What You Had to Do: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 18, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 16:1-13, the parable of the dishonest manager.

When I was in the 7th grade, my family and I found ourselves living in a trailer park out in California. The story as to why we ended up there is a long one for another time, but suffice to say that it was a new experience for all of us. 

I did not come from a wealthy family by any means, but we always had enough to get by, and so it was eye-opening for me as a 12 or 13 year old to suddenly be surrounded by neighbors whose circumstances were decidedly more desperate.

Next door was Pearl, a woman in her 50s from Oklahoma, who peered out of her screen window all day long, puffing on cigarettes, offering a lively commentary on all the comings and goings she had seen. 

There was Mike, who lived behind us; a gentle and quiet man who tended the flowers outside his trailer. He was on parole, having killed a man many years before in a drunken bar fight, doing his best to stay sober. There was a family whose name escapes me now, two parents and two adolescent kids and a dog, who had fallen on hard times and were living in a 12 foot motorhome, trying to figure out how to get enough money to move across the country to live with some relatives. One morning they were just gone, and while I have no idea what happened to them, I always hoped that they made it where they needed to go. 

The park was rough. It wasn’t the type that you stay in on a deluxe RV vacation. There were cracks in the pavement and cracks in the trailers and cracks in the hearts of the people who lived there. It was a mixture of long-timers and those just staying for a little while until they could get their lives together. It was a colorful and complicated mix of personalities, thrown together by chance and by limited funds—people getting by as best they could, people doing what they had to do. 

It’s been a long time since I moved away from that place, but those folks in the trailer park have been on my mind this week as I’ve been reflecting on our gospel text, a really challenging one in which Jesus offers a confusing parable about a dishonest manager and some perplexing teachings on the use of money. 

We’re used to passages in Scripture that express some skepticism or even outright suspicion of money and those who place their faith in it. In this context, Jesus saying that one cannot serve God and money at the same time makes sense. 

But the parable about the manager who lies and cheats his way into a secure position, and the fact that his shrewdness is praised by his employer and, it seems, by Jesus, too, runs counter to our expectations. Shouldn’t we condemn those who misuse money? And why on earth should we use “dishonest wealth” to make friends?

Now I’ll admit there are no simple answers—people have been wrestling with this passage forever. But as I said, while I was pondering the text this week, I kept thinking of my old neighbors in the trailer park—people who had almost no money, people who had made some bad choices here and there, people who barely made ends meet each month. People who, in their economic circumstances, were probably far more like the crowds listening to Jesus than I am now. And I wonder whether, in the parable of the shrewd manager, they would see a distasteful and offensive character, or if they would simply see a man on the brink, doing what he had to do to make it in this world?

Because I know that we talk a lot about spiritual and material poverty in the Christian tradtion, and how Jesus says “blessed are the poor” and how we ought to detach ourselves from worldly concerns. 

And that’s all fine and good, but I think it’s only half of the story. Because it is very easy to talk about the evils of money when we ourselves have enough of it. It is very easy to extol the virtues of poverty when you have never actually been poor—when you have never wondered how you are going to feed your children or put a roof over your head or patch up the cracks that keep forming under your feet.

And so I wonder if this parable challenges some of us because we don’t really understand the stakes implicit within it. I wonder if maybe Pearl and Mike and the others in the trailer park would see something else in the shrewd manager that’s harder for me, with a steady income, to see: a flawed person, sure, but one who does what he must in order to survive. A person who might have a family of his own to take care of; a person who is willing to risk the wrath of his rich employer as long as it means that he won’t starve to death. 

I wonder if part of the reason that I struggle with his decision, with his brazenness, is because my own back has never truly been against the wall? I wonder, if I were that desperate and determined to simply stay alive, whether the greatest mercy, the truest form of grace, would indeed be for someone to simply say, in the end, “Yes, I understand; you did what you had to do”?

Because we—especially those of us who have more than enough—have to remember that when Jesus says “blessed are the poor,” he doesn’t mean poverty is a thing that God loves. He means that God sees and understands and cares especially about the struggle of the people who are just getting by. And God stands with them in that struggle. God challenges our tendencies to either ignore poverty or to spiritually glamorize it, so that, in either case, we don’t have to be troubled by what it is actually like to be poor. 

And so when Jesus tells us to make friends by means of “dishonest wealth,” maybe he means to shock us a bit, to wake us up, especially those of us who have the luxury of disdaining money, of thinking of it as dirty and crass because we have never truly needed it. Maybe he would like us to understand that the true economy of grace is not ethereal; that the Kingdom of God is not too lofty to be concerned with hungry bellies and flat tires and leaky roofs. Maybe salvation starts with ensuring people have a place to sleep, that they don’t starve, and maybe their shrewdness is indeed something to be celebrated because it really just means that they wanted to live.

Maybe. 

A few years ago, when I was back in California for seminary, I took a drive up to that trailer park. For whatever reason I just needed to see it one more time. As you might imagine, none of the people I remembered were there anymore, but the place pretty much looked the same: rough and timeworn and honest. There were still cracks in the pavement, and cracks in the trailers, and I suppose there are still some cracks in my heart, too. 

But I am so grateful that I was there for a little while. I am grateful for Pearl and for Mike and for the others who linger at the edge of my memory. I am grateful, if only so that I might never forget that sometimes, for some of us, just getting by is its own blessedness. Sometimes in this life we are not expected to be saints, but simply to survive.

And sometimes, God sees you and loves you fiercely, because you did what you had to do. 

4 thoughts on “What You Had to Do: A Sermon”

  1. Phil, thank you for sharing this sermon. I’m in training to be an Anglican priest in Australia and did my third ever sermon on this text yesterday. It’s so helpful to read yours, it opened my mind to different interpretations and I will be saving it for inspiration! Peace and grace, Courtney

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  2. Phil, thank you for your inspiring interpretation of a very tricky passage. I have been blessed never having to preach on this for some reason (or have preached the Old testament as a copout!?). But your sermon means that should I ever have to preach on it in the future I have an interpretation that makes sense and helps us once more to praise the living, loving God. Thank you.

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    1. Margaret, I am so glad that the sermon was potentially of help to you! May you be blessed in your own ministry of preaching the good news of God’s love and mercy.

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