The Ninth Sunday after Trinity


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Grant to us, Lord, we beseech Thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful…
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 16:1-9

We are in a world of moral equivocation. A steward is accused of wasting his master’s goods and is condemned without being asked to explain himself. He gathers allies through discounting his master’s debts and is commended for it. The passage concludes with a piece of irony about mammon, righteousness and eternity that is so deep that it is impenetrable to us today.

Paul’s account of the Jews in the wilderness is scarcely clearer. Paul’s actual and our spiritual ancestors were “baptized unto Moses”; ate the same “spiritual meat”; drank the same “spiritual drink” from the rock “and that rock was Christ.” This possibly relates to Paul’s idea in Galatians 4:22-31 that the Christian tradition really begins with Abraham, passes to Moses but then somehow bypasses a huge slab of Jewish history until it settles on John the Baptist. If so, this theological inter-working of Abraham, Moses and Jesus must be approached with caution; it is one thing to say that Moses pre-figures Christ, quite another to say that Christ was an operative force in the conduct of Moses. We ought, too, to note here that the reference to producing drinking water from a rock is itself deeply equivocal: the account of the event in Exodus 15:23 and 17:1-8 are relatively undramatic; but in Numbers 20:1-13 the faithlessness of the Jews is used as a pretext for excluding Moses from entering into the Promised Land. The accounts, therefore, are subject to the theological aims of their authors and one suspects a good deal of this in Paul; not a bad thing in itself but a phenomenon which should make us wary of naive or ‘plain’ interpretation. Paul then travels to firmer, familiar ground, citing the evils that befell the Jews in the wilderness for their various sins and reminding us that these are warnings of what will happen to us. Paul’s conclusion makes something of a nonsense of all the preceding when he says that God is faithful and will not allow us to be tempted past our ability.

There is a place for moral clarity but it is sometimes helpful to acknowledge the real presence of moral complexity. Let us start with the Jews in the wilderness. Far from being the simple narrative which emerges from highly selective reading, the accounts of what happened between the flight from Egypt and the death of Moses are immensely complex and contradictory. The acid test which I frequently apply as a former director of plays is how would I set the scene. Here we have people who are almost starving and parched to death, who are given water from rocks and manna and quails from heaven but who herd cattle and possess great wealth. For reasons which appear to be entirely arbitrary—the punishment is not by any means for the worst of their collective offences—they are condemned to 40 years in the wilderness. They are wretched and rich, powerless and harassed. How are they expected to react logically to a set of messy and often inexplicable events? There is no shape to the narrative and it is therefore not surprising that there is no coherent moral response.

Turning to the steward, what are we to make of a master who threatens summary dismissal without the opportunity for self defence and then applauds a blatant misuse of his own resources? How might such behaviour shape the conduct of a steward? Is he supposed to behave honestly or dishonestly to further the ends of his master? The ideal answer to this question is that we should always behave morally no matter what immoral demands are placed on us by our superiors; but it is not always clear whether such demands are moral; and it is a brave person who would risk the wrath of a superior over a marginal matter which might lead to dismissal, a stance which might look admirable to the moralist but which would be less welcome to the hard pressed wife, the hungry child and the strictly impartial bank manager.

None o this excuses acts which separate us from God but it is impossible to be effectively pastoral if we simply apply a set of rules abstracted even from a million instances, for to be pastoral is to be a person of the instance. There are burdens to be shared, doubts to be explored, areas of individual and joint responsibility to be settled. Consciences must be informed, wills strengthened, minds uncluttered, principles clarified in an iterative process which shuttles between the instance and the principles, between the concrete and the abstract.

What we have to recognise is that Paul’s account of Israelite behaviour in the desert is a tradition not a workshop in moral response; we can learn very little from it other than the link he makes between good conduct and divine approbation but it is a case where the detail obscures rather than illuminates. For different reasons the same effect is created in this passage of Luke. It is impossible to arrive at a clear principle from what we are told about the master and his steward. On the basis of the text, we are not sure whether to imitate the behaviour or avoid it. From the corpus of Jesus’ teaching we know we must certainly not imitate the steward; but a corpus cannot afford many apparent anomalies such as this.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Explore the reasons why the Jews were kept in the wilderness for 40 years and why Moses was kept from the Promised Land
  2. How helpful is the story of the Jewish experience in the desert as a moral pointer?
  3. What do you take to be the point of the story of the master and steward, particularly the last verse of the passage?
  4. How should we balance moral consistency with pastoral care?
  5. Are moral decisions entirely personal?

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