Sunday, September 3, 2017

Parable of the Soils

This last spring, Crosswalk ministries published an article whose title was “3 Kinds of Students That Leave Christianity After High School”. For some, this isn’t just an academic exercise. It was only last week that a teenage daughter of someone very close to me announced to her parents that she wasn’t interested in the whole church thing anymore. But I’m afraid that the article was a little late to the game: Jesus already addressed this topic -- and his list of “3 kinds of people that walk away from the gospel” is, well, a little more authoritative.

This morning we continue in our series of sermons on Jesus’ parables. Now while all of Jesus’ parables are important, if we had to choose the one that is the most important, it might turn out to be the one that we will consider this morning. Jesus could easily have given this parable the title: “3 kinds of people that walk away from the gospel.” There are four clues for us that this parable is really important.

First of all, most of Jesus’ parables only show up once in the four gospel accounts. For example, last week, M. took us through the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. But that parable only appears in the gospel according to Luke. Two weeks previous to that, A. took us through the parable of the unmerciful servant. But that parable only appears in the gospel according to Matthew. You get the idea.

There are only three parables that show up in three of the four gospel accounts. Now when that happens with any teaching, it is like the Spirit of God is underlining it for us. If something shows up in one of the gospels, that’s enough to make it significant, of course; but if it shows up in more than one of them, then it deserves special attention. This is the first indication that this morning’s parable is an important teaching of Jesus: it appears in the gospel according to Matthew, and in the gospel according to Mark and also in the gospel according to Luke.

In fact, in every one of those accounts, the parable we will consider this morning is the first of all Jesus’ parables (depending on definition of a parable). And this is the second indication that this parable is an important teaching of Jesus. This parable is like a lead-off batter: introducing the parables of Jesus.

So let’s read (from Mark -- the parable is essentially the same in Matthew or Luke):

Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear fruit. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times. And he said, Whoever is able to hear – let him hear!

Now before we get to the meat of it, notice how much like what we’ve just read is like a sandwich: meat between two slices of bread. Before he begins, Jesus tells everyone in earshot to “Listen!” Now, to us, this way to start teaching is perhaps interesting, or perhaps quirky. But to Jesus’ hearers, this would be big. Even today, devout Jewish people often recited an important passage of the Old Testament twice a day. This is the text that Jesus himself said was the greatest of all the commandments. I’m sure you remember it: “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.” But the common Jewish recitation actually starts with the previous verse, and, in fact, it gets its name from the first word in that previous verse, the word Shema. In English: “Listen, O Israel: the Lord is our God; the Lord is One!” Listen! And this word Shema didn’t just mean “listen” it also means “pay attention” and even “obey!” In fact, when your English Bible has the word “obey” in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word being translated is usually Shema. So when Jesus starts his teaching with this word, every ear would perk up for sure.

But then, as reinforcement at the end, Jesus says, “whoever has ears, let him hear!” (more or less: “pay attention!”) These two bookends, these two slices of bread for the meat sandwich, these are a third indication that this parable is an important teaching of Jesus.

So let’s quickly summarize this parable. Here, Jesus is telling the story about a farmer who was sowing seed. He wanted his seed to take root, and to grow up, and to provide food for his family and also to provide seed for the next season. It is pretty simple, really: Jesus seems to be saying that not all of the seed that a farmer throws around actually takes root. But we all know that. And not all the seed that takes root grows past a sprout. But we know that, too. And not all the sprouts become mature and give fruit. No news there. But instead of talking about the sower or the seed or the plants, Jesus spends this parable talking about the soils! So what is Jesus really trying to say?

Well, we aren’t the only ones asking such a question. The disciples listening to Jesus were smart enough to know that Jesus wasn’t just describing the experience of most of the local farmers -- he had a deeper meaning in mind. So they ask him what this parable is all about. And Jesus himself provides an explanation of this parable. Now this is a fourth indication that this is an important teaching of Jesus -- it is one of the very few parables that Jesus explained, and is certainly the longest explanation that Jesus ever gave for one of his parables. And this is how his explanation begins (Luke 8:11-15):

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts

The seed, says Jesus, is the word of God. The soil, says Jesus, is our hearts.

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

Jesus’ focus is on the soil, and now we know why: the soil is our hearts.

the good soil…[we read] are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit.

