Sunday, 22 September 2019

‘I am not strong enough to dig,
and I am ashamed to beg’

‘I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg’ (Luke 16: 3) … ‘Christ the Beggar’ … a sculpture by Timothy Schmalz on the steps of Santo Spirito Hospital near the Vatican (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 22 September 2019,

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIV).


11.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

Readings: Jeremiah 8: 18 to 9: 1; Psalm 79: 1-9; I Timothy 2: 1-7; Luke 16: 1-13. There is a link to the readings HERE.

‘Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land’ (Jeremiah 8: 19) … the Famine Memorial by the sculptor Rowan Gillespie on Custom House Quay, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning’s readings share a common thread: ignoring and exploiting the plight of the oppressed and the poor is turning away from God and turning towards idolatry. We are called to turn around, and in turning to the needs of the poor we find that we are turning to God.

In the Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 8: 18 to 9: 1), the Prophet Jeremiah is filled with grief and he is sick at heart, distressed at the nation’s conduct and its consequences for the poor people throughout the land. The poor cry out, wondering where God is to be found in midst of their plight, and feel they have been deserted or abandoned by God: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion?’

So, let me tell this morning’s Gospel story (Luke 16: 1-13) in another way. When I left school, I started training as a chartered surveyor and estate manager. I never finished that training, but I can visualise some of the characters in this story.

A very, very rich man lives in a big city, let’s say it’s Dublin. He has a luxurious lifestyle made possible by the income from the apartments, hotels and office blocks he owns in the city centre. He has been a major property developer, and a key shareholder in one of the business banks lending to developers.

He has hired an estate manager to run his property holding company, his building society, and his insurance agency while he spends most of his time in his large country house in Kildare or Meath, or in Marbella playing golfing and on his yacht.

All the work of painting, maintaining the lifts and the plumbing in his apartment blocks, working the bar and servicing the rooms in his hotels, and working at the call centres in the office blocks, is done by people who travel in and out from the rims of the city, people whose grandparents probably once lived in the small terraced houses that once stood along the docks or the canal banks but were levelled to build those apartments, office blocks and hotels.

They pay their mortgages to the bank that financed the apartment blocks and similar developments. Their overdrafts are from the same bank. Their mortgage, insurance and life assurance policies are from an agency he owns. They find themselves increasingly in debt, paying school fees, running a car or two cars, meeting hire purchase payments for fridges, freezers, TVs, the children’s school fees and laptops ... What they earn is never enough to pay off their mortgages, their overdrafts, their term loans.

Their families are slipping further and further into debt, working harder and harder to pay what cannot be paid.

But they never meet the rich developer. The immediate face of this system, of his companies and his investments, is the face of the estate agent who manages the blocks – a man whose grandparents came from the same families as the people who now suffer under his management.

However, his parents had escaped the system, he got a good education, and then got sucked into the system.

The developer hears rumours that the estate manager, who is also his insurance agent, has been squandering the developer’s resource, and gives him his dismissal notice. Now, remember that ‘squandering’ is not necessarily a bad word here – the sower in another parable squanders seed by tossing it on roads and in bird-feeding zones, and the shepherd in last Sunday’s parable potentially squanders 99 sheep by running after the lost one; the widow searching for her lost coin risks losing her other nine as she sweeps everything out.

Anyway, the estate agent has to work out his notice, but is no longer authorised to let, to rent, to buy, to sell, to do anything at all in the developer’s name.

He probably shares the same background only a generation or two ago with the maintenance workers, the tenants, the workers in the office blocks. But when he is out on his ear, they are not going to help him to find a place to live, or find a new job, given that up to now he has allied himself with the developer’s interests, collecting high rents, refusing to bring down rents when the reviews are due, managing the work rotas for the maintenance workers, forcing them to work longer hours rather than taking on the staff needed for the job, dealing unjustly with both tenants and workers.

He has been demanding higher rents and premiums, and longer working hours, yet providing fewer and fewer services – doing what all good economists advised him to do: increasing profit margins and productivity and cutting costs at one and the same time.

He may be shrewd, but that is why he is called ‘the dishonest manager’ (verse 8).

So what does the agent do?

He does something that is extraordinarily clever.

He gathers all the tenants and workers who owe him money, and he declares that their debts have been written down, more than the courts could ever write them down, to something that might be repaid, freeing families from heart-breaking choices. He has been upping their rents and their premiums; now he brings them all back to a payable rate. And in doing this, he manages to wipe out the arrears that have been mounting up.

