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The Gospel reading this morning is a rather difficult one. A manager is accused of wasting his master’s money. Whether or not it is true – he’s out of a job. “This is your last day of work” his boss says.
So, what does he do? Well, he doesn’t think he’s cut out for manual labour, and he is too proud to beg, so he gets creative. He figures, “I’m out of a job anyway – so I may as well make friends with the people that owe my boss money. I’ll cut down their debts. Then, when I’m fired, they’ll see me as a friend who helped them out once – and maybe they’ll return the favour and help me out”
And he does! And that’s it – that’s the end of story. Good story – but – why is it in the Bible? Why did Jesus tell this story that doesn’t seem to have a good moral or even a spiritual message? It’s no wonder some Biblical scholars call this “the most unlikely parable”, and wouldn’t it be easier to say, ‘that doesn’t sound like Jesus… maybe it was included in the Bible by mistake.’
But let’s assume that there was no mistake. Let’s consider, for a moment, that Jesus did indeed tell this story – and that the story has meaning for us today and is something that the world really needs to hear.
To help us see the story a little differently, I share with you some words of Nelson Mandela from while he was in prison.
Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress that helped end apartheid in South Africa, winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize, and president of South Africa, was in prison for twenty‑seven years for his political views.
He was separated from the outside world and his loved ones and his work. He was kept from all the things that he wanted to accomplish in his country.
So what did he do with his time? He could not accomplish the great things that he had set out to do – so, instead, he gardened. These are his words:
To survive in prison, one must develop ways to take satisfaction in one’s daily life. One can feel fulfilled by washing one’s clothes so that they are particularly clean, by sweeping a hallway so that it is empty of dust, by organizing one’s cell to conserve as much space as possible. The same pride one takes in more consequential tasks outside of prison, one can find doing small things inside of prison.
He says: Almost from the beginning of my sentence, I asked the authorities for permission to start a garden in the courtyard. For years, they refused without offering a reason. But eventually they relented, and we were able to cut out a small garden on a narrow patch of earth against the far wall.
The authorities supplied me with seeds. I initially planted tomatoes, chilies and onions—hardy plants that did not require rich earth or constant care. The early harvests were poor, but they soon improved. The authorities did not regret giving permission, for once the garden began to flourish, I often provided the warders with some of my best tomatoes and onions.
In some ways, I saw the garden as a metaphor for certain aspects of my life. A leader must also tend his garden; he, too, plants seeds, and then watches, cultivates and harvests the result. Like the gardener, a leader must take responsibility for what he cultivates; he must mind his work, try to repel enemies, preserve what can be preserved and eliminate what cannot succeed.”
Mandela closes by saying, “A garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction.”
The sense of being the caretaker of this small patch of earth was preparation for this man to eventually lead his nation after he was released from prison.
He had been faithful in small things – which kept his heart and mind prepared to be faithful in great things later on.
So many people, when they are not in charge of great things, neglect the small things in life too. Do you ever find yourself looking around at the world and seeing all the difficulties and problems and saying, “If I were in charge – here is what I would do”.
But few of us are in charge of great things. Most of our lives seem small in comparison to the world around us.
This is where Jesus’ story speaks to our lives. The manager at the beginning of his story was fired. He was no longer in charge of great things. He had only a few hours to make use of his master’s resources.
So it is with us. We are mortal. Like the manager who had only a short time left to work – our time on this earth is also limited.
And what do we do with that time? The manager in the story could have thrown his hands in the air and said, “I’m fired am I – well then, I quit” and stormed out. He could have decided to try to earn favour with the master in hopes of getting his job back. But instead he puts his energy into aligning with the workers, trying to get into their good graces with the last bit of power and status he has. As a result, he uses his power and status to make the lives better for the ones who would have been considered lowly. He previously held status through exploitation of the workers, and now has shifted and has reclaimed his status through solidarity with them.
So it is with us when we say to ourselves, “Well, I can’t possibly make a difference anyway. I’m not very rich or powerful – I’m overwhelmed by the problems of the world. They are too big to tackle. I can’t solve them. Sometimes this immobilizes us. Have you ever felt that way? I know I have. What good could I possibly do? And then sometimes we feel like it isn’t worth doing anything at all.
I’m reminded of that story of the little boy on the beach after a storm. The beach was covered in sea stars. He would pick one up and walk to the end of the pier and drop it into the ocean so that it wouldn’t get dried out by the sun. He was criticized by someone who was watching him, telling him, you can’t possibly make a difference, there’s too many. The little boy’s answer was “I’ll make a world of difference to this one!!”
The manager in the story knows that he has control over a few accounts for a short time – so he does what he can with what he has. He uses his power to reduce the debt of those around him, and in doing so, makes friends for when his time as manager is up. The scripture says You cannot serve God and wealth. What does Luke mean by this? In the past the manager used his power and status to serve wealth, amassing more wealth for the master, with no care or consideration for the people who were being exploited.
And so, when we read this story, maybe we are to see our lives in a new way. We are asked to consider how we live, “How do I make a difference. How do I help those around me. How do I listen to my friends and family when they need me. How do I do my part to care for our planet? How do I give to a worthy cause, even when what I am able to give doesn’t seem like much.”
And all of these questions really come down to one question, which affects everything we do: “In all the small things that I am able to do each day, how am I living out God’s love and justice?” Am I serving God or am I serving wealth and power?
It took the manager a significant event – losing his job – to see the importance of his role in caring for the people around him. I think for many of us – we know the importance of this role as being caretakers of all creation, but the challenge is how to live that out. What would it look like if we all worked together to find creative ways and solutions to balance the inequalities in our system, or to eliminate the injustices in our society, or to reverse the global impact of our consumer, disposable lifestyles we get used to. How could we be like this manager in the story and use our power to reclaim our role as caretakers of creation? Imagine how different the world would look if we all were this ingenious and creative in caring for one another and all of creation and working to become Jesus’ beloved community.
Nelson Mandela, spending time planting and tending and harvesting his garden while in prison was a way of nurturing life and community in a very tangible and meaningful way that he could. This was something he could take control of in a time in his life where he could not control much.
We may not be able to change the world with what we do, but each of us can tend our own little garden, being caretakers of creation – being agents of God’s love in the world – whatever that might look like for each of us… Maybe it is in the way we welcome the newcomers in our neighbourhood or in our church. Or when we work to reduce our carbon footprint. Maybe it is when we support a local Indigenous owned business, or attend an event or read a book to expand our understanding. Or maybe it is when we volunteer in the Thrift Shop, supporting the community in recirculating goods and in doing so, supporting the work of First United in the Downtown Eastside, extending care for people, many who face housing and food insecurity, addictions and mental health challenges.
By doing these small things in our own corner of creation, we are making a difference that goes beyond what we can see and imagine. And as we do, may we continue to live, guided by God’s love and justice for all of creation.
Thanks be to God