Trinity 9 – Stewards of Pain

Parable of the dishonest steward.

What a difficult passage we have as today’s Gospel!  Jesus told this parable specifically to his disciples, to those who had already committed themselves to following him. They must have been a bit taken aback and maybe were thinking, ‘Surely, Jesus, you are not saying we should be dishonest and underhand in our dealings with one people? That goes against all that we have understood of your life and teaching so far. Where is the sacrificial self giving, servant ministry you have shown and taught us? – What is going on here?’

I believe Jesus is saying something along these lines, ‘It might sound a bit strange but I think that you can learn from this dishonest man. Just as this steward is a shrewd, worldly-wise operator focusing his dealings on making sure his future is secure in the face of the impending catastrophe of having to give an account to his master, so I wish that you children of light would be just as deeply committed to ensuring your eternal salvation.’

In essence this interpretation is in line with the teaching of Jesus which says, ‘seek first the kingdom of God and all else follows’. It is the single-minded motivation of the steward that we are called to follow, not his creative accounting, not his dishonesty.

This understanding of the parable makes sense. We all would want to prioritize seeking the kingdom of God first but life presents us with dilemmas and challenges that make the seeking of the kingdom hard. In life we have to be stewards of all kinds of things, not just looking after business affairs or money, but other less obvious matters. And it is to one of these that I want to turn now.

The preacher and writer Frederick Buechner was talking to a friend about his particularly harsh childhood to which the friend remarked, “You have had a fair amount of pain in your life, like everybody else. — You have been a good steward of it.”

Thinking about this I was also reminded of two friends. They were working in St Petersburg as missionaries when their 17 year old daughter, an au pair in Spain fell ill. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic, an illness which continues throughout her life. Jenny and Stewart had to decide how best to  deal with this and Jenny sought spiritual help from an orthodox priest. He commented that she had been given the gift of pain and her challenge was to live with it.

To be a steward of your pain. What an arresting phrase. Buechner admits ‘I didn’t hear it as a compliment particularly. It is not as if I had set out to be a steward of my pain, but rather something that happened.’

What might the stewardship of pain mean? In what ways can pain be perceived as a gift?  What are the ways in which we deal with pain? Besides being a steward of it, there are alternatives. The most tempting is to forget it, to hide it, to cover it over, to pretend it never happened, because it is too hard to deal with. It is too unsettling to remember.

Some families operate in this way, “Don’t talk about things that cause pain. You can’t trust the world with those secrets. Those are family secrets. Keep them hidden. Keep them hidden from each other. Keep them hidden from you. Don’t allow yourself to feel them.”

So we try to bury the bad times. But the danger of doing so is that we stop growing in the direction of compassion and wisdom. Sigmund Freud wrote about the return of the  repressed, where things we seek to hide or forget always find a way of coming back to bite us – unexpectedly!

Another thing you can do with your pain, of course, is to use it to win sympathy. I guess a sob story is a story you tell hoping that people will sob with you. This is a sort of an end in itself, a way almost of giving yourself a kind of stature in the eyes of the world as a suffering one, a martyr.

Another great temptation about pain is to allow you to be embittered and trapped by it. The classic example of that is the tragic character of Miss Haversham in Charles Dickens’s wonderful novel, Great Expectations. She was deserted by her bridegroom on her wedding day. He never showed up. She spent the rest of her days sitting in the room where the great reception was to have been, her wedding cake mouldering, her dress long since turned to rags, imprisoned in a sadness that she simply never could escape. All of these are options of dealing with pain.

Stewardship of pain. What else might that mean? I think it means, before above all, to keep in touch with your pain, to keep in touch with the sad times, with the hard times of your past. I think it is often those times when we were most alive, when we were somehow closest to being most vitally human beings.

Keep in touch with it because it is at those moments of pain where you are most open to the pain of other people — most open to your own deep places. Keep in touch with those sad times because it is then that you are most aware of your own powerlessness, crushed in a way by what is happening to you, but also most aware of God’s power to pull you through it, to be with you in it. Keeping in touch with your pain, I think, means also to be true to who in your depths you have it in you to be — depths of pain and also in a way depths of joy, because they both come from the same place.

It seems to me that the willingness of Christ to set his face to Jerusalem and Calvary shows us his deepest commitment to the Father and to us. His giving of himself for our sake upon the cross says that out of that greatest pain endured in love and faithfulness, comes the greatest beauty and our greatest hope. There can be no new life, no resurrection without Calvary. That is the way that Jesus had to go and if we are his followers it is our way too. The Kingdom of heaven and eternal life are open to us as we do our part in exercising stewardship over everything that comes to us in life; not just in the wonderful things offered by our closest; loving relationships but also including loss, betrayal, pain of any kind. So my prayer for us this week is that we may we be stewards of all of this: honest, and not dishonest stewards towards ourselves and towards God.

Amen +