Where Jesus uses sarcasm

Luke 16:1-13

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni
Rector

September 22, 2019

A few months ago a British medical journal published a study on the safety of parachutes.  Its findings were quite surprising.  The researchers discovered that parachutes have zero effect in increasing safety when jumping from a plane.  The study raised a few eyebrows as you would imagine. But it was conducted well, the results observed, even including a 30-day follow-up with some of the participants.  

But what many missed about the study was that the jump occurred from a grounded and stationary plane.  The leap was no more than two feet off the ground.  At a height of two feet, parachutes are completely superfluous to safety.

Sometimes you need more information to understand something.  This morning we have an excellent example of this in our Gospel reading.  I was at a clergy meeting this past Thursday and the group was bemoaning about how difficult this passage is.  They aren’t alone.  Even St Augustine wrote, “I have a hard time believing  our Lord said these words.”  

But apparently he did.  But, did he say them the way we read them this morning?  I think our discomfort all boils down to a peculiar translation.  In the end, it very well may be that our Lord was cracking a joke.  Joke or not, he was clearly being sarcastic.  

The story is compelling and yet vague.  We never find out whether the steward was forgiven because of his shrewdness.  We never find out the fate of the steward or really anybody at all in this passage.  

As vague as it is,  it's one of Jesus’ more evocative stories.  It is quite easy to picture the steward being confronted with an accusation of dishonesty 
and going quickly to more or less bribe others so that they will treat him favorably once he is turned out.  

He clearly says his fraud is so that people “may welcome me into their homes.”  There is no doubt he is hoping that others will invite him into their houses.  
The word translated homes in this passage is quite often translated as house throughout the New Testament.

Jesus uses the dishonest steward’s action to challenge us to be as conniving.  Or does he?  

He says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Our translation has the steward seeking a home.  We also hear Jesus speaking of eternal homes.  But what we don’t hear is that in the Greek text the words are entirely different.  

The steward is looking for someone to take him into his house.  But the word Jesus suggests we will be welcomed into eternal tents. This is sarcasm.  

There is no such thing as an eternal tent.  To heighten this sarcasm a tent isn’t as stable as a house.  Jesus was not just being evocative with this story. He was also being provocative with his interpretation of it.  

Faithfulness in small things means faithfulness in large things.  The tension between the love of money and the desire for God is one we all face and it is one that is central to the life of faithfulness.  

Some of our Lord’s stories are complete, pretty well sewed up.  For instance, the the Parable of the Good Samaritan is pretty well self contained.  

But with this story there are a lot of loose ends.  It is just like the story that precedes it.  The verses immediately preceding these in the Gospel of Luke is another beloved parable, that of the Prodigal Son.  But it ends just as abruptly.  

We are never told whether the two brothers reconcile.  The meaning of the parable is left hanging in the air; hanging in our hearts to continue to challenge us.

The same is true today.  “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  

I don’t see these words as a command from Jesus.  They seem more like an extension of the parable: “Go ahead,” Jesus seems to be saying, “try making friends and confidants using lucre and finance.  Once it’s gone you will be quite welcome to share their tent.”

© 2019, Tom Thoeni