This Sunday we continued our Lenten series, 7 Deadlies, with #5: Greed. For the scripture text, I chose a parable (Luke 16.1-9) in which Jesus actually praises cheating, stealing and lying, which forced it to be an atypical sermon on the deadly sins.
“He’ll get what he has coming to him.”
When Diane said that to me, she was standing in her Florida-orange kitchen gesturing emphatically with one of those decorative plates you can order from television, the ones with Elvis or Diana or Frank Sinatra on them.
I was sitting on a barstool in her kitchen because that was the only place to sit.
Diane’s new house was an unfinished, messy maze of boxes, sheet rock and plastic drop cloths.
Her yard outside wasn’t even unfinished. It was unbegun: no driveway, no grass- just a swampy stretch of mud from the road to the front porch (which was also unfinished).
Their mailbox hung over loosely in the mud like a pickup stick.
The mailbox had a blue and green mountain scape painted on it, along with their names: Tim and Diane.
Tim and Diane were members of the first church I pastored.
Diane was one of the ones who, after my first Sunday there, told me how much better she preferred the previous pastor’s preaching.
Nonetheless, they were good people and good church members, and, in the way of small towns and small churches, they were related to nearly one-third of the names in the church directory.
Many months before that afternoon in her kitchen, against all the laws of common sense and wisdom, Tim and Diane had contracted Pete to build their retirement home on a mountaintop overlook outside of town.
Pete who every Sunday sat with his family in the Amen corner pulpit left of that same church; Pete who was friends with Tim and Diane and whose family comprised yet another third of my tiny congregation; Pete whose wife, Jane, had also been one of the ones to tell me how much more she preferred my predecessor’s preaching.
Diane had missed church for several weeks of Sundays so on one afternoon I decided I’d drive out to their new, unfinished home.
In my pastoral naivete and religious idealism, I’d driven out there to talk high-handedly about forgiveness and reconciliation. Because her front yard was a sea of mud, I’d had to take off my shoes.
Sitting in Diane’s kitchen, I quickly discovered how hard it is to strike an authoritative posture when you’re wearing nothing but socks and when those socks have holes in them and when your exposed feet are dangling above the floor like a toddler’s.
As she unpacked her decorative plates, Diane told me what I’d read in the local paper: that Pete had taken their money for their home and used it to pay off other debts and business endeavors, and now Tim and Diane’s savings were drained, their retirement postponed, their nerves frayed and their home unfinished.
I said something foolish about needing to hear Pete’s side of the story, and Diane pointed out to her young pastor that she’d been conned, cheated and swindled. There was no “other” side to the story.
If it’s true that contractors have a vocabulary all their own, then it’s axiomatic that those who’ve been cheated by contractors have an even more vivid vocabulary at their disposal.
Diane said a lot of things about Pete, mostly along the lines of what he resembled and where he could go and what he could stick where before he got there.
By way of conclusion she gestured with a Princess Diana plate and said to her pastor: “All I know is, when he meets the Lord, he’ll get what he has coming to him.”
I said a lot of things about Pete too, mostly boring, predictable preacher things: that Pete needed to make restitution, do penance, seek forgiveness.
I said a lot of things about Pete, but it never occurred to me…it would’ve violated everything I learned in Kindergarten, my Mom would’ve grounded me…
Diane would’ve cold-cocked me if I’d said something like:
‘Sure Diane, I know Pete’s a 2-faced, crooked SOB but just look at how clever he was at draining your nest egg you! You could probably learn a thing or two from him.’
I never would’ve said something that offensive.
Of course, that’s just what Jesus does.
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus gets accused of consorting with tax collectors, who were no better than extortionists. Jesus gets accused of hanging out with easy women, and drinking with sinners.
They accuse Jesus of condoning sin by the sinful company he keeps.
And proving that he would make a terrible Methodist pastor, Jesus responds to the acrimony by inflaming it.
He tells all the good, rule-abiding, religious people that God cares more for one, single sheep too stupid to stay with the shepherd than he cares about those who never wandered far from the flock.
