May 15, 2016

Luke 16:1-8a, 8b-13
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. 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.” 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 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.”

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. 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.

‘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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

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.’}

Acts 4:32-35
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.


The author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts was likely the same person. We don’t know who it is. The title “The Gospel According to Luke” was added later, the same way the titles of the other three gospels were assigned. I learned in seminary that Luke and Acts were written between 80 and 90. It was an accepted figure based on putting Mark at around 70 and Matthew after Mark.

After concluding their ten year-study of Acts, the Jesus Seminar placed the dating for Acts nearly one hundred years after the death of Jesus, around 125 or so. That possibly pushes the Gospel of Luke back that far as well. Dating Luke based on the new dating for Acts is work to be done.

So what? What do we care about all that scholarly technical stuff?

Today is Pentecost Sunday. We are wearing fiery colors. Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church.

But the text says that the disciples were gathered on Pentecost. Pentecost already was a holy day before the apostles co-opted it. Pentecost is a Jewish holy day. It is called Shavuot, or the feast of weeks, seven weeks after Passover. It is the day to celebrate the wheat harvest and to mark the day when God handed Moses the Torah on Mount Sinai.

On Passover, the people of Israel were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh; on Shavuot they were given the Torah and became a nation.

It is on this holy day, that this miracle, according to Acts, happens.

The disciples are hanging out in this house. A wind rushes upon them, tongues of fire rest on each of the 12 apostles’ heads.

They begin to speak in different languages. Real languages, but not their own languages. Jews from “every nation under heaven” were living in Jerusalem. The apostles were speaking every language of every Jew who had been dispersed around the world. Everyone was amazed at “God’s deeds of power” spoken in their own language. How could this be from this ragtag group of Galileans?

They must be drunk.

Then Peter gets up and speaks, the text doesn’t say what language.

Peter tells them that this is an end of days thing that was predicted by the prophet Joel. Then Peter proceeds to tell the Jews that they crucified and killed Jesus. Then he goes to quote scripture and say that David predicted the resurrection of Jesus. Then the punchline:

‘Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’

Then all the Jews exclaimed, “Oh what should we do? What should we do?”

Peter tells them to repent and be baptized. He says:

‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’

The text concludes that about 3,000 people “welcomed his message and were baptized.”

Now Pentecost means for Christians an event to celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the church and it occurs not 50 days after Passover, but 50 days after the Resurrection of Jesus.

For those of you who are Jewish and hear this story, it is a reminder of the dangerous status of being Jewish in Christendom. The Jewish celebration of Shavuot, the day to celebrate the identity of Jews as a nation, has been co-opted and turned into a Christian holiday in which Jews are accused of crucifying Jesus the messiah. These Jews can only become saved and forgiven by being baptized as Christians.

I think it is good to know the history behind our holy days and our holidays. What is innocuous and fun and celebratory and identity-forming for one group can be a painful and terrifying reminder for another group.

Back to the Jesus Seminar. After their study of Acts they pushed the dating of Acts to as late as a century after the death of Jesus, 125 or so. They concluded that Acts was a second-century narrative designed to offer a particular “history” of the church’s identity. Acts has been seen as the history of the church, as an account, perhaps with some exaggerations, but nonetheless an account of the history of Christianity. What the Jesus Seminar showed, and they are not the first to do so, but what they showed is that Acts is not history, but fiction, from beginning to end. None of this happened.

This author of Luke/Acts, whoever he or she was, created a history. Not tongues of fire, no wind, no dramatic speeches, no accusations by Peter that the Jews killed our Lord. All the acts of derring-do by the apostles throughout the book are closer in genre to the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla than to any history of events.

What is fascinating is that the entire church liturgical year from Advent to Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Christ the King, is a fiction invented for the most part by the author of Luke/Acts. That is one of the reasons I stopped preaching on the lectionary. I felt I was propagating an unhealthy story and an anti-Semitic one for sure.

Of course, Moses and the escape from Egypt and the Ten Commandments and the wilderness excursion and entrance to the promised land is fiction, too. We can call them legends or parables. Parables are nicer sounding than fiction.

We, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have inherited parables that define ourselves and we have pretended that they happened. Our ancestors created sagas about themselves, created often from the conquest of others. Over time they crystalized into facts and events.

When I first learned and began to accept that most of the Bible was fiction, layer upon layer of created saga, I was depressed. It took a while for that news to become liberating.

