Greater Demands


Rev.Dr.Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church June 25, 2017

Text: Luke 12: 41-48

Over the past few weeks the political junkies among us have been treated to a host of Congressional hearings wherein some people who were once entrusted with great responsibility directly and pointedly answering the questions posed while others currently entrusted have found themselves uncomfortably trying to avoid the clear direction and impact of Congressional questioning. The shows given the viewer certainly beat the afternoon soaps, although it may be said that the man who is Attorney General could use a little guiding light.

Peter’s question to Jesus in this Lukan version of the parable does not appear in Mark’s version of this parable, which is actually placed during the events of Holy Week,  so we may infer that Jesus’ response is directed at those who have been entrusted with responsibilities, whether small or great.Perhaps we should first look at this parable in the context of the two that precede it.

The first parable in the Lukan trilogy is found in verses 35 to 38 and concerns all of the master’s servants/slaves. “Blessed are those slaves who are alert when the master comes,” the text reads. Immediately afterwards, verses 39-40 has the statement that had the owner of the house known when his house would be broken into, he would have been home so the event would not have occurred. And then this comment is tied into the “be ready” or “be prepared” phrase that occurs often because no one knows when the Son of Man will come.

So, imagine that you are the director of a film or play that contains the scene we have just read. Jesus turns to Peter and asks, who then, is the prudent manager?  Part of the difficulty in understanding these ancient texts is that we read them in our contemporary perspective. The “prudent manager” as is translated in the text doesn’t really have an equivalent in today’s world. The Greek word used here is oikonomos, the origin of the modern word economy, but which meant the manager of a household or estate. The text uses two other words to describe this person: the first is pistos, which means trustworthy of faithful; the second is phronimos, or sensible, prudent, thoughtful, or wise.

The master appoints the faithful slave to the position of manager or steward, as the Greek word is sometimes translated. The slave is appointed as a steward and is given authority to carry out his duties. However, rather than doing what he was supposed to do, he just decides that the master is not going to return soon so he begins to abuse the other slaves and eat and drink himself into a stupor. Given trust and authority, he becomes unfaithful. When the master does return, he is appalled at what this unfaithful slave has made of his appointment as steward. The text provides a pretty violent ending for him.

However, another slave knew what the master wanted but did not prepare. Although the Greek dero originally meant skin, or flay, translators have used the word beat. Here, punishment is proportionate to knowledge of what is expected.

In our play, Peter faces Jesus, somewhat aghast at the impact of what Jesus is saying to him: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” And then Peter turns around, looks at the other eleven who are with him and Jesus and begins to wonder how he will meet the demands required.

Over the centuries, commentators and theologian have interpreted this parable in a number of ways, from the special responsibilities of church leadership to the demands on any of us who would want to think we are disciples. We who want to think of ourselves as disciples, as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, are called to meet the costly demands of discipleship.

Here in the United States, we generally don’t think of discipleship as a costly process. We are not in Nazi Germany where members of the Confessing Church, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Erick Klausener, and its lawyer Friedrich Weissler, were murdered by judicial decree.

Although the text has Jesus answering Peter, the answer given applies to all of us who consider ourselves followers. We have been entrusted with much, and, as a consequence, much is demanded of us.

We cannot sit idly by as big power threatens our community. And we have not. We cannot sit idly by as our elected representatives use the language of exclusion and fear to try to shut down an open society, and we have not. And we cannot sit idly by as the most vulnerable among us are denied health care because the services required are repulsive to some.

What are we called to in this moment—and within the context of the verse—should weigh heavy on our hearts.In a similar context, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Every moment and every situation challenges us to action and to obedience.We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbor or not.We must get into action and obey—we must behave like a neighbor to him.”

Bonhoeffer was writing about Nazi Germany’s treatment, not just of Jews but also of the disabled and those regarded as less than the ideal.We are now seeing people cast as the other, not worthy of our care. And this goes far beyond the issues of immigration and Islam. I am talking about the poor, the homeless, the disabled, and the elderly.

We here in the United States still think in terms of the “deserving poor” versus the “undeserving poor.” This language originated in the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, which divided the poor into the “impotent” poor—what a great word to describe those who could not work, defined as the lame, impotent, old, or blind, and the so-called able-bodied poor, who were to be sent to workhouse, where they would take on tasks sent them by landowners and the rich. The “idle poor” or vagrants were to be sent to a “House of Correction.” Believe it or not, this system was designed to be an improvement over the lack of care for the landless poor who were actually starving.

Our ancestors who settled this land bought into this distinction between the two types of the poor. This mentality persists even to today. Look at how we treat the poor today, blaming poverty on individual behaviors alone rather than seeing poverty as a result of the economic system.

During the housing crash of 2008, for example, we heard politicians blame people for taking on mortgages they could not afford.The fact that a good portion, if not most, of the mortgages came as a result of predatory lending was simply ignored. The Dodd-Frank Act and the consumer protections it created as a result of this economic disaster are under threat by Congress.

The House repealed Dodd-Frank on June 8 on a party line vote, and the Senate is consumed with other matters. This so-called group of representatives eliminated a section requiring fiduciary duty of advisors to investors. What a wonder!  So your financial investor can now totally act in his or her own interest and not face any legal liability.If I did that as a lawyer, I’d be disbarred.

What ever happened to Jesus’ comment in Luke that to those who have been entrusted with great responsibility, much is demanded? It seems that what is demanded of our representatives is that they act in their own interest, or the interests of the banks and companies that finance their elections. Disgusting, as John Adams would say, disgusting.

Now we are back to where we were in the early 1980s.The phrase “America First” is little more than an extension of “Me first.” That is such an incredible corruption of the very center of what Jesus was about. And listening to members of Congress who call themselves Christian use their faith to justify cuts in food stamps and the shrinking of benefits to the poor for the enrichment of the wealthy is more than disgusting.

They are more like the first slave promoted to steward who then went off to eat and drink to their fill and abuse the other slaves who we can characterize as the poor. In all the parables we have read and will read through this year, Jesus speaks of judgment against those who take from the poor for their own enrichment. Those in power should perhaps take the parables a bit more seriously.

We in the church are also entrusted with great responsibility. So it becomes part of our responsibility to call those in power to task, just as Jesus called those in power to task. It is tiring, to be sure, to always feel like we are struggling against hatefulness and small-mindedness, but that is what we are called to do.

That is, of course, the importance of community. We draw strength from our participation in community for it is part of the strength we draw from the presence of God in our lives. As a community, as in any community, we have differences among us but the common element of God’s presence binds us together. Entrusted, much is demanded.And in community we can bear those demands and live in the faith that our actions will bear fruit.

Let us pray: Welcoming God, open us to the power we can experience through your grace.In the name of him who welcomed all, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.