And then Jesus watches his stock drop further when he actually praises lying and cheating and stealing.
With the second-guessing Pharisees looking on, Jesus gathers the disciples together and tells a story just for them:
An executive at Goldman Sachs gets a memo from his HR Department that one of his managers has been cheating the company.
The boss calls him into his office, confronts him, tells him to clean out his desk by the end of the day.
As the manager is about to leave the office, the boss adds “And I’ll be coming soon to take a look at your books.”
Riding back down the elevator, the manager thinks to himself: “I’m too old to start over again. I don’t have any other marketable skills and unemployment won’t cover the family budget.”
And before the elevator doors open, the manager has come up with his own severance package.
He’s still got the firm’s credit card so he invites some his best clients to a pricey dinner in the district, and over drinks and foie gras he tells them that he’s canceling the balance of what they owe his firm.
‘Just write it off, and we’ll call it even’ he says.
He may not have a job but at least when the pink slip comes he’ll have a group of wealthy, grateful people to help him land on his feet instead of on food stamps.
Jesus tells his huddled disciples this story and he doesn’t end it with a word of warning, a woe. He doesn’t tell them they are to give up their dishonest ways and follow him.
Instead Jesus says:
“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
And all of God’s People say: ‘What the_______________?’
You know, I watched you all while the scripture was read this morning. You all sat there as if this parable made perfect Sunday School sense.
It troubles me that not one of you looked even a little bit tight-sphinctered with the idea of Jesus pointing to the crooked little liar in the police lineup and saying: ‘Way to go! Thumbs up!’
At least in the ancient Church, no one swallowed this parable as calmly as you did.
Even St. Augustine, whose pre-Christian life makes Anthony Wiener seem reserved, drew the line at this parable. Augustine said he refused “to believe this story came from the lips of the Lord.”
Julian the Apostate, a 4th century Roman Emperor, used this parable of Christ’s to crusade against Christianity, which Julian argued taught its followers to be liars and thieves.
And St. Luke evidently had trouble with this parable because Luke tacks all these other sayings of Jesus to the end of the parable.
Luke has Jesus say that we can’t love God and money.
True, but beside the point when it comes this parable.
Luke also warns us how the person who is not faithful in a little will not be faithful in much.
Again, it’s true but it’s not faithful to the scandal in Jesus’ parable.
It’s like Luke’s obfuscating to get Jesus off the hook for violating our moral sensibilities.
And maybe getting Jesus off the hook is what you’re expecting from me.
Maybe you expect me to tell you not to worry, in the original Greek the dishonest manager is more like Robin Hood, ripping off the wicked rich to give the money back to the righteous poor.’
Yeah, not so much.
If someone like St Augustine didn’t figure out a way to short sell this parable then there simply isn’t one.
What the manager did was to lie, cheat, steal, and lie some more.
And Jesus points to him and says: ‘Gold star.’
“All I know is when he meets the Lord he’ll get what he has coming to him.”
We all met the next week in the church parlor: Tim and Diane, Pete and Jane and the church lay leader.
The Book of Common Prayer contains an ancient worship service in it called the Reconciliation of a Penitent, and if I’m honest with myself that’s what I envisioned would happen.
With my keen powers of spiritual persuasion, Pete would repent. As a group we would draft steps towards penance. I would urge Tim and Diane to begin the process of forgiveness. It would all end, I thought, without permanent animosity or legal fees. Instead Pete some Sunday would confess his sins before the congregation and without a dry eye in the house we’d end the service singing ‘Amazing Grace that saved a wretch like me.’
And, of course, as the script played out in my imagination my congregation would be considered a paragon of counter-cultural Christian virtue, the sort of church you read about in the religion page of the Washington Post. And I would be the hero, easily elected as the Church’s youngest bishop ever.
the Doogie Howser of the Episcopacy.
What went down, though, was more Kramer vs Kramer than Doogie Howser.
We gathered in the church parlor. Tim and Diane sat in front of a dusty chalk board with half-erased prayer requests written on it.
