By: David H. May, Rector
A discovery was made when our bell tower was cleaned and painted a few weeks ago. We learned that way up there among our beautiful church bells, behind one of the walls, is a thriving colony of honeybees. According to the ‘bee man’ who came to check it out, something like 40,000 honey bees have made a home there flying in and out and among the bells that are inscribed ‘praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below’. Creatures like honeybees. As you might know, honeybees have been going through a terrible time in the past 15 years or so. For slightly mysterious reasons, the total population of honeybees has taken a terrible beating. And that’s bad. Because honeybees are a big part of why we have food on our tables. They pollinate the plants that produce so much of what is delicious and keeps us and all kinds of other living things alive. No one asked them to do that. They just do it as a gift of God’s creation. Thank you, honeybees.
The ‘bee man’ also let us know that behind that wall there is probably an extensive structure of honeycomb filled with beautiful honey. That’s something else the honeybee gives us without being asked – this perfect, perfect thing called honey. Nobody asked them to – they just do it and we receive it; it’s a gift of pure grace.
Well, since this discovery, thoughts of the prophet Ezekiel float in and out of my mind whenever I see the bell tower or her the bells chiming. When the Lord God first began to speak into the depths of Ezekiel, here is what the prophet heard: “ ‘Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it’. Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey”. God’s Word, like honey in his mouth; pure grace.
God’s Word on the menu today is an entrée called ‘the Parable of the Dishonest Steward’. And when we sink our teeth into it, it’s nothing like biting into a honeycomb. It’s more like a gnarled, gristly piece of meat. And chew and chew and chew, it just doesn’t seem to get any better.
It’s a hard word to swallow, no doubt. In fact, I for one feel tempted to delicately remove it from my mouth and secretly sneak it to the dog under the dinner table. But like many of us were taught, you eat what’s put in front of you.. So here we go…
Just to re-cap in case it wasn’t clear, which would be normal. There is a steward who has oversight over his boss’s holdings and is charged with taking care of his property. His boss learns that the steward’s management of his property is turning his assets into liabilities. Maybe the steward is cooking the books, maybe he’s skimming some for himself, and maybe he’s just not good at what he’s doing. Whatever the case, the steward gets called into his boss’s office and is fired on the spot. The steward whose hands are soft from office work and whose idea of manual labor is sharpening a pencil comes up with a plan. He goes to each of his boss’s debtors and discounts the amount they owe. The steward collects all the old debts, turns the money over to his boss, who rejoices over his stewards good work. And we are left with the stunningly elusive advice to “make friends for ourselves by means of dishonest wealth….”
The Church has been chewing on this word for a long time. Some commentators on this parable take a moral approach with their interpretation. The virtue and value of hard work and ingenuity are the morsels of nourishment they digest. Which is fine, but perhaps not all that inspiring. Others will complain that a number of sayings of Jesus from a variety of contexts have been shoved together into a mishmash that renders it nearly unintelligible. OK, maybe, but that leaves us with nothing to eat. Approaches like these sound an awful lot like delicately removing this parable and slipping it to your dog under the table.
The last time this parable came up as the gospel reading, I remember talking with three other priests about this text. We were like four technicians in white lab coats and protective goggles looking at this, this ‘thing’, and all wondering: well what is it? as if it were some kind of a strange creature from some alien galaxy.
But maybe it would be more fruitful to turn the tables. Maybe we can let this parable wear the lab coat and look at us, and wondering who we are. Here’s how that works: listen to those places in the text where you find yourself rebelling and consider what it is that you’re rebelling against.
Well, for starters, whether this steward is prince charming or Darth Vadar, he’s done something wrong, his motives for getting out of the mess he’s in are screwy, and he gets off scot-free. I rebel against that. So, the question I hear from the parable in its white lab coat is: I see, would I prefer that he get punished? Am I more interested in this steward getting punished, or being saved from himself and the pickle he’s in? That’s worth chewing on.
This parable was first spoken by someone who understood the workings of grace. It’s spoken for those of us who don’t. What we understand is that ten minus ten equals zero – which is what the steward should get. We do not understand that ten minus ten equals 257,000. The mathematics of grace is just that strange. My math may say this steward ought to get his. But my math isn’t the arithmetic of grace.
Several years ago, I was standing outside an ice cream shop in Kilmarnock eating ice cream listening to a seminarian from Yale talk about his experience in New Orleans the previous month. He was about 24 at the time and this was his fifth or sixth trip down there. At this most recent trip, he stayed at a church in the 9th Ward. The church was using their insurance money to rebuild the neighborhood rather than their church building. The last day there, they all met together with members of the parish as well as the new church group that was just coming in for the week. This new church group was from a very conservative church in Tennessee. He said that he and his other friends from Yale talked about the week they had just had and the work they had been doing and their experiences along the way. The meeting was coming to an end and they were breaking up when the pastor of the congregation from Tennessee asked if he could say a few words. The seminarian from Yale told me that he braced himself for some judgmental lecture. The pastor stood up in front of everyone and said, “the Lord has put it on my heart to say something to my friends from Yale. I can’t quite believe that I’m going to say what I’m about to say. And I’m probably going to get in trouble for this when we get back home. I need to ask my friends from New Haven if they will forgive me. When we got here tonight and I heard who was here, I thought, ‘Oh great. A bunch of liberal, elitists from Yale. I thought all the usual things I think about a bunch of liberal enlists from Yale. I’m ashamed to say what I was thinking. But it was wrong. My heart doesn’t belong to Jesus any more than yours does. We’re following the same master. I can see that. I was wrong about you. I was wrong.”
Grace overcomes those things that we can’t overcome all by ourselves; like when someone who all of our math tells us is a rat, ends up being treated like a prince – and we rejoice! No regular kind of calculation makes that possible.
Remember that strange phrase that asks us to make friends by means of dishonest wealth. Well, what is dishonest wealth? It is, I suppose, riches that come into your possession unfairly. Riches you didn’t earn fair and square. Well, doesn’t that sound a lot like grace?
That pastor from Tennessee had done his math on these kids from Yale. It all added up. But then something was given to him. Something he didn’t earn fair and square – you could call it dishonest wealth – and it overcame what he couldn’t overcome on his own. And it repaid a debt he knew he owed to bunch of kids from Yale.
Grace was given him, unearned and unmerited. Like the taste of honey – nobody earns how sweet honey is; it’s just been given to us by the bees, who right now are in our bell tower doing their job as creatures here below to praise God. May grace be given to us too, to bring such sweetness to our own praise to the glory of God and the benefit of his people. Amen.