But before we get back to our hearts, how about that fruit? We can imagine how important fruit was in the Middle East at the time. We don’t have to go far to be reminded, either. One of the last times I paid a visit to our Syrian friends down the highway, dear A. brought out an item that she bought from Provigo.
“What is this?” she asked.
“A mango!” I replied.
“Do you like it?” she asked, with some evident skepticism.
“Sure,” I replied.
“But it doesn’t taste like anything.” she said, with some dissatisfaction. And she proceeded to cut it up, serve it to me and watch me eat it, as if there was something terribly wrong with it. And then I learned what fruit is supposed to taste like: that is, what fruit is like in Syria. The pomegranates; the apricots; the grapes; the figs; the citrus: each one more delicious, and succulent, and marvelous than the next. If there wasn’t a war going on there, we should all move to Syria… and not just for the weather: for the fruit! The fruit is what makes life worth living! And I believe her: I’m sure that the fruit in Syria is as wonderful as she claims! And I expect that the fruit in Jesus’ day was just as wonderful, but back then, agriculture was also a primary economy-driver. So it is no surprise that Jesus used fruit as an illustration again and again and again. As Jesus says to his disciples (John 15:16):

You did not choose me, but I chose you ... so that you might go and bear fruit

What Jesus is telling us is that the whole purpose of Christianity is that we go and bear fruit. The reason why you are in church this morning (whether you know it or not -- or whether you even like it or not) is that God wants you to go and bear fruit. And this fruit that Jesus is talking about isn’t just some “spiritual” thing. This is the stuff that makes life worth living. As we were reminded a few weeks ago, the Bible says that (at least some of) the fruit of the Spirit is love, and joy, and peace. I’m sure we can agree that we could all use more of those. Some of this kind of fruit even shows up in Jesus’ explanation: patience and goodness in verse 15, joy in verse 12. And in verse 13, we’re told that even salvation could be the result of receiving this seed.

But an easy lesson to miss from this parable is simply that there is no fruit without seed. The seed might be tiny. It might even go unnoticed. But if there were no seed, there would be no fruit. The soil doesn’t deserve all the credit for the fruit, after all.

In my office, we used to call this the “mailman principle”. Perhaps you call it something else. The mailman principle is the flip-side of the tendency to shoot the messenger. Shooting the messenger happens when the one bringing bad news gets blamed for it. Not cool, even though it happens far too often. Similarly, the mailman principle simply says that when the news is good, the one delivering the news gets far more credit than he deserves.

But we do this all the time. When something good happens to us, we forget that God’s investment in our lives is behind it. When we do something good, we want to take all the credit for it, naturally. But the Biblical principle is two-fold. On the one hand, we read that, “there is no one righteous, no not one,” and that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” And on the other hand, we also read (1 Cor 4:7): “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”

All the good things in life come from God. And God participates in every good thing that we ever do. Now some people find this offensive. Atheists like to say -- it is kind of a motto for some of them -- that they can be “good without God.” Well, I have news for the atheists. Sure, they can be good without acknowledging God. But that is a far, far different thing from being good without God. Wherever there is good, God is always involved. I expect that God himself would laugh at the idea that just because someone stops believing in God then God must stop His involvement in that person’s life. As Jesus himself says, “your Father in heaven... causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” God doesn’t cut himself off from people, not even if they think that they are cutting themselves off from him!

Now the first lesson was that all good things come from God. But the seed is the word of God. Does that mean that all good thing ultimately derive from the word of God? It certainly does. Now if you aren’t so sure about that, please remember that the Bible doesn’t just say “the Word was with God.” It also says that “the Word was God.” You see, the Word of God is not just a message -- He is also a person. And all things were made by this Word. And all good things come through him. I like how John Ortberg puts it:

Jesus had no place to lay his head, yet he became the primary inspiration for architectural progress. We don’t know what Jesus looked like, yet he became the most recognizable figure in the world. He had “no beauty that we should desire him”, yet he became the subject of more paintings and sculpture than anyone else in history. He never wrote a book, but he became the most written-about person ever and the greatest inspiration for global linguistic development. He is associated with no known music, but is the subject of more songs and music than any other human being. He died alone, yet people die for him still.

