"Scoundrels" 4th in Prodigal Son Series
July 11, 2010, Luke 15:11-32, 16:1-9
The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen
I went to seminary on the southside of Chicago and one year I interned at a church on the northside of Chicago. Every week I spent several hours riding the el to and from my internship. One quarter I was taking an Old Testament class for which the whole Torah, the first five books of the Bible, was assigned reading. I found that doing this reading while riding the el was beneficial for a couple reasons. First, I made good use of my time and second, people generally leave you alone on the el when you're reading the Bible. I tried to hold it so that it would be obvious that I wasn't just reading any book, the Bible had special and unique power...to keep the really crazy people away.
This strategy did not always work, however. One Sunday morning as I was riding to church, conspicuously reading the Bible, a man sidled up to me, mumbled something and slid a gold chain over my fingertips. I looked up and he nodded toward the gold chain. I did my best impression of Richard Pryor imitating white people, "Is this ill-gotten gain?" The man responded with "Whu?" I handed the chain back to him and said, "I'm not interested." I resumed my reading.
I took pride in riding public transportation in Chicago. I found I could use one transfer and make a round trip from the southside to the loop by taking a different bus back home, than I'd taken to meet the el. A roundtrip for only $1! I had to time it right, but once I learned how I really enjoyed riding public transportation. I thought of myself as streetsmart. I need to make it clear that I was almost always the only white person riding the Cottage Grove bus south of the loop. Several times nice, old black ladies asked with great kindness if I knew which bus I was on. "Yes, ma'am," I would say, "This is the #4." "You know you're riding it south?" they would persist. "Yes, ma'am," I live on the 5300 hundred block of South Maryland." I'll never forget the time one of them smiled and said, "You live down here? That's nice." I felt like she was saying, "Here comes the neighborhood!"
When I moved from Chicago and started to serve my first church in Minnesota I had to purchase a car. After I'd been in Minnesota about six months I realized that I should probably replace the Illinois plates I had on my car with Minnesota plates. I went to the DMV and the lady asked me when I'd moved to the state. "Late March," I replied. "Oh, you're supposed to get new tags within three months, there should be a $30 late fee..." her voice kind of trailed off, I'm pretty sure she winked at me. "Late August." I said. "Oh, then it'll be $55." "You're on my side!?" I practically shouted. I'd just moved from Chicago where the civil servants are neither. And here's a state employee who is colluding with me to save me 30 bucks! I have loved Minnesota ever since. What this DMV lady did was dishonest. It was wrong. It was fraudulent. It was illegal. With her assistance we cheated the state of Minnesota out of $30. Don't go reaching for your cell phones to turn me in. My attorney advised me that the statute of limitations for this kind of thing expired ten years ago.
You know we have "Bible Exploration" every Tuesday here at lunch time. Bring your Bibles, your lunch and your curiosity. We started by calling it a Bible study, but we really read passages then sort of rattled around in them, trying them on for size, we don't study; we explore. The first time we met, we looked at the familiar Parable of the Prodigal Son and His Brother. We spent about an hour looking at it, discussing it, taking it apart. After our first meeting we decided to meet for 90 minutes. This is truly a rich parable, because the characters are so sharply and clearly drawn. And we see how our family resembled-or didn't resemble-the family with the two sons, the farmer father and probably a mother somewhere, probably it was she who had to whip up the fatted calf, though she is never mentioned or even alluded to, in the parable. We hardly talked at all about the second lesson, which comes right after the familiar one. Every time I've ever preached on the Parable of the Prodigal Son and His Brother I have looked at it in context of what comes immediately before it: two much shorter parables, one about a shepherd who goes after one sheep out of a flock of 100 and a woman who turns her house upside down to find one of her ten coins. The sequence of these parables makes it obvious that God's love is targeted and narrowed and extravagant! The father's love and acceptance of the wasteful son, the one who squandered lots of money on prostitutes and booze, shows the wideness of God's mercy. Grace really is amazing, the parable tells us. But let's be honest, most of us don't squander our inheritance like the younger son. Most of us frankly resent it when this kind of thing happens in real life. To someone else.
This morning I want us to look at the parable that comes after the Prodigal Son and His Brother. Perhaps is should be called "The Parable of the Dishonest Manager." Here's a guy who's really in hot water. He's a white collar criminal who's been embezzling and he's been caught and he knows he's guilty. He's too weak to do physical labor and too proud to beg. He turns to what has gotten him to be the success he is throughout his career, he cheats his boss even more! He looks out for Number 1! He is completely, totally selfish. He is chairman of the board of Enron, who makes one last call from his office phone, ordering another layer of gold plating on the yacht that he had custom made...and the master praised the crooked manager. The version of the parable comes from a translation by Eugene Peterson. Here's how the parable concludes in the New Revised Standard Version, which we usually use in worship, Jesus says, "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."
