September 22, 2019
Proper 20 Luke 16:1-13 Grace Church
The Scandal of Grace
SCANDAL. It seems that we are obsessed with scandal every week — celebrity, political — the petty and the obscene get equal attention and we lack the capacity to discern or sort the truth. But I am here today to finish what I started last week — to come an speak about the scandal of Grace in today’s gospel. Luke uses the word “scandal” and points to the radical scandal of grace. This week Jesus tells another grace laden parable following on the heels of the beloved story of the prodigal son — or as I prefer, the parable of the loving father and his two sons. This one is for his disciples.
In the 15th chapter of Luke, there is recorded an address to the tax collectors and the Pharisees about the joy of finding the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the supreme joy of the Father who says, “It is fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and now is found.” With the righteous Pharisees and the unrighteousness tax collectors listening, Jesus is on a roll. Even the disciples are starting to see how radical their teacher is becoming. This next parable is for them and it will leave them dazed and confused. They were sure they had bet on a winning Messiah, but with this parable….
These stories are so astounding and so radical, they serve notice to the end of “getting it right.” Jesus is declaring through word and deed the end of the religious quest of getting it right. With incredible dexterity, the sharp edge of satire and absolute brilliance, he undermines the rigid and lifeless relationship of the Pharisees with their bookkeeping God. The story of the prodigal and the crafty manager story for today become vehicles for grace for all who can hear them.
And here’s the rub. We have as much difficulty with these stories as the Pharisees or disciples. We, too, want to discover some moralistic truth that we can use to beat others into submission. We, too, are desperately searching for a savior who’s going to tell those other people how to get it right. It’s in our nature, our fallen nature, to seek ways to appear respectable and righteous — “we’re number one” comes easily to our lips. And Jesus knew that. And knows that.
It is here that Robert Capon in his Parables of Grace comes to take us on a wild ride that leads to the true joy of Jesus. We keep looking for the logical point, not the mystical truth — the scribes and Pharisees are bound up in their righteous management of the law and the disciples are hoping for a quick resolution so that they can take up the righteous management of life on their terms.
But Jesus is not about management, Jesus is about manifestation of what is true from the beginning. In the first creation story, we are created male and female, we are created in the infinite mind of God, out of time and space. In the second creation story we find ourselves in time and space, in the Garden of Eden. There is an ecology of opposites that runs through both stories but as we hear in the second story, we fail to accept the reality of opposites — light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. We resist, we rebel, we want to manage them. Capon says, “We invented death as robbery,” not death as gift. We failed to trust God in the rhythm of creation and saw death only as a recipe of extinction, instead of the evolving glory that allows all creation to flourish.
Jesus comes to show us the way through the portal that has always been there, that even in death, there is another side, life rises. We have substituted “religion” (currying God’s favor) for grace, “righteousness” for trust, and “morality” for truth.
And we have as much difficulty with these stories as the Pharisees. We, too, want to discover some moralistic truth and rules we can use to beat or shame others into submission. We are desperately searching for a savior who’s going to tell those other people how to get it right. It’s in our nature, our fallen nature, to seek ways to appear respectable and righteous.
Jesus, reflecting God’s glorious and forgiving love, won’t give us the ammunition we see desperately desire. Instead, he tells stories of lost sheep, missing coins and prodigals who are embraced by the loving arms of fathers and even dishonest managers who are commended for their dirty dealings by the lord of the manor.
All these parables are about folks who acknowledged they had nothing left to lose, they were as good as dead. For the son who squandered his inheritance and then the manager who squandered his boss’s property, “the jig is up.” Time has run out and they both come to their senses. They come to their senses, not out of moral insight but out of sheer desperation. The boy goes home to fill his belly. The crafty manager settles cheap with his boss’s debtors and gives them extraordinary write-offs. Such a deal. You owe 100 jugs of oil? How about 50? A hundred containers of wheat? Pay for eighty. An offer they can’t refuse. Extravagant debt, reduced extravagantly. And this guy’s motives aren’t even pure. He’s just trying to buy good will, so that he won’t end up digging ditches. He figures these debtors may welcome him to their homes and he can stay afloat.
What a scoundrel! But wait. Now comes the shocker in both of these parables. What does the father of the prodigal do? Does he run down the driveway and take a belt to his errant son? No, he embraces him and proceeds to treat him like a missing prince come home. And what does the rich man do to his crafty manager? Sue him for malfeasance and fraud. Call the Better Business Bureau and the attorney general and seek to indict him? No, again. The rich man commends the one who squandered his money.
So what’s going on here? Jesus, what are you telling us? What is the point of reinforcing bad behavior? No self-respecting Messiah should be holding these two scoundrels up as deserving of anything but condemnation. And therein lies the rub: Jesus is telling us once and for all that the gospel is not about respectability. It is about unconditional acceptance, absolute forgiveness, even in the light of the most outrageous behavior. In fact, what we must face is infinite justice in the arms of a loving father and a rich man.
We human beings have done and do the most horrendous things. We are capable of unspeakable horrors. All of us. Any one of us. And those of us who think that we don’t or couldn’t, run the risk of believing that our own righteousness brings us closer to God. And that is where we are wrong. And that is the point of the whole gospel story.
We can never enter the Kingdom of God on respectable behavior. The unique contribution of this parable of the unjust steward to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success and winning. It will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing, which is the only kind of grace there is.
The parable says in story form what Jesus himself said by his life. He was not respectable. He broke the Sabbath. He consorted with crooks. And he died a criminal. Now, at last, in the light of this parable, we see why he refused to be respectable: he did it to teach a world that respectability could only terrify, shame and condemn. Capon says, “He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead.”
If we look at Jesus through the lens of respectability there was not much edifying. “If Jesus were interested only in respectability, he would not have dined with tax collectors and harlots. He would not have violated the Sabbath. He would not have been accused of being a drunkard and a glutton, he would not have died as a criminal in the most disreputable way imaginable.”
In fact, as Capon tells us, “If Jesus had only paid more attention to being respectable, he would have lived to a ripe old age.” But grace, unmerited favor cannot come through respectability. In the topsy turvy economy of God, we win by losing, we come in first by being last, we lead by serving, we gain by letting go, we receive by giving. The reason Jesus made wasteful extravagant people into heroes was to shake us out of our self-righteous respectable arrogance. The God Jesus seeks to communicate to us is more lavish in grace than the prodigal’s father or the dishonest manager’s boss. And only this can sweep the whole of humanity into the net of God’s love. It’s for us all and our only response can be to give thanks for a merciful God who spares us all and then, shows us the way to be human, made in the image and likeness of God.
As we gather for this ordinary meal of bread and wine, we encounter extraordinary grace that squanders this supper on us. The parable today is not about morals in the market place. The story today communicates the way we are to receive God. Let us come to our senses, drop the pretense of respectability and receive the very kingdom of God in our own hands. It is a gift of love, given to us. And as we receive this gift, we are then told to “go forth into the world, rejoicing and giving thanks.”