You see, the consequences of the Word of God in the world, its fruit is not just love, and joy, and peace, but all the things that make life worth living ultimately derive from the word of God. Those who held fast to the word of God were even responsible for the entire scientific enterprise: Newton, and Faraday, and Pascal, and Maxwell, and Kepler… and the list goes on.

But now I’d like to change gears and ask you to use your imagination. I’d like you imagine that you are really young (perhaps grade eight or nine). And I’d like you to imagine that there is someone in the world who could be your best friend for life. This is someone who would stick by you in the hard times, and celebrate with you in the good times. This is someone you could wake up in the middle of the night to talk to. This is someone you will eventually marry and be your perfect partner. I’m not saying that your happiness depends on this development, but -- and I speak from experience -- I am saying you will never know what happiness could really be without it. But now please also suppose that as this really young person that you are imagining yourself to be, you have never actually connected with this special person yet!

So let’s ask the very practical question: what does it take for this hypothetical young you and this other person who is just perfect for you to get together? Well, obviously, first you need to meet. You need to meet as human beings. Have you ever wondered if you’ve ever bounced off someone who could have been a really good friends? That would be pretty sad. Tragic, really. Avoiding that tragedy is the first step: you need to meet.

But the second thing that you need to become friends with this special person, is to somehow get past all the teasing that, as a young person, you would certainly get from all of your siblings and friends. You know – that’s what happens. Now they don’t do that because they don’t like you. They aren’t trying to keep you from future happiness – they just don’t know any better.

The summer before after kindergarten, my daughter G. had a best friend. They spent all day every day running around and playing in the neighborhood. But when school started, all the boys in the class started to tease J. about “liking a g-i-r-l”. And in a short time, in order to demonstrate the falsity of these outrageous accusations, J. began treating G. very cruelly. Naturally, G. was heartbroken. But that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. J. couldn’t take the heat. So he would never know how wonderful a person that G. was.

So you have to meet, but you also have to be willing to take the heat. And the third thing that you need to become friends with this special person – and this is the really hard one – you’ll need to spend less time with everything else. If you like to watch TV, well, you’ll need to watch less. And if you like to go shopping, you might need to shop less. You get the idea.

Nobody goes through life leaving big chunks of their time doing nothing in anticipation for that special person to come along and fill it in. Instead, our lives are typically full at all times, and adjustments will be necessary -- deciding to invest in this new person at the expense of other things and even other people -- in order to develop a relationship. And if we aren’t willing to make those adjustments, then we might as well give up the thought of ever having a healthy friendship let alone a healthy marriage.

So let’s summarize. What is necessary to make the deepest friendships? Three things:
  1. We need to MEET.
  2. We need to be able to take the HEAT.
  3. We need to allow this new friendship to comPETE.
And then, and only then, will you be able to discover that amazing human experience of a deep and healthy relationship.

But these three things are exactly the things that Jesus is talking about with the soils. With the pathway, the seed never really sinks into the soil. But that’s like never really meeting someone. With the rocky ground, the seed starts to sprout, but it gets scorched by the sun. That’s like giving up on the relationship when the going gets rough. With the thorny ground, the “competition” wins. The plant get choked out before it can bear any fruit. That’s like not taking the time to invest in the right person, because toys and superficial things are easier to handle.

What a tragedy it would be to meet a wonderful friend, but never get to know them; What a tragedy it would be to get to know this wonderful friend but then to abandon them when things get difficult; and it what a tragedy it would be to get to know his wonderful friend, but not give them the time or energy to really build a relationship… But this wonderful friend isn’t a hypothetical. This is the Word of God. This is someone who loves you enough to be willing to die for you. This is Jesus. As he says,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a [seed] falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

This is the message of the parable of the Sower: the seed is the Word of God. He has come and sacrificed himself so that you can bear fruit, fruit that will last.