The smart agent manages not to tell the tenants or the workers that he has been sacked. Nor does he tell them that the developer has not authorised any of his largesse. But the tenants and the workers now think the developer, their landlord, is more generous than anyone else in his position could be. The developer is now a hero in their eyes – and, by extension, the agent is too.

The developer comes for his quarterly or annual visit to pick up the income the agent has collected for him, and he gets a surprise that is exhilarating and challenging. The people are delighted to see him. Workers shake his hands, tenants lean out of balconies to wave at him, children want to have photographs taken with him.

Then, as he inspects the books in the small office the agent has worked from in the complex, he finds out what the agent has done in telling the tenants and the workers that the developer has forgiven their debts.

He has a choice to make.

He can go and tell them that it was all a terrible mistake, that the agent’s stroke amounted not to generosity but to theft, or at least to dishonesty, and has no legal basis – he can tell them they are still responsible for the unpaid rent, for the overdrawn loans.

The warm welcome could quickly turn to nasty protests.

Or, the developer can go outside, bask in the unexpected welcome he has received, and take credit for the agent’s actions. At least he has cash in his hand where once he might have had nothing because of defaulting tenants and clients. That would save him going to court, but has he to take the agent back to work for him?

What would you do?

Picture yourself in this dilemma, both as the agent and as the developer.

From the agent’s point of view, does it matter any more what the developer decides to do?

Whatever decision the developer makes, his future is safe: either he gets his job back, or his own people are going to look after him.

But here is the big problem: what the agent did is clearly dishonest. He has taken the landlord’s property and squandered it – even after he was sacked and had no right to do anything in the developer’s name.

What is it that the agent has done, without permission? Who has he deceived?

The agent forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for his past misconduct. But that’s the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a position from which it seems he could not be reconciled, to the developer any more than to the tenants and workers.

So what is the moral of the story?

This story is unique to Saint Luke’s Gospel, and for him there is a significance that is important throughout the third gospel: Forgive. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want. Forgive for the right reason. Forgive for the wrong reason. Forgive for no reason at all. Just forgive.

Remember, Saint Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer includes the helpful confusion: καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν, καὶ γὰρ αὐτοὶ ἀφίομεν παντὶ ὀφείλοντι ἡμῖν: καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν (‘and forgive us our sins for indeed we ourselves are forgiving everyone who is [monetarily] indebted to us’) (Luke 11: 4) – the monetary indebtedness is obvious in the original Greek.

We pray it, but do we put it into practice?

The arrival of the Kingdom of God is no occasion for score-keeping of any kind, whether monetary or moral.

Why should I forgive someone who has sinned against me, or against my sense of what is obviously right? I don’t have to do it out of love for the other person.

I could forgive the other person because of what I pray in the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday if not every morning.

I could forgive because I know I would like to be forgiven myself.

I could forgive because I know what it is like to be me when I am unforgiving.

I could forgive because I am, or I want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Christ’s power to forgive and free someone just like me.

Or I could forgive because I think it will improve my life and sense of well-being.

It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive.

Extending the kind of grace God shows me in every possible arena – financial and moral – can only put me more deeply in touch with God’s grace.

If a crafty agent, a dishonest manager, an unjust steward, the sort of person we meet in this Gospel reading, can forgive to save his job or give himself a safety net when he is sacked, then those of us who have the experience of real grace, we have been invited to the Heavenly Banquet, we who pray in the words of the Psalm, ‘Remember not our past sins; let your compassion be swift to meet us’ (Psalm 79: 8), we who believe, as the Apostle Paul says in the Epistle reading, that Christ ‘gave himself a ransom for all’ (I Timothy 2: 6) – we have a better reason than most people to forgive.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A ‘Shop To Let’ sign within view of Sidney Sussex College chapel, Cambridge … can we reconcile the values of the Kingdom and the demands of commercial life? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 16: 1-13:

16 Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3 Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position 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 dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7 Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” 8 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. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much’ (Luke 16: 10) … old pennies on a table in a pub in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
Give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect of the Word:

O God,
you call us to serve you:
enable us to be faithful in minor tasks
so that we may be entrusted
with your true riches.
We ask this through Jesus your Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
the source of truth and love:
Keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
united in prayer and the breaking of bread,
and one in joy and simplicity of heart,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

‘For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus’ (I Timothy 2: 5) … an image in the Monastery of Rousanou in Meteora, Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Hymns:

597, Take my life, and let it be (CD 34)
81, Lord for the years your love has kept and guided (CD 5)
601, Teach me, my God and King (CD 34)

The Unjust Steward … part of the East Window in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick, made 1878 by Mayer & Co and illustrating 10 parables (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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