Afflicting the Comfortable

Rembrandt’s Rich Man

I’m going to bang on a bit about religion, if that’s OK. If it’s not, go watch ‘Top Gear’ or something. Now, I don’t normally write blog posts about sermons since most of the time they pass me by like Brutus’ idle wind, which all too often I regard not. I was late for church yesterday, which is not unusual and arrived halfway through the sermon, which meant that I was really, really late and the man in the front was well into his stride.

The great thing about using lectionaries is that you know where you’re supposed to be going and this week the preacher was talking about that curious, impenetrable parable about the ‘unjust steward’, a canny little tale from Luke 16. It took me a while to figure out where we were, having found just about the last seat in the house right at the back of the gallery. A few minutes in, I was almost regretting coming, because I’ve never really got the point of the story before and it looked as if all we were going to get was the usual ‘box clever, wily as serpents’ routine. This little story begins with the fact that the steward had wasted resources which didn’t belong to him. It then goes on to condone dishonesty, sharp business practice worthy of Alan Sugar, a measure of duplicitousness and a seasoning of forgiveness. Who gave the man authority to forgive debts? Er, nobody. Great public relations – he looked good, the master looked good. But the steward still got fired – a kind of reverse performance related bonus.
But, what outrageous behaviour, but how joyously characteristic. Jesus turns the whole notion of good order and sound practice on its head by even telling the story in the first place. It’s almost as if he really quite enjoyed afflicting the comfortable, taking a poke at the Pharisees, instead of as was more usual, comforting the afflicted.

God’s arithmetic isn’t like mine. Many religious have a kind of ‘weighed-in-the-balance’ view about debt – or sin, if you prefer – if we do more good stuff than bad stuff, we’ll tip the scales in our favour as if  God is no more than a cosmic bean-counter, with due deference to some of my friends who earn a fat crust from accountancy.

Reading stories like this would suggest that God is more likely to throw the scales across the room and come dancing forward to embrace us. Grace is unfair, profligate, and ridiculous which is why the scribes and Pharisees were almost permanently ticked off. It’s lavished on us, whether we deserve it or not. Mostly, we don’t.