Sure, it is nice to meet someone special and even marry them. But as nice as that is, this is just a shadow of the reality to come -- another wedding, between this Word, the Lamb of God, who will come again in his glory, and his spotless bride. As the angel told John in Revelation: ‘“Write this!” he said, “Blessed are those who are called by name to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”’ But not everyone will be able to receive this blessing. As Jesus says (Matt 7:19),

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

These days, in some circles, it is trendy to reject the word of God. And those who reject God’s word like to pose as if their decision represents clear thinking and honest reflection. But there are only three reasons why people don’t accept the word of God, and Jesus calls them all out for us in this parable.
  • Number one: some people just don’t get it. Their hearts are hard, and they aren’t able to recognize the truth.
  • Number two: some people can’t stand the heat. They are easily bullied out of the truth – sometimes it is easier to go along with the crowd that to hang on to what you know to be true.
  • Number three: some people are easily distracted. There are other voices which are more appealing and easier to listen to.
That’s it; that’s all. These are the reasons -- and the only reasons -- that the word of God is rejected. In this parable, Jesus gives us “3 kinds of people that walk away from the gospel.”

Four types of soil; four responses to the word of God. And only the good soil bears fruit. But here’s the thing: as God looks at his church, he sees every type of soil in every one of his children. There are aspects of His word we just don’t get. There are aspects of His word that we are shy about. And there are aspects of His word that we don’t give nearly as much attention to as they deserve. But thank God there are also aspects of His word that we take to heart.

So how do we become less like those other soils and more like the good soil? Well, as any gardener knows, the major difference between a dirt path and the fertile soil (right beside it) is some muscle: the path could be turned into that fertile soil with some serious cultivation. Same with the rocky ground. Sure, cultivation can seem like work, but remove the big stones and bury the little ones, and the rocky ground could yield a crop, too. Same with the soil overgrown with weeds. Weeding is work, sure, especially when some of those weeds have deep roots that go deep down into your soul, but weeds don’t ever mean that the soil couldn’t be recovered. But here’s an interesting thing: the soil that is the most fertile is often the most messy, isn’t it?

But soil doesn’t cultivate itself. In the same way that the seed from God is necessary in our lives if we are to bear fruit, God’s cultivating activity is also necessary if we are to be able to permit the seed to sprout. It might be uncomfortable as God overturns the habits of our hearts. But it will certainly be worth it. But we need to be aware: God won’t be doing any heart-cultivation without our invitation, and certainly not without our permission. This morning, let’s ask God to prepare our hearts for his word, to help us with the removal of the stones and the distractions. And let us meet the King, allowing God to break down the spiritual barriers in our lives that keep us from understanding; let us resolve to take the heat, being prepared in advance to withstand mistreatment for his sake; and let us always allow the Kingdom to compete for our attention, for our loyalty, and for our energy. Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Parable of the Wise Manager

Good Morning -- please turn with me to Luke chapter 16, where our text begins at verse 1. This morning, we will look at another one of Jesus’ parables, the third in the sermon series that we started a few weeks ago. In particular, we will consider what is often called the parable of the Dishonest Manager, or possibly the parable of the Shrewd Manager. But as you can see from the slide, this morning I’m going to call it the parable of the Wise Manager. Now the manager was both dishonest and wise. But let’s not be distracted by his dishonesty. After all, the aspect of his behavior that Jesus is calling out for us is not his dishonesty, but his wisdom.

This is the word of our Lord:

1 Jesus also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his resources. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his wisdom. For the children of this world are wiser in dealing with their own kind than the children of the light.

Now before we get into the meat of it, I’d like to point out that Jesus is telling this parable for us. First, the text begins by telling us that Jesus said this parable to his disciples. And that’s also the clear implication of the last line. “For the children of this world are wiser in dealing with their own kind than the children of the light.” That is, Jesus wants us -- John tells us in his gospel (12:36) that we are the children of the light if we believe in the light -- Jesus wants us to be wiser in our dealings with each other than we often are, and that to that end, we can learn from this crook of a manager.

But that’s a problem, isn’t it? The main character in today’s parable has been caught being irresponsible with his employer’s money, and he is on his way out. But in the final moments of his employment, he rips off his employer by lowering the balances on all of his employer's debtors! And then, as we are reeling from the deception of it all, his employer -- and by implication, Jesus! -- commends this dishonest employee for his “wisdom”. And yes: that’s the word Jesus uses here to describe the man’s actions -- even though it is translated in many Bibles as “shrewd”. It is a word that only ever means “wise” throughout the rest of the New Testament. So Jesus says the dishonest man is wise, and commends his actions to his disciples -- he sets up this manager as an example for us.

