical steward has done, he commends him!

So here we have a group of people who act with shameless dishonestly and yet appear to gain Jesus’ approval. So what’s with that?

Eugene Peterson’s transliteration of verses 8-9 in his The Message helps make it clear in a way that both honors the text and, more importantly, maintains the moral and spiritual integrity of the text.

Why did the master praise the dishonest steward? Peterson asks. “Because,” his Jesus says, “[the dishonest steward] knew how to take care of himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.”

But here comes the clincher. Jesus continues: “I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival – to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

William Barclay, the noted 20th century biblical scholar, agrees. What if we Christians, he argues, the children of light, were as eager and ingenious in attempting the good as the world is in attaining money and comfort, how much better a human being might we be?

In general, he contends, we will spend 20 times more time, energy, and effort in pleasures, hobbies, gardening, or sports than we do on our spiritual lives. Yet, alas, he says, serving God cannot be a part-time job!

What if we applied the full force of our time, talent, and energy on the things of the Spirit? How might our lives be different? What if we were as creative and astute as the world is about decidedly lesser things? How might our faith lives be different? And the lives of those around us?

Beyond this, I was struck by the way Peterson concludes verse 9, the part about complacently getting by on good behavior.

But think about it. Think of your own life, and how you likely would do just about anything for those you love. No, love, in the face of adversity, is not content to hide behind “good behavior” (though certainly without good behavior as its foundation, no healthy relationship can last for long).

But what about those times when following the rules just isn’t enough, times when things happen to those we love, when they face profound challenges or crises?

At such times, the people we love take top priority. And we will search diligently for whatever way we can help. We will use every bit of insight, wisdom, intelligence, strength, and quick-wittedness we can muster to rescue them from trouble. We will be as inventive and creative as it takes, no holds barred. Sort of like the dishonest steward who applies himself, commits himself, though admittedly in the service of a decidedly lesser good.

Jesus was once asked by a lawyer, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” To which Jesus answered him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Paul, the author of today’s reading from 1Timothy, once had been such a lawyer. In time, he came to understand that most everything he knew about God was wrong, what he knew about other people was wrong, and what he understood about himself was wrong.

Having found Christ, he came to realize that love, the kind Jesus embodies, forms a truly meaningful life, one not found by following a bunch of rules. And such a love, as I say, will employ the full application of one’s heart and soul and body and strength. Amen.