Paradox of Humanity


The gospel reading today, about the dishonest manager is perhaps one of the most perplexing readings in our lectionary because although the manager is found to be corrupt and is on the docket to be fired, our Lord, by the end of the story, seems to be almost proud of the way in which the dishonest manager works the problem out to his advantage.  And we ask, how can one be both condemned as a thief  and at the same time win the praise of God?  How do we explain this seeming paradox?

There are sometimes problems that arise as we read the Bible, about how to interpret things that are difficult to understand; especially when we take a scripture like this out of context as in today’s reading.  If you remember the reading preceding it, in the gospel last week, there was a parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  These two parables were told to the people that Jesus was trying to reach at the time.  They were also heard by the Pharisees who were standing by, waiting to trip Jesus up and thereby accusing him of some error.

But unlike the reading last week, todays reading was told to the disciples as they were walking away from the crowd, but still in earshot of the Pharisees, who continued to shadow Jesus and his followers every move.  You see, although Jesus was telling the story to his disciples, he was intending for the Pharisees to overhear it, which they did.  Because in the final verse, the verse that is missing from the story today reads . . . “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.   Jesus said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts.  What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.” 

You see, in the story, the rich man is God and the manager he is about to let go are the temple priests who were charged with the temple’s treasury and also in charge of the people’s faith.

As a manager myself for nearly forty years, I have had some occasion to fire people under my direction.  Firing someone from their job is not an easy task, and I have always tried to give people the benefit of the doubt.  But there are times, when there is simply no other way, both from management’s point of view and also from the point of view of the person who is about to be let go.  One such person was a manager assistant I once had who was not only a coworker but also a very good friend.  She was going to school part time while working for me and was studying interior design at night.  On many occasions, she and her husband came to our house for dinner, and Barbara and I had gone to her house.  That is how close we were.  She happened to be so brilliantly clever about her deception that I had not a clue what she was doing for several months.  In a short time of about six months she had stolen thousands of dollars from the company I was working for and I had no idea about what she was up to until one day she got a toothache and had to leave work to go to the dentist.  It just so happened that on that day one of her customers came in that accidently exposed her theft.

At the time, I was so shocked and had no idea what to do.  Should I call the main office?  Should I call the police?  I decided to do a complete inventory just to be sure of my suspicion and compare the inventory to what was supposed to be in stock.  I did this on a Sunday so that neither she nor any of the other employees would know that I was on to it.  I was hoping it was only a onetime thing – maybe forgivable- with restitution, but to my dismay it turned out to be a devastating loss that I needed to report as soon as possible.  When I saw her next, I got all the employees together and told them that someone had stolen a lot of money and that that someone ought to quit before the report went into the main office.  My thinking was that I would give her a way out . . . but she didn’t take it.  Even after presenting her with the evidence in her own handwriting she did not admit to it until the day the district manager and I walked her out to her car to say that she was fired.  It was then that she confessed that she had stolen the money to pay for a lawyer and that she was looking to divorce her husband who was controlling and abusive towards her.  I never saw Kathy again, but somehow I admired her cunning in the theft because, had it not been for a toothache, she might still be working at that place.  Her method was wrong but her cause was just . . . and so like the manager in the story today, who gave away his lord’s money to his creditors to help himself when he was let go, this lady had both my ire and my admiration because she was found out to be “human” and as fallible as I.

In today’s lesson, Jesus was, not so subtly, telling the Pharisees that they ought to maybe start looking for another line of work because they were about to lose their jobs . . . in fact it was Jesus who several weeks later tells the Sanhedrin, the temple priests of the day that soon the temple itself would be destroyed and that not a stone would be left on stone.  This of course, happened 40 years later when a Roman general named Titus ransacked Jerusalem and completely obliterated the Temple, the City of Jerusalem and all of its inhabitants . . . a horrible thing . . . but also a blessing . . . for in the dispersion of all the inhabitants of Israel throughout the Roman world, Christianity spread to the far reaches of the Roman empire and beyond.  And like the salt that Jesus describes in several places as his true followers, these believers seasoned the entire world for the further spreading of His Kingdom.

And so here is the paradox of our humanity . . . God can use an evil person to generate an outcome of goodness and charity, even though we might not see it on the outset.  That is why in his first letter to Timothy today, Paul tells us to pray continually for everyone, both good and bad, both rich and poor . . . and especially our leaders, who may be prone to evil due to the attraction of money that isn’t theirs, but whose evil and greed may be used by God for the purpose of good, in the long run, and in God’s own time.

The paradoxical nature of our humanness is that we are at the same time both the breath of God and the dust of the earth.  We are all at the same time godlike and beastlike, created and fallen, noble and not so noble.  This seems to be why we both seek God one day and run away from him the next. We practice righteousness when it suits us and then suppress the truth in our unrighteousness when it doesn’t.  We tend to recognize the claims of the moral law upon us and then refuse to submit to it when it becomes a burden . . . indeed all of us have fallen short of the glory of the Lord and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.

So just who are you?  Who am I?  John Stott, a favorite author of mine, reveals the defining answer . . .” The answer is that I am a Jekyll and Hyde, a mixed-up kid, having both dignity, because I was created and have been re-created in the image of God, and depravity, because I still have a fallen and rebellious nature.  I am both noble and ignoble, beautiful and ugly, good and bad, upright and twisted, image and child of God, and yet sometimes yielding [reverent] homage to the devil from whose clutches Christ has rescued me. 

My true self is what I am by creation, which Christ came to redeem, and by calling. 

My false self is what I am by the fall, which Christ came to destroy.”

So how can we who are fallen, live with ourselves?  Jesus tells us that thru him we can do all things if only we believe.  Part of that belief is in doing His will and not our own.  Jesus loves us so we must love others.  Jesus is giving in all abundance and so we also must give   generously without holding back.  Jesus is compassionate so we also must show compassion.  Jesus is merciful and we also must be merciful.

And if we do these things, they will transform us because we are no longer looking for what’s in it for me . . . but rather we are in it for the good of all . . . but most importantly we will become profoundly happy which in turn infects those around us. In a word, it is called empathy.

Giving of ourselves nurtures empathy.  And in empathy, our lives are redefined to include a new feeling of well-being, of wisdom, an ability to wonder and in being truly happy — all of which are boosted when we give our time and effort to something other than ourselves.

Within Christianity and practically every religious tradition and practice in the world, giving of oneself is a key step on the path to spiritual fulfillment. As Einstein put it, “only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”  Einstein was looking for a theory of everything in the physical universe, but in a study of our emotional world, there’s no analogous theory of everything, but if there were, Jesus would tell us that empathy and giving would be at the heart of it.  

Science and theology have both overwhelmingly confirmed that empathy, compassion . . . and giving are the building blocks of our spiritual wellbeing. With them we flourish; without them we perish. It really is as simple as that.  Amen

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