So what’s going on? Well, interpreters seem torn. On the one side, there are those that are pretty clear that this manager is a terrible person -- he’s selfish and dishonest. But they can’t seem to understand how Jesus could possibly commend such a person, and so their interpretations are often all about avoiding the clear fact that Jesus’ commends him. The end result then becomes an odd story about a dishonest individual with very little point.

On the other side, there are those that are pretty sure that Jesus commendation is the key, but they struggle to understand why he should be commending such a crook. So they imagine that the manager is helping the poor or that he is discounting interest. But none of those interpretations work, either. There is no hint that the debtors are poor, and the interest on these debts couldn’t possibly represent half of the balance, as it would in the case of the oil. Besides, all of Jesus’ other parables are tightly connected to their meaning. If Jesus wanted to teach us to help the poor, for example, this parable would be a really odd way to do it.

So how can we understand this parable? I’d like to answer that question by comparing the parable of the Wise Manager with a number of other Jesus' parables that I hope you are familiar with. The exercise will be a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. There are three themes that I’d like us to see in those other parables. And I hope that when we put them together, the meaning of the parable of the Wise Manager will come into focus.

The first of these themes is the easy one: “God’s Reign”. In a number of Jesus' parables, there is a boss (or king, or landowner, or employer) who  likely represents God and there are also underlings (that is, the servants, the employees) who represent people -- and very possibly us. Let’s look at a few examples among many.

Remember the parable of the Talents? That’s the one where the king entrusts his wealth to three of his servants, whose handling of it makes all the difference. Clearly, it teaches us to take seriously those valuable things that God has entrusting to us. The parable of the Minas has the same message.

How about the parable of the Laborers? That’s the one where the employer pays everyone the same, even though some have worked through the day, while others have worked only a few hours. That parable reminds us that God doesn’t have to explain himself to us. He’s in charge, after all.

The parable of the Unmerciful Servant has the same structure. The master represents God, and the servant represents us. And it reminds us that we want God to treat us with mercy, and so we had better extend mercy to those around us.

How about the parable of the Tenants? There, the landowner is expecting tenants to pay him their rent. Similarly, God also has expectations of us.

But these are just a few of the many parables with this structure. Now wouldn’t it be odd if the parable of the Wise Manager was the only parable with an employer and an employee, but these represented something entirely different? Let's see how far we can go with the assumption that this parable is like all those others: that is, the employer represents God, and the manager represents us.

Now, of course, that makes many people uncomfortable. But if we are tempted to imagine that Jesus would never use an unsavoury character to represent us, it doesn't hurt to be reminded that in another of Jesus' parables, he even uses an unsavoury character to represent God (in the parable of the Persistent Widow or Unjust Judge).

I understand: we don’t want to be associated with such a crook. But if we are honest, we find ourselves in exactly the same shoes as the manager. What was the accusation levelled against this manager? That he was wasting his employer’s resources. I’m guilty of this all the time. I don’t know about you, but one of my (many) failings is puzzles. I like puzzles; I spend time solving puzzles. And if God were to tell me that I spend far too much time -- even a wasteful amount of time -- solving puzzles, I would have nothing at all to say in reply. He could only be right! But in our culture of personal entertainment, for some people it could be television, or Facebook, or video games, or shopping, or gardening, or toys … you know the toys I’m talking about; and God certainly does, too. Anyway, you get the idea. Every one of us could legitimately be accused of wasting God’s resources.

Besides, The Bible tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” A few chapters later, we read that, “the wages of sin is death.” The manager was found wanting by his employer and was not going to last forever in his position. Similarly, none of us are perfect, and none of us will last forever, either. We are the manager in the parable. And God is the rich man, our boss.

But the next obvious question is “then who are the debtors?” To answer that, let's consider the debts -- and for that, we need to consider the next piece of our puzzle.

The second theme from the parables is that as King, God has expectations of us: “God’s Requirements”. Did you notice that the debts collected in our parable were not expressed as cash but as produce? Oil (in those days, this would be olive oil) and wheat are both the fruit of a harvest. But fruit-bearing and harvest images are throughout the teaching of Jesus. In the parable of the Sower, for example, we are to be like good soil, accepting the message of the Kingdom, and so being able to bear fruit. The parable of the Fig Tree also plays with the same theme: it’s message? God is expecting a delivery of the fruit of the harvest from each of us. Similarly, in the parable of the Tenants, there is the clear expectation that the landowner should receive a portion of the harvest as their rent payment. Of course, this theme is also made explicit elsewhere in the gospels. Here are three quick examples:

“Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down”
“Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit”
“I chose you and appointed you so that you should go and bear fruit”

Now in our parable (the parable of the Wise Manager) the debtors owe a portion of their harvest to their Lord. Now, since we are working with the hypothesis that the manager represents us, then the debtors must represent others.

