This sermon on the parable of the dishonest steward was written to be preached to the members of St. Dysmas Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation behind the walls of the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
Luke 16:1-13 (from The Message)
Jesus said to his disciples, “There was once a rich man who had a manager. He got reports that the manager had been taking advantage of his position by running up huge personal expenses. So he called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? You’re fired. And I want a complete audit of your books.’
"The manager said to himself, ‘What am I going to do? I’ve lost my job as manager. I’m not strong enough for a laboring job, and I’m too proud to beg. . . . Ah, I’ve got a plan. Here’s what I’ll do . . . then when I’m turned out into the street, people will take me into their houses.’
“Then he went at it. One after another, he called in the people who were in debt to his master. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
“He replied, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil."
“The manager said, ‘Here, take your bill, sit down here—quick now—write fifty.’
“To the next he said, ‘And you, what do you owe?’
“He answered, ‘A hundred sacks of wheat.’
“He said, ‘Take your bill, write in eighty.’
“Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”
Jesus went on to make these comments: “If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; if you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things. If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store? No worker can serve two bosses: He’ll either hate the first and love the second or adore the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and the Bank.”
The gospel of our Lord.
Today is my 26th wedding anniversary today. Mary and I met on January 1, 1990, in a Twin Cities suburb. Our pastors invited a bunch of people to their house to watch the Rose Bowl. When Mary rang the doorbell, our pastor Nancy opened it and said, “He’s here.” We spent the afternoon ogling each other, sitting side-by-side, discovering that this was someone interesting, and decided to go on an actual first date of some kind. Six weeks later we were engaged. That September we had a wedding. And the rest is history. We’ve had all these years of ups and downs, and we treasure our happy little life.
When I look back at meeting all of you here at St. Dysmas, it feels much the same way. It was a kind of pastoral love at first sight. You welcomed me in so heartily that I’ve been telling people for a year that St. Dysmas and my own congregation in Des Moines are the warmest churches I’ve ever known. But more than anything, I’ve treasured the time I’ve spent with you, because it feels like I found my people. Jesus talked about preaching to people who have ears to hear. I encounter college kids in my classroom every day who have that kind of hunger – mostly because, when they’ve had questions about faith in the past, what they’ve gotten in return is a load of bison flop. But you, my friends, my fellow sinners, my beloved miscreants and felons, you whose days are marked by the constant reminders of either the worst things you’ve ever done or the one thing you got caught for, your tan inmate scrubs won’t let you forget you’re literally penned in and forced to face the hardest truths. Now whether you’ll respond with any kind of faith or with more of the same-old, same-old that got you here is another matter entirely. And that’s what we’ve gotta pray for tonight: that God would give you ears for this gospel word and that God would use this Iowa sinner to deliver a promise that gives you freedom beyond what’s held you down.
If that’s what we’re after, though, tonight’s gospel reading is a doozy. And it’s probably not something any suits or whiteshirts in Pierre or on the hill would we regard as very edifying for a room full of inmates with hard histories, anger issues, and neck tattoos. That’s because Jesus told this story of a guy who’s an absolute crook and gets away with it. And then Jesus made matters worse by praising the fella’s moxie at writing off debts that other people owe his boss. There’s plenty of entertainment value in that. I like an anti-hero as much as anyone. But I suspect Jesus didn’t tell the story to give us a role model in a crook who cooks the books and gets off with not even a hand slap.
So often we have a problem when we come to God’s word. We think that this whole bundle of scripture and this business of being a Christian is all about God wanting us to be more upright, upstanding, and on the up-and-up. We think Christianity is about a moral system, ethics, and good behavior. God gives us the Bible to show us how to live. Jesus came to teach us to be better people. And God rewards those who meet the mark with an eternity in heaven with no bars on the windows, eternal internet access, and meals that include more than soy substitute as a stand-in for actual meat. But if that’s where we start, then that’s all we’ll get out of God’s word, out of Jesus, and out of any preacher. You’ll get lessons in successful Christian living. You’ll get three-point sermons that tell you how to be more spiritual. And you’ll hear Jesus’ preaching and teaching as something you need to decipher and find the golden nugget that will finally unlock your potential.
