Jerusalem, We Have a Problem

We have here one of the most problematic parables that Jesus was ever said to have uttered.  It would have not been surprising, upon listing to this parable, for one of the disciples to have muttered, “Jerusalem, we have a problem.”  This teaching is unacceptable.  Completely!  This is not the ethic of the Beloved Community.

The Parable of the Unjust Steward is so morally reprehensible that the gospel writer concludes it with a number of possible interpretations in an attempt to clean it up.   Many of which are contradictory.  Taken together the parable and the following commentary looks like the word salad of some politician as to why they were caught for what they were caught doing – a bunch of words strung together without any sense or meaning.  Just words with no connection.  A refrigerator magnet poem put up by your second grader.

This parable would seem to counsel the sort of behavior that Reuters recently reported as getting several top FEMA presidential appointees indicted from criminal wrong doing.  The ethics of the swamp seem to be slowly permeating throughout all the ooze.  From top to bottom.

To wit, Reuters reports that a top FEMA official overseeing the rebuilding of Puerto Rico along with several others has been indicted by a grand jury for taking kickbacks to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical grid after Hurricane Maria.  Ahsha Tribble, who oversaw the reconstruction work for FEMA allegedly accepted gifts, including a forty-foot long catamaran boat and sack loads of money, to pressure the government of Puerto Rico to steer business to Donald Ellison and her benefactor’s firm, Cobra Acquisitions.

This, after a contract was previously jerked from a small company with only two employees in Montana – a company that had been awarded the contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s entire grid.  Can you imagine, an outfit with only two employees getting this contract?  That would be like our administrative assistant Verity and I, strapping on equipment belts and just the two of us heading off to the devastation of Puerto Rico with nothing but billions of dollar bills in our pockets and absolutely no idea of which end of the wire to stick into the outlet.  Tell me, what’s that story about, if not massive corruption.  Just who’s benefiting somewhere out there in Montana?  Certainly not the people of Puerto Rico.  They’re still waiting for power in many places.  Is that the sort of business ethics Jesus is promoting in this parable?  The ethics of Eden’s snake?

And today, we hear that the leader of Ukraine is being pressured to turn over dirt on a potential political opponent in our upcoming 2020 election. 

Where does it end?  In the mire of this cesspool it would seem that everything we Americans hold dear is for sale to the highest bidder.  Any end justifies any means.  Maybe the hope is that the American people