So God is the master. We are the manager. Those around us are the debtors. Now let’s consider the final piece of the puzzle.

The final theme to understanding the parable of the Wise Manager is “God’s Representatives”. Remember the Sheep and the Goats? There, the King judges his people according to how they have treated him. But if you recall, this surprises both the good and the bad. The King needs to explain to them both that the way his representatives have been treated is the way that he considers himself to have been treated. And who are his representatives? As the King puts it, “the least” -- the least attractive, the least wealthy, the least talented, the least interesting: these are the ones that the King chooses to represent Himself. We don’t get to choose who God’s representatives are -- God does. We might not even like them. It doesn’t matter. That’s not God’s problem -- it is ours! This truth is often hard to swallow in a generation that chooses everything. We choose our friends, our entertainment, our wardrobe, our diet, the place we live…. We even get to choose the church we go to and the preacher we listen to. But God isn’t limited by our choices, and he is continually sending us representatives that we might not even recognize.

This idea is present in other parables as well. In the parable of the Unmerciful Servant, when that servant is unkind toward a lesser servant, the master seems to take it quite personally. There, the lesser servant is taken to be his master’s representative. In the parable of the Wedding Banquet, the invitees don't just refuse to attend, they also mistreat of the King's representatives. And how about the parable of the Tenants? There, the landowner repeatedly sends his representatives to his tenants requesting payment on their debt. Those tenants’ failure was both their refusal to deliver a portion of the harvest and their mistreatment of the landowner's representatives.

This is also a theme that shows up elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching. He tells his disciples: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. (in Matthew)” and “the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me. (in Luke)”. Clearly, Jesus wants his disciples (that’s us) to understand that we are his representatives. Elsewhere, Jesus even says: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives not me, but the one who sent me.” But if even children can be his representatives, then it isn’t a stretch to conclude that we are all God's representatives to each other. Let me say that again: we are all God’s representatives to each other!

So now we have our three puzzle pieces: God’s Reign; God’s Requirements; and God’s Representatives. Now for anyone who reigns, the combination of their reign, their requirements and their representatives is a good summary of their kingdom, isn't it? So now we have a picture of the Kingdom of God. These three puzzle pieces don't just tell us about the Kingdom of God, they also tell us how it operates.

With the first piece (God's Reign), the dynamic of God’s Kingdom becomes clear: we must treat God as our King. That means we pay our debts to him. But the second piece (God's Requirements) indicates that God is expecting that payment in the form of harvest-fruit. So what is this fruit that God is requiring of us? Perhaps the best possible answer can be found in Galatians 5:22,23, where we read: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control.” These are the things that, as children of the Kingdom, we are expected to be delivering to the King.

But the final piece of our puzzle (God's Representatives) adjusts this picture ever-so-slightly. We must still deliver this harvest-fruit to God, but now, we must make that delivery through his representatives. After all, when we show kindness to “the least”, then we are showing kindness to the King. And it makes sense that that should also be the case for patience and gentleness and all the rest.

So now I’d like to try to convince you this morning that the parable of the Wise Manager is the flip-side of the parable of the Tenants. The parable of the Tenants deals specifically with our role as debtor, or fruit-deliverer. In that parable, the King (representing God) sends his servants (representing all those we encounter) to his tenants (representing us), expecting delivery of the fruit of the Kingdom to God through them.  

When M. shows P. kindness, he is delivering the fruit of the Kingdom to God through P., as God’s representative. When A. is gentle with T., she is delivering the fruit of the Kingdom to God through T., as God’s representative. You get the idea. This is the dynamic of the Kingdom: we remit the fruit of the Spirit -- the fruit of the Kingdom -- to God through each other, and we owe more of this to God than we can possibly deliver.