Eugene Peterson used to serve a Presbyterian church in suburban Baltimore, not far from where my family used to live. He tells the story of the time he drove into the city to visit a member of his congregation in Johns Hopkins Hospital. Johns Hopkins is one of the best hospitals in the United States, in one of the worst neighborhoods. Ten years ago east Baltimore led the nation in heroin addiction. Pastor Peterson found a parking place, locked his car and spent an hour visiting the member of his church recovering from surgery. His visit was going about as well as these things can ever go, when he noticed he'd locked his keys in the car. Here I take up the story as it appeared in The Christian Century two years ago, (10/7/08, p. 31)
I stood there helpless, looking at my keys dangling from the ignition within the locked car. I was stumped, hands in my pockets, wondering what I could do. Just then a young boy, an African American about ten years of age, came up to me and said, "Something wrong, mister?" I said, "Yes. I locked my keys in my car." He said, "I can help you." He took a piece of wire out of his pocket and in 30 seconds or less had the door opened, reached in and handed me my keys.
I said, "I'm sure glad that I was here when you showed up." He grinned and said, "Is it worth a dollar to you?" I reached for my wallet. I praised him, "A dollar?--it's worth two dollars!" and handed him the money.
What would Jesus make of Eugene Peterson's parable from Baltimore? Wouldn't Jesus praise the street smart ten year old? And wouldn't you, if you were in Peterson's predicament? Would you say, "Put my keys back in the ignition and lock the car! I'm sorry, young man, but I suspect you have acquired this skill for illicit purposes. I will phone AAA and wait for a reputable professional to pick the lock."
What would Jesus make of the story I started with this morning? The young seminarian reading his Bible who is accosted by the street hustler. Jesus never told parables to confirm the status quo, but to turn it upside down. In Jesus' version of this parable, the man with the gold chain would offer it to the seminarian as a gift, a valuable, precious gift, which the seminarian did not recognize, but dismissed with a joke so he could delve more deeply into his studies. He used the tools of scholarship and religion to prevent his receiving a precious gift of grace. The Pharisees did this type of thing all the time. It drove Jesus crazy.
What would Jesus make of the lady at the DMV? Was she streetsmart or just Minnesota nice? I don't know. And for the record, I don't see a parable in the nice old ladies checking to see whether I was on the right bus. They were nice ladies, and that's good enough for me.
We're left with this parable in which the dishonest manager was praised for being "shrewd" or "streetwise." What should we take away from this parable? What does Jesus want us to get? It's troubling, isn't it? The dishonest one is praised. And the parable right before this one is troubling too? The wasteful, selfish son is lavishly welcomed home. The key to understanding this parable is one word, "generosity." I do not like to explain parables, but in this case, I need to make an exception and again, it's Eugene Peterson, who found an expert on Middle Eastern culture named Kenneth Bailey who makes this clear. Here's the deal: the dishonest manager is fired, but not punished. He loses his job, but is not asked to repay what he has embezzled. The owner is strict, but also gracious. The manager exploits his boss's graciousness. When he calls in the people who owe the boss money, they believe he is acting for the boss, and they believe that the boss is being generous with them. The people who owe the owner money are thrilled with his forgiveness and generosity. They do not suspect that the manager is continuing his pattern of deception that has cost him his job-they don't even know he's been fired. OK, so now put yourself in the owner's position. You've got all these happy customers, who are delighted with your generosity. You could tell them that this dishonest scoundrel, whom you fired earlier in the day, has cheated you, and forgiven debts that he shouldn't have forgiven. And all their goodwill would have been turned to anger-at your incompetence for keeping someone so dishonest as an employee. Or you could be as generous as your manager has made you appear to be!
Again, I am reading from the Christian Century two years ago, "The manager's scheme is a kind of backhanded compliment to the master. He was passing on the generosity of the master to [his clients.] The manager "knew the master was generous and merciful. He risked everything on this aspect of his master's nature. He won. Because the master was indeed generous and merciful, he chose to pay the full price for the steward's salvation."
Are you able to trust the generosity of God's acceptance of you as dramatically and completely? Have you ever risked everything, trusting only in God's mercy?
The prodigal son and the dishonest steward are scoundrels. Scoundrels who trust God's mercy. That is the model of faith and trust that Jesus holds up to his followers in these parables.