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March 11, 2007 (Choral Vespers for Lent)

Pastor Fritz Fritschel

Luke 16:1–13

(Webmaster’s Note: This sermon was preached at Choral Vespers for Lent at which J.S. Bach’s Cantata 105 was sung. Follow this link for the words of the cantata in both the original German and English translation.)

The Cantata 105 that we will soon hear is based upon the reading from Luke 16 that was read earlier. You may agree after hearing that short parable of “The Unjust Steward” from Luke that it is one of the most difficult parables in the entire synoptic tradition. Many have scratched their heads over an appropriate interpretation. I myself have lost a few hairs this past week in trying to penetrate part of its meaning.

The librettist for the cantata, whose name is unknown, chose to create a judgment scene for the parable. On top of that, with a sense of poetic license, he imposed an orthodox Lutheran interpretation on the parable.

The cantata begins with the chorus singing a rather solemn fugal pattern to the words “Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht,” the title and first line of the work. The emotive tone of that opening seems to be one of earnest pleading, but yet in a subdued manner. “Do not let me enter into judgment. Do not let me enter into judgment.” Listening closely you notice that the German phrase is repeated around 20 times by the various chorus sections. “I do not want to face judgment.” And then, rather quickly in the second line, the defendant expresses anxiety and panic. He suddenly realizes he is to appear before the righteous judge. The music catches that sense of anxiety.

In the second section, we hear an alto recitative as if sung by the accused. It is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, a confession of guilt—a proper Lutheran reaction, we might think. But there is no basis for such a response contained in the Lucan narrative. The manager or steward in the text shows no remorse, only some cunning and conniving.

The third section is a beautiful aria featuring soprano and oboe. We are no longer listening to the defendant, but enjoy the observations of an outsider. The comments are made from a psychological perspective, as if the observer knows something about the maneuvering of a guilty conscience. The oboist and soprano soloist jockey with one another in a simple musical pattern—up and down, up and down, back and forth. We are given a glimpse into the working of the guilty conscience searching for rationalizations, excuses, alibis, cover-ups, perhaps feigning ignorance. The music keeps exploring little avenues of escape with occasional florid patterns that seem to end in a cul-de-sac.

The next section, a recitative by a bass soloist, moves away from a psychological vantage point to a theological perspective. Here again, speaking as an outsider observer, comments are made about the atoning work of Christ and the cancellation of debt. Again, there is no sign of this kind of interpretation within the Lucan text, but it does satisfy the Lutheran frame of reference.

In the fifth section, as if having come through the epiphanic experience of guilt, confession, and forgiveness, the defendant realizes that he is faced with matter of identifying his deepest values. One might say that he recognizes the ephemeral quality of mammon and wealth, realizing the deeper quality of love and forgiveness that establishes a healthy community. The music fairly dances with joy and relief in the presence of such a recognition.

The cantata closes with the chorus singing the final chorale in a stately fashion. The expression is one of gratitude and joy for the divine promise and compassion.

If I had been the librettist, I would not have chosen a scene of judgment as the setting. I would have interpreted the parable rather in terms of a scene of injustice. Close to judgment, but not quite the same.

This short parable told by Jesus, like others he told, I believe is an exposure of a contaminated and corrupt system. No one trusts anyone else. The owner does not trust the steward/manager; the merchants and peasants have no reason to trust him either on the basis of his squandering activity. The entire system is riddled with corruption. But something happens offstage, away from the story’s details that is vital to the scene. Someone begins to collect data that gets back to the owner about the manager’s irresponsibility. Who would dare do that?

“Do I dare, do I dare, do I dare disturb the universe.” Remember those words of J. Alfred Prufrock. When I listen again to the chorus’ opening strains and the fugal pattern, I hear “Do I dare, do I dare, do I dare, do I dare, do I dare.” I assume the ones who dare bring the charges before the owner are some of the tenants and/or merchants. Oppressed, abused, mistreated, perhaps even cheated out of land that had originally been theirs—they dare.

They are like Wes Wannamaker appearing before a Senate Hearing Committee chaired by Senator Carl Levin this last week. Inquires were being made about the abusive and oppressive practices of credit card services. Mr. Wannamaker agreed to appear before the committee relating his own torturous experience. Having a credit limit of $3000, he overcharged his account by $200. All of these charges were made to cover wedding expenses that were incurred about 4 or 5 years earlier. In trying to pay off his credit card debt he had already paid the credit card company around $6000, and he was still facing more charges in the thousand dollar range, all from the $200 overcharge.

This system is often broken, abusive, destructive of community and personal lives. It can be terribly unjust.

We are invited to meditate. You may choose to meditate on the music you are about to hear—without paying any attention to the words. You can focus on the aesthetic beauty and professional quality of the performance, the sonority of the soprano. Or you may meditate on the comfort of the religious framework, the comfort that comes from the cancellation of debt and forgiveness. Or you may meditate on the challenge of confronting abusive and oppressive systems that tend to undermine and destroy a sense of community.

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