But the parable of the Wise Manager now deals with our role not as fruit-deliverer, but as the representative, or fruit-receiver. And that, of course, is exactly what we see in the parable: the manager is the rich man’s representative engaged in the recovery of huge debts. Likewise, we are God’s representatives to those we encounter. And the parable tells us how to deal wisely in that role.

But this is where it gets really interesting: the essence of the manager’s “wise” behavior is that he downgrades the debt that each of his master’s clients owes the master. Now if that debt were paid in the currency of love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control, to downgrade such a debt would simply be to require less of all those we encounter than God requires of them -- to be merciful in our assessment of their behavior!

And we know of God’s requirements are very high indeed: Jesus’ sermon on the mount sets that bar for us. There, Jesus tells us: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In that day, the scribes and the Pharisees literally defined what it meant to live righteously. But Jesus is saying their best efforts don’t cut it. We must do better. And Jesus’ summary at the end of that section is explicit: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And the enormous gap between this standard of (perfect) behavior and our actual behavior -- this is how much we “fall short of the glory of God” -- and this is also the debt we owe to God. This is the “ten thousand talents” in the parable of the Unmerciful Servant; this is the “hundred measures” in the parable of the Wise Manager. This is what we are legitimately expected to deliver to those around us, receivable in the currency of the Kingdom.

But far too often, Christians demand God’s standard of behavior of each other. After all, if God demands that standard of behavior of us, aren’t we doing God a favor by demanding that standard of behavior from each other? Many seem to think so. But that bar is set too high for us! We aren’t being fair to our brothers and sisters if we rely on God’s mercy while insisting that they live up to God’s standard.

The way that it usually goes is this: Christians don’t ever actually hold each other to God’s standard. Instead, we hold each other to the aspects of God’s standards that we, personally, are comfortable with. Now this is all well and good if we only engage with those Christians whose comfort zone is in sync with our own. This is, of course, how denominations start. But there are other Christians -- those who might be quite uncomfortable with some of those aspects of God’s standards that we are comfortable with. But here’s the thing: they might be quite comfortable with other aspects of God’s standards that we have been avoiding -- because we know (perhaps subconsciously) that they would make us uncomfortable. Of course there is no wisdom at all in fighting over which aspect of God’s standards are most important. Instead, our parable encourages us, not to lower our standards -- by no means -- but simply not to impose God’s standards on our brothers and sisters whose wiring or circumstances are different than ours.

Let me re-read Jesus’ comment at the end of the parable: “For the children of this world are wiser in dealing with their own kind than the children of light.” The children of this world often have no worries about using their employer’s resources to facilitate their friendships. In our parable, the manager extends mercy to all those who owe their harvest to his master. Of course, the mercy is ultimately the master’s. It is he who must now absorbs the cost. The scandal, of course, is simply that the Wise Manager is reducing his master’s debts without authorization. But the surprise of the parable -- and in Jesus’ parables, the lesson is often found in the surprise -- his master is not at all offended by this unauthorized mercy. In fact, the manager receives commendation from the rich man for it. Similarly, we, too, are wise to extend mercy to all those we encounter, not holding them to the standard of God’s requirements -- even as God, in his mercy, does not hold us to the standard of His requirements.

God will never be offended if we extend a certain amount of “unauthorized mercy” or “unauthorized generosity” to those around us. If you are a parent, you’ve likely experienced some of this dynamic. If you pay for your child’s room and board and schooling and clothing and entertainment and transportation and allowance, when your child decides to be charitable, you might feel a bit of conflict. On the one hand, you’re proud of your child for their generosity. On the other hand, you appreciate that it is always easier to be generous with someone else’s resources -- namely, yours! So what do you do? Well, unless your child’s generosity is absurdly disproportionate, you treat your child as your agent, and you participate in their charity.

Well, our parable this morning is telling us that God is willing to extend the same kind of grace to us as we are willing to extend to our children. Even when the mercy we show to others is “unauthorized”, God is willing to bless it and commend us for it. The fact that Jesus uses a dishonest character to illustrate it is simply to remind us of our own falling short of God’s glory.

So this week, this month, this year… consider the dynamic of the Kingdom of God. Consider how you can deliver a portion of the harvest of love and joy and peace to those around you. And if those around you don’t seem to return the favor, show them mercy, because our Lord and Savior teaches us that it is the wise thing to do, and we will receive commendation for it.