Pete sat in a rocking chair backed up against a wall. That criminally tacky painting of the Smiling Jesus hung in a frame right above his head.
I opened with what probably sounded to everyone like a condescending prayer. No one said ‘Amen.’ Instead Tim and Diane exploded with unbridled anger and unleashed a torrent of expletives that could’ve peeled the varnish off the church parlor china cabinet.
And Pete, who’d always been an unimaginative, sedate- even boring- church member, when backed into a corner, became intense and passionate. There was suddenly an urgency to him.
With surprising creativity, Pete had an answer, a story, a reason for every possible charge.
I sat there in the church parlor watching the inspired and genius way Pete tried to save his own neck, and I couldn’t help but to turn to Tim and Diane and say: ‘I know Pete bled you dry and lied to your face and robbed you blind but there’s just something…wonderful…about the way he did it.’
No instead, in the middle of Pete’s self-serving squirming, Tim and Diane threw back their chairs and, jabbing her finger in his direction, Diane screamed at him:
‘It’s like from the get-go you just expected us to forgive you?!‘
Then they stormed out of the church parlor.
And they caused even more commotion when they left the church for good.
Meanwhile Pete just sat there with a blank, guilt-less expression on his face and that offensively tacky picture of Jesus smiling right above him.
After an uncomfortable silence, I said to Pete: ‘I guess you’re probably wondering if we’re going to make you leave the church?’
He squinted at me, like I’d just uttered a complete non sequitur: ‘No, why would I be wondering that?’
‘Well, obviously, because of everything you’ve done. Lying and cheating and robbing your neighbors. It’s immoral.
We’re supposed to be light to the world not just like the world.
We can’t have someone like you be of the part of the church.’
I said in my best Doogie Howser diagnosis.
And Pete nodded and then leaned forward and started to gesture with his hands, like he was working out the details of another shady business deal.
‘You’re seminary educated right?’ he asked. I nodded.
‘And of course you know you’re bible a lot better than me.’ And I feigned humility and nodded.
‘I could be wrong’ he said, ‘but wouldn’t you say that the people Jesus had the biggest problem with were the scribes and the Pharisees?’
‘Yeah’ I nodded, not liking where this was going.
‘And back then weren’t they the professional clergy?’ Pete asked. ‘You know…like you?’
‘Uh-huh’ I grumbled.
‘And, again you’ve been to seminary and all, but:
Who would you say Jesus would be harsher on?
Someone like me for what I’ve done?
Or someone like you for saying I’m not good enough to belong with Jesus?’
‘You slippery son of a…’ I thought to myself.
I can’t prove it, but I swear Jesus’ smile had grown bigger in that offensively tacky picture on the wall.
Maybe his smile gotten bigger because Pete was smiling too. And I wasn’t.
Stealing is a sin. It’s the 7th Commandment.
Lying is wrong. It’s the next Commandment.
Greed is not good. It’s the last of the Ten Commandments and the 5th Deadliest Sin.
It’s all there in scripture: it’s wrong.
The bible says so. Sometimes Jesus even says so.
So I don’t why Jesus says ‘well done’ to the creep in this parable.
Did Jesus want to puncture our flattering self-images? Maybe.
Did Jesus want to point out out how the energy we expend for him is nothing compared to the lengths we’ll go to save our own skin? Possibly.
Did Jesus want us to notice in the story not the crook’s crookedness but the Master’s mercifulness?
Could be. I don’t know.
Truth is, I can’t answer the question: Why did Jesus tell this offensive story? And I’ve been preaching long enough now that I don’t trust anyone who tells you they can.
I can’t answer the question ‘Why did Jesus tell such an offensive story?’ but the fact that that is always the question we ask when it comes to this parable I think proves that there’s another, better question we should be asking:
‘When Jesus says he’s come to seek and save sinners, why is it that we always imagine Jesus is talking about someone other than us?’
Other than me.
I honestly can’t tell you why Jesus told a story like this.
But if there’s any silver lining to a story like this it’s that Jesus is willing to make someone like you the hero.