“He’ll get what he has coming to him.”
I was sitting on a barstool in her kitchen when Diane exploded at me, “He’ll get what he has coming to him!”
Diane was standing in her kitchen gesturing emphatically with one of those decorative plates you can order from television, the ones with Elvis, Princess 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 unfinished, a 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). A row of rain-drenched, useless bags of cement sat orphaned in the side yard. Their mailbox leaned loosely in the mud like a pick-up stick. The mailbox had a blue and green mountain retirement dreamscape painted on it. She’d calligraphed their names on the mailbox, “Tim and Diane.” Tim and Diane were members of a 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.
Already, I had mastered the subtle Southern art of passive-aggressive politeness, so I replied, “Bless your heart.”
Which, of course, meant, “Watch it, lady, I just may throw you through the stained-glass Good Shepherd.”
Nonetheless, Tim and Diane 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— a fact she later wielded like a weapon.
Many months before that afternoon in her kitchen, against all the laws of common sense and wisdom, Tim and Diane had contracted Bill to build their retirement home on a mountaintop overlook outside of town.
Bill, who every Sunday sat with his family in the Amen corner pulpit left of that same church. Bill, who was friends with Tim and Diane. Bill, whose family comprised yet another third of my tiny congregation. Bill, whose wife, Jane, had also been one of the ones to tell me how much more she preferred my predecessor’s preaching.
“Bless your heart,” I said, grinning like the Joker in the pale moonlight.
“Oh, well. Bless your heart, too,” she replied, pinching my cheek.
Diane had missed church for several Sundays, so one afternoon, I decided to drive out to their new, unfinished home.
In my pastoral naivete and religious idealism, I’d driven out there for some Law-laying, to talk high-handedly about forgiveness and reconciliation.
Because, her unfinished front yard was a sea of mud, I 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 your Superman socks and when said Superman socks have holes in the pinkie toe.
As she unpacked her decorative plates, Diane told me what I’d read in the local paper. Bill had taken their money for their retirement home and used it to pay off debts and business endeavors.
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 Bill’s side of the story. Diane swung around from the box she was unpacking and screamed at me,
“Look here, preacher. I’ve been conned, cheated, and swindled. There is no “other side” to this story.”
When I was in High School, I made a little money helping a carpenter put up sheet rock, so I know. 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 linguistic arsenal at their disposal. Diane said a lot of things about Bill, mostly along the lines of what Bill resembled, where Bill could go, and what Bill could do when he got there.
By way of conclusion, she gestured with a Princess Diana plate and said to me:
“All I know is, he’ll get what he has coming to him. He’s got to answer to the Lord someday for what he’s done.”
I said a lot of things about Bill too, mostly boring, predictable preacher-like things, as in Bill needed to make restitution, do penance, and seek forgiveness. But it never would’ve occured to say something like:
“Sure Diane, I know Bill’s a two-faced, crooked liar, but just look at how clever he was at draining your nest egg from you! You could probably learn a thing or two from him.”
But, 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, colluding with the Empire against their fellow Jews. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gets accused of spending a suspect amount of free time with prostitutes (maybe that’s why Jesus never has any money on him). In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gets accused of eating and drinking— partying hard— with sinners. In Luke’s Gospel, the well-behaved begrudgers of grace, accuse Jesus of condoning sin by the sinful company he keeps.
And proving that he would make a terrible Methodist pastor, who are all conditioned to be conflict avoidant, Jesus responds to the acrimony by inflaming it.
He tells all the good, Law-abiding, religious people that God cares more for one, single sheep that wandered from the shepherd than he cares about those dues-paying, do-gooders who never wandered far from their flock.
And then, Jesus watches his stock drop further when he praises lying, cheating and stealing.
The chapter divisions weren’t added to the New Testament until the sixteenth century, which means Jesus has just offended everybody by killing the fatted calf for the father’s lost then found son and comparing all of them to his self-righteous older brother, standing outside.
“Father, I wish you were dead,” the son had said. “Give me my inheritance!”
And, Jesus says God is just like that prodigal Dad, who never so much as says “thank you” to the son who stayed and slaved for his Father, and kept the church— I mean, the farm— running.
Then, as if he’s trying to get himself killed, Jesus doubles down on the insult. With the second-guessing Pharisees looking on and listening in, Jesus gathers the disciples together and tells a story, just for them.
This story is meant to press salt into the wound cut in them by that story.
“Son, you’re always with me. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and now is found.”
“An executive at Goldman Sachs,” Jesus says, “gets a memo from his HR Department that one of his managers has been cheating the company.
The boss calls the manager into his office, confronts him, and 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 any woes or words of warning.
No, Jesus spins this story starring a corrupt guy that would make Aunt Becky from FullHouse proud, and he doesn’t drop one word of woe.
He doesn’t even use the story to warn us, like Carlos Santana that “we’ve got to change our evil ways.”
He doesn’t tell this story, turn to the Pharisees eavesdropping in on him, and exhort them 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 f@#%?”
You know, I watched you all while the Gospel was read this morning. You all stood there as if this parable made perfect Sunday School sense. At least in the ancient Church, no one swallowed this parable as calmly as you did.
Even St. Augustine, whose pre-Christian life makes Mar-a-Lago Club seem like an Amish Community Center, 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. Julian labeled Christians “atheists,” and said the Gospel encouraged its followers to be “liars and thieves.”
And, St. Luke evidently had trouble with this parable, because Luke tacks all these other unused sayings of Jesus to the end of the parable after verse nine. Luke has Jesus say that we can’t love God and money. True, but it’s beside the point when it comes to 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 story, the dishonest manager is more like a Robin Hood who rips 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, what does Jesus do—Jesus points to him and says, “Gold star.”
