Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. (1 Cor. x. 12)
Last week we spoke about the Divine Providence of God and how we ought to be intent upon ordering our lives with the Divine Wisdom. This week we remind ourselves that His Wisdom is dead to us if it is not always God’s way of making good out of a bad situation. We must think about God’s always making good because the Christian journey is all about our ongoing assimilation and alignment to the new life that Jesus offers to us. It is out of a bad situation because we are always in danger of forgetting that we are sinners who are always too capable of becoming worse. That God desires always to make us good and then better means that He intends to work His Word and Wisdom into our fallen state in order to save us. And for this work to be appreciated as what God begins, continues, and finishes in us, we must always and honestly confess that we are in a bad situation so that we might turn and desire to be made better by His Grace.
Of course, some people would maintain that what I am recommending amounts to something that we cannot really admit and so can never achieve. If we cannot admit that we are in a very bad situation, then there isn’t much reason to desire what would make us better. Objectively speaking, of course, such is a recipe for disaster in any realm of life. The painter who doesn’t need to paint a better picture won’t! The farmer who has no need to raise a tastier vegetable in a more efficient way won’t. The doctor who stops looking for cures for diseases will accommodate illness. And so too, the Christian who doesn’t think that he needs to be made better will never see God’s Kingdom! For, when we are driven by our own reason and the limited natures, sooner or later we settle for less because we have ceased to believe that we can find more. What I am trying to say is that we are made for God and our hearts ought to be restless until they rest in Him. The Christian believes that man is made to know and love God forever. But he knows also that he cannot do any good thing without [God]…and that only by [Him] can he be enabled to live according to [His]will. (Collect Trinity IX)
Yet, many Christians fall into trouble when they fail to surrender their bad situation to God’s Grace. St. Paul reminds us of this danger in this morning’s Epistle. He gives us the example of the ancient Jewish people whom God had delivered from bondage and slavery to the Egyptians. He tells us that, all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all eat the same spiritual meat; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. (1 Cor. x. 1-4) Oswald Chambers reminds us that through every cloud the Lord brings, He wants us to unlearn something. The clouds illustrate our bad situation. They are given to us so that we might unlearn false confidence in our own reason to see its true limitations. When the clouds come, we are called to remember our own powerlessness and the need for the power of God’s Grace. The clouds reveal and disclose our powerlessness. The clouds conceal and cloak the Grace that we must desire in order to be made better. Clouds come to us when we struggle with besetting sins, suffer rejection from unbelievers, or are dealing with the common drudgery of human life.
St. Paul tells us that our Jewish fathers were hidden, all of them, under a cloud, and found a path, all of them through the sea; all alike in the cloud and in the sea [the ancient Jews] were baptized into Moses’ fellowship. (Ibid, Knox, 2) And yet what do we read next? But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. (Ibid, 5) And why? They did not discern the spiritual meaning and purpose of the clouds. They did not unlearn their old natural and earthly ways. They thought that God was merely freeing them from temporal slavery and servitude to an earthly enemy. So they fell into indulging the old bad situation of their sinful condition. They began to murmur, moan, groan, and complain, wondering all the while why God had delivered them from a slavery -that at least had come with food on the table and shelter over their heads. Their preoccupation with earthly manna then turned to lust, idolatry, and fornication. God fed them in the desert, and they took it as license to rise up to play. (Ibid, 7) Thanklessly they had forgotten that their former condition was a bad spiritual situation from which God had delivered them. God began to make good out of a bad spiritual situation, by anointing them to be the fathers and progenitors of a spiritual people whose ultimate destiny should be salvation. They did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. (Ibid, 4) Yet, St. Paul reminds us that their fall should warn us about the bad situation we are in and the dangers of forgetting our need for the power of God’s saving Grace in our lives. For they were overthrown in the wilderness…and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. (Ibid, 5,8)
The prudence involved in reading the clouds is nicely illustrated in this morning’s Parable of the Unjust Steward. In it, Christ tells the tale of a worldly businessman who had misused money lent to him by a wealthy creditor. The creditor summons him to his office not only for a dressing down but for certain termination. He says, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. (St. Luke xvi. 2) And without missing a beat, ever-perceptive of the imminent clouds, the financial underling thinks fast: How can I make good out of this very bad situation? He wonders: What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. (Ibid, 3,4) The unjust steward is proud. But, he is also shrewd and calculating. He knows that he can never repay the loan to his boss. Yet, he is determined not only to survive but to thrive. If the big boss won’t have him, he’ll at least respect him for having the wisdom and prudence to become a little boss. And more than that, he will not only make good out of a bad situation for himself but for the big boss’ other creditors. He’ll go into the debt-consolidation business! So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. (Ibid, 5-7) The long and short of it is that the big boss is impressed. It is not clear that the big boss had much hope in ever recalling any of the loans from his other creditors, and so he praises the economic prudence and skill that has secured this financial settlement. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely…(Ibid, 8)
Jesus concludes the parable by saying that the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. (Ibid, 8,9) Of course, Jesus tells the parable not to commend unjust stewardship. What is most instructive in the parable is the prudence or wisdom that can be found in earthly business men’s detection of the clouds and the need to reform and redeem his life in their shadow. Jesus suggests that unjust or fallen earthly man is often wiser than his spiritual counterpart when it comes to discerning the clouds and making the best out of bad situations. Like the unjust steward, we are in a bad situation, in that we can never repay our Lord, our spiritual creditor, what we owe Him. Like the ancient Jews, living under the cloud of our spiritual poverty, we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. (Collect, Lent II) And like the unjust steward, we are unjust by reason of our spiritual negligence.
Monsignor Knox asks, Who is the Unjust Steward?…He is you and I and every one of us; we are all, as children of Adam, unfaithful servants who have been detected in our delinquency. By rights…we have forfeited every claim. We have earthly riches –the unrighteous mammon– still in our possession, and it is out of that that we must strive to gain ourselves a good reward in the day of necessity, by giving alms generously to those in need. (Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, p. 170) So, we are called to give of our earthly substance to those in need in an unselfconsciously generous way. Why? It will reveal that what is of real value and worth for us is behind the clouds. God is challenging us to give freely under the clouds of fallen existence so that He might reveal His treasure to us. When the storm-clouds gather, God offers to overcome our powerlessness and poverty with His strength and riches. We do well to remember that we who live under the clouds are all poor. Thus we must help one another. None of us has any claim on the mercy of the all-just Creditor: we have been the cause of our own shortcomings; God is not responsible for the misuse of His gifts. If we would find mercy in that hour, will it not be wise…to establish a precedent for generosity and largesse [with the mammon of unrighteousness], while there is yet time? (Idem)
Today let us become just stewards of God’s Grace, a Grace that is meant to be multiplied prudently and shared with the world. In so doing, when we leave the unrighteous mammon of this world behind, being caught up in the clouds, when we fail, we shall be welcomed into everlasting habitations because we have allowed God to make the best out of our bad situation. (Idem)