"If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty." The “Gospel” of Thomas saying 3, Nag Hamadi Library
Before you pick up knives for me quoting a Gnostic text, hear me out. Even our dear Luther believed in some form of heavenly “union.” The early Luther, who could write “On Christian Liberty,” had no problem with the image that Christ had taken residence in the inner Adam or Eve and was now in the process of converting the outer Eve or Adam to conform with the inner one. We have usually read “On Christian Liberty” as an allegory and then we have made it an essay on ethics. Luther had plenty of chance to interact with the mystics of his time from whence he gathered this way of speaking about the “joyous exchange:” my filth for his riches, my sin for his righteousness, my condemnation for his atonement, etc.
But I digress. In our parable, we have a celebration going on. If anyone was reading the book of Luke in sequence they would notice that three celebrations have been urged in chapter 15. On finding the sheep, on finding the coin, on finding the son.
If a village in ancient time had gotten news that the peasants, who worked on someone else’s land for percentages or worse, for set amounts of their produce, had a master who had just forgiven them half their debt, it would have been so incredible, so liberating, that they would have had a real, raucous, probably excessive celebration. This would not have been kept quiet in any way or form.
So what is a landowner to do? He has the right to walk into the village and tell them all that the debt cancelation was a mistake, a clerical error, and demanded his due. He would never be trusted by servant or friend or even traveling stranger ever again. But, if he let’s it ride the way the dishonest steward set it up, word of his generosity and his honor will spread quickly to far places. His response to the servant might suggest that he went with the latter approach.
Those who loved money, ridiculed him for this parable and his subsequent sayings. A peek inside would have told them that they loved money more than anything and were willing to offend in the cause of their pursuit of it. They would have walked into the village and demanded their due because it was their right. They would walk into the world and condemn those whom they called sinners and complain that anyone associate with them. Their hearts are exposed, both concerning debt and debtors and to sin and sinners. They worried more about those who could make them rich here on earth, who could give them honor and status as righteous, but thought nothing of the one who could make them rich in eternity. It is an echo of: ”Do not worry about those who can kill the body rather worry about the one who can cast both body and soul into hades for eternity.”
Yet, these were descendants of Moses, who himself urged God to be merciful with the straying Israelites. “Who, God, will trust you if it becomes known that you led them out of Egypt to the desert just to destroy them?” Amos has a similar conversation with God. These descendants of Israel should have rejoiced at the mercy God again shows to sinners who had gathered to Jesus. Instead, they hear this parable to be only about money, a master they cannot serve if they wish to maintain that the Lord God is their master and Lord. Their pursuit of wealth exposes them as functional atheists who have no thought of a resurrection or judgement. To that judgement, they will bring nothing. Their riches here on earth will mean nothing at all. That was the gist of the parable of the rich fool some weeks back. Further, their scoffing exposes that they are not willing to be gracious with their wealth just as they cannot imagine that God might be gracious with his Kingdom. Why then would anyone trust them when it comes to the weightier things of life: The Kingdom of God or the interpretation of the law, or the forgiveness of sins?
Great now is the honor of the master and large is the cohort of friends to the steward, who has risked debtors’ prison until he could pay off the amounts he has forgiven. Yet, the master commends him. He has acted shrewdly. It seems that the master will let it go at that, otherwise the commendation would have been out of place.
The Pharisees on the other hand have answered: No, the older son will not enter the celebration of the waiting Father and neither would we. They are, to come back to Thomas, true poverty. God has looked into their hearts (Lk 16:15) and has found them empty. They have yet to take a look.
Confession and forgiveness are an odd ritual of the church. How dare we declare the forgiveness of sin to a known sinner without any guarantee that said sinner will never sin again? How dare we do this? We do this because the angels in heaven will celebrate (Lk 15:7) that a sinner has dared to look inside and get to know himself as a sinner and has come to step on the road of being transformed from his baptism out, from the deepest reaches of her soul where the Holy Spirit made a dwelling out. In this way, a path of continuous transformation has been opened. That path is blocked immediately when some pose that these sinners must not come close but must get their life in order before they draw near, that sinners must give reparation for their sins, or that the church might go too far in forgiving - nobody wants to hear that notorious murderers have found Christ and that a pastor or priest has heard their confession and, worse, given absolution. But, what we forgive on earth will in heaven be forgiven. This parable might ask us to be generous and gracious with the privilege to forgiven.