“All I know is, he’ll get what he has coming to him. He’s got to answer to the Lord someday for what he’s done.”
We all met the next week in the church parlor: Tim and Diane, Bill 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, Bill 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, Bill, one Sunday would confess his sins before the congregation and commit himself to straightening up and flying right.
And then, I imagined, without a dry eye in the house, we’d end the service singing “Amazing Grace,” that saved a wretch like him.
And, of course, as the script played out in my imagination, my congregation would be considered a paragon of counter-cultural Christian virtues, the sort of church you read about in the religion section 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 like Maury Povich 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.
Bill sat in a rocking chair backed up against a wall. That criminally, tacky painting of the Smiling (Kenny Loggins) 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 Bill, who’d always been an unimaginative, sedate, boring church member, when backed into a corner, became intense and passionate.
There was suddenly an urgency to him.
With surprising creativity, Bill had an answer, a story, a reason for every possible charge.
I sat there in the church parlor watching the inspired and genius way Bill tried to save his own neck, and I couldn’t help but to turn to Tim and Diane and say:
“I know Bill 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 Bill’s self-serving squirming, Tim and Diane threw back their chairs and, jabbing her finger in his direction, Diane screamed at him, “You think you can just live your life banking on God’s forgiveness?”
And then she turned to me.
To second her assertion.
To say “No.”
“No, you can’t.”
“You can’t just live your life banking on God’s forgiveness.”
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t say it (because you can).
So Diane pointed her finger at me instead and with a thunderous whisper said: “After all the good we’ve done for this church, we shouldn’t even need to be having this conversation!”
Then they stormed out of the church parlor.
And they caused even more commotion when they left the church for good.
Meanwhile, Bill 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 Bill, “Well, 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 the light to the world not just like the world,” I said, in my best Doogie Howser diagnosis.
And, Bill nodded.
“The way I see it,” Bill said, “This church can’t afford to lose someone like me.”
“Can’t afford to lose someone like you? You’re bankrupt. You can’t even pay your own bills, Bill, much less help us pay our bills. What do you mean we can’t afford to lose someone like you?”
Bill nodded and leaned forward and started to gesture with his hands, like he was working out the details of another crooked business deal.
“You’re seminary-educated right, preacher?” he asked.
“And, of course, you know your 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 and lay leaders?” Bill asked. “You know, like you and them two?
“And, again you’ve been to seminary and all, but who would you say Jesus would be harsher on? Someone like me, who knows he’s not good and thinks the Gospel is the shadiest, too-good-to-be-true real estate deal of all time?
Or, someone like you? Or, them,” he said, looking over at the parlor door where they’d left, “someone who’s pretty good and thinks that makes them good enough for God?
Who would you say Jesus would be harsher on? Someone who thinks they’re good or someone who knows they’re not?”
“You slippery son of a…” I thought to myself.
“Sure, I know what I deserve,” Bill said, rocking in the rocking chair. “But, that’s why you all can’t afford to lose me.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” I said.
“Well, without someone like me around church, good folks like you are liable to forget how it’s lucky for all of us that we don’t have to deal with a just God. Without someone like me around, good people like you might take it for granted how lucky it is that we all have a gracious God, who refuses to give us what we deserve.”
I can’t prove it, but I swear Jesus’ smile had grown bigger in that offensively, tacky picture hanging above Bill on the wall.
Maybe his smile had gotten bigger, because Bill was smiling.
And, I wasn’t.
Stealing is a sin. It’s the Seventh Commandment. Lying is wrong. It’s the next Commandment. Greed is not good. It’s the last of the Ten Commandments. It’s all there in scripture. It’s wrong. The Bible says so. Sometimes, Jesus even says so.
But, why is it that 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? Why is it— what does it say about us— that we get all caught up with the supposed “offense” of this story, rather than grabbing a hold of the Gospel in this story’s silver lining?
The silver lining in this story is that the crooked manager’s only hope is your only hope, too.
The crooked manager banked on the mercy of his master.
When he got found out, his master’s compassion and generosity were his only hope for the future. His judge became his savior.
And, so it is with you.
When it comes to the stewardship given you by the heavenly Master— your body and soul, your money and property, your vocation and family— admit it, I see how you spend your time on Facebook— at best we’re faithful, a little.
Go ahead and deny it— you’re only deceiving yourself.
Sure, the story’s offensive if you somehow think you’re good enough.
I’m not saying you’re all crooks and thieves. I’m saying that even the best of us aren’t good enough.
The Law accuses all of us. Every single one of us— even the saints-in-the-making— fall short of the glory of God.
I’ve no doubt most of you are better than the corrupt guy in today’s parable— probably because you (like me) lack his energy and imagination.
But the crooked guy’s only hope is your only hope, too.
Your hope is not that you are better than others.
Your hope is not that God has been blind to your wrongdoing.
Your hope is not that your good deeds will somehow, in the end, outweigh your misdeeds.
Your hope is in the very One who will sit in judgment upon you. For the One who will come again to judge the quick and the dead, is the very One who was willingly nailed to a tree to be judged for you.
Recall the Collect of Purity as the prayerbook calls it. Almighty God is the Master “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.”
You’re not going to pull a fast one on him. But more importantly, he knows that you are His. And as His own, beloved by your baptism, He will never deal with you justly.
Don’t forget how all these parables begin. “The Kingdom of God is like…” It’s not that God doesn’t care what you do. It’s that God will do anything to get what God wants, including calling someone like you.