It is liberating because if our ancestors created a history, more properly a mythos, so can we. We can go back and rewrite our story to make it more expansive and inclusive and more accurate.

We see this happening today with our currency. The proposal to be revealed in 2020 to replace images of Andrew Jackson on the front of the 20 dollar bill with Harriet Tubman, called Moses, for her work on the underground railroad freeing African-Americans from slavery, is a reshaping of history and mythos.

This needs to be done with religion. It is not healthy for us to bury ourselves in our own rituals and stories ignoring the larger historical realities and the stories of others.

This doesn’t mean that parables are not valuable. They are. But when seen as parables they become more fluid and less rigid, and in turn more liberating. We can enter conversation with others who also have traditions. We can listen to them. Learn what for them is painful and incomplete about our story in regards to them.

This is true for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. This is true for African-Americans and European-Americans and Native Americans. This is true for Israelis and Palestinians. Do we have the courage to truly hear another’s story especially when it counters our own narrative?

There are aspects of the Acts story that are worth repeating. I don’t care much for Peter’s speech but I do like these two verses at the end of chapter 2:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

That is a bigger miracle than tongues of fire and a mighty wind.

While it was not likely historical, it was an ideal, an aspiration of what can happen when fear and greed is turned into hospitality and generosity. This is a parable that does happen as we make it happen.

That brings us to the parable of the shrewd steward.

This is one of the most challenging of the parables of Jesus. Where does it the parable end and the commentary begin? It is a parable with a series of sermons attached to it. The NRSV has translated it in such a way that it ends with this sentence:

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;

I am going with that as the original ending because it is a puzzler. Why would the manager praise the guy who just ripped him off?

Rules of thumb with parables of Jesus:

1) Rich man, judge, king, absentee landlord, landowner, should not be read as allegorical “God” figures even if done so by the gospel writers.

2) Explanations of the text’s meaning by spiritualizing it or making it abstract or theological are probably additional framing provided by the gospel writers.

3) The class system of ancient agrarian societies including 1st century Palestine were structured with the top two percent the ruling class who owned most of the property. Another 8% were managers, stewards, judges, temple officials, etc. who made up the retainer class and served the ruling class, often as intermediaries between the ruling class and the peasant class, the artisans, and the expendables who made up about 90% of the population. Jesus was in that class. He spoke to people in that class.

An interpretive strategy offered by William Herzog and others is that the parables of Jesus were designed to get people thinking and talking. They sought to show how things were and how they could be. They were often parables about how to survive in a system that worked against you.

In this parable we have a rich man, very rich, given the size of the contracts. We have his manager and we have villagers. Interest or usury is against the Torah. We think of interest as natural today, but it was regarded as unjust. So the interest has to be “hidden” as it were in the contract.

They system was one of constant competition between the various ruling elites as well as between the elites, managers, and the peasant class. There is an important balance. The owner wants as much profit as he can without causing an uprising.

The rumors that the master hears about his manager are perhaps true perhaps not. It was part of the game. The villagers trash talk the managers to give them an edge in their dealings.

The master hears these rumors and is upset about profits he thinks he might be losing and thinks the master is ripping him off. So the manager, realizing that he has been fired and is going to be sent into abject poverty, digging and begging are done by the expendables, which would be for him a death sentence, does something interesting. He exposes the amount of hidden interest. Acting on behalf of the master, the manager reduces the amount due to the master by what was the interest made on the products sold by the master.

The manager then has been clever. He silences the villagers who have trash-talked him because now they see him giving them a good deal. The manager also shows the master how valuable he has been. He has been making the master money. It was he who made that interest on behalf of the master. By cutting it from the bill, he shows him just how much he has made for him. The master also gets a good deal because now the villagers will be indebted to him in the future for this nice reduction.

It is all an unjust system. The manager takes a bad situation and turns it around.

The trash-talking of the villagers and the scheming of the manager, the hidden interest was eliminated and the debt reduced. The kingdom of God?

That might be a stretch, but in an unjust system, the “weapons of the weak” as Herzog calls them, can make for a glimpse of Jubilee, where debts are forgiven and the rich do not always exploit the poor.

Perhaps that is the meaning of Pentecost both in the Jewish and Christian sense. Not one religion besting or co-opting the other, but the story of Jubilee enjoyed by all.