With that approach, this parable Jesus tells in tonight’s gospel will screw you up royally. It doesn’t promote good behavior. It doesn’t give you a solid bro you can model your life on. In fact, this section of Luke’s gospel is full of idiots who can’t figure out that a flock of sheep in the pen is better than one lost in the sage brush, a prodigal son who squandered everything and gets welcomed home, and guests at a fancy dinner banquet who turn out to be the winos, the homeless, the heroin shooters, the whores, and the disreputable. Jesus seems bent on upsetting all our preconceived notions of what God actually wants us to live like.
The religious leaders who heard Jesus tell these stories were none too happy about it. They also thought the project we call a human lifetime was about righteousness, purity, morality, and fulfilling the commandments. It’s no wonder that they started plotting to recruit Judas and to arrest and kill Jesus. Where’s the peace and security in a world where people like you, my friends, are held up as just the kind humans God has taken a shine to? Armed robbers, murderers, meth cookers, pedophiles, your house band, and your inside council members are the most unlikely bunch of reprobates for God to grab hold of. Thank God that’s what he does, though.
The story of the crooked manager contains more than meets the eye. Jesus is setting us up for a life of dishonesty, but he does put before us the prospect of using all the tricks and tools of the streetwise for the sake of faith. Jesus says they’re “smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They’re on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.” Jesus knows that the tactics of the crooked on their own lead to a hollow life and damage to others. But he understands how wily a person of faith has to be in this world. All kinds of temptations will crop to get you to believe and trust something other than Christ for your future. They’ll pop out at you when you least expect it. And they’ll often look pretty appealing. But even good things like being moral or religious or spiritual can also be a temptation to rely on something other than Jesus. And he’s not interested in us complacently basing our lives and our eternal future on good behavior. There’s more to the abundant life Jesus promises than keeping your head down in the chow line, keeping out of the SHU, and flying under the radar of your CO's. Even if it were, Jesus is pretty sure you don’t have it in you.
So Jesus does something else between the lines in this story tonight. He shows you why he like people like you so damn much. The manager in the story is about to get canned for embezzlement. He’s cooked the books, and he sees what’s coming down the pike. When it all falls apart, he won’t have a place to go for refuge. So he’ll create a group of people who’ll say, “That guy gave me a deal on my debt. I don’t care what his own crime was. He can stay with me.” So the guy goes around and writes off debt. It’s like a governor caught in a crime who decides to commute sentences and issue pardons because he knows he’s going to wind up on the hill and wants friends on the inside.
And that’s exactly what Jesus does for you. At the point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus knows that what’s waiting for him in Jerusalem is an execution on the cross that is the finally accounting by the religious leaders. So he sets his face to the task of forgiving people who owe a debt to society, who don’t meet what’s required by the law, and especially those that religion and religious people have beat up on with their demands for perfect obedience and moral purity. Jesus comes to you saying, “Your accounts are cleared. You don’t have to worry about that sin anymore.”
Our Lord is never going to find real friends, followers, or disciples among those who regard themselves as debt-free. They don’t need what Jesus is doling out. They’re sufficient unto themselves. But for people like you and me, Jesus is all we’ve got. We know that we don’t love God or our neighbors as we should and, worse, that we don’t want to. We know how far into the red our accounts with God are. So when Christ comes with this good news of the great divine debt-elimination program, we can only say, “I want what Jesus has to give.” What Jesus is doing is exactly what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer when we say, “Thy will be done.” By being such an irresistible and attractive friend, he turns our will his way. He comes after us in such a way that we can’t help but be open to him. He grabs hold of us so that our old tricks now get turned around for his sake and the sake of the gospel.
After all, isn’t that what St. Dysmas is all about? You guys have survived by your wits forever. You’ve had to be on the alert to make sure you’re not caught. But now Jesus has caught you and calls you to use your substantial streetwise savvy to become his very presence behind the walls of the prison and out in the world when your sentence is up. And if there’s no pardon for you in this life, he’s going to make sure that you know exactly what awaits you in his home. There are no cells there. But he says that in his father’s house there are many mansions. And every single one of ‘em has an open door and the best kitchen ever, where there’s a divine chef cooking up the supper of the Lamb of God to fill you with eternal good things.
For my money, I’d rather have a Lord who’s crooked, who gives grace and mercy to those who don’t deserve it, than some demanding rule-giver whose relentless rule-giving leaves me in arrears. When you come to the altar for the sacrament tonight, know that you come to Christ who says, “What do you owe?” and who says in response, “Take your bill. Put zero on the bottom line. And scrawl 'debt paid in full.'” He’s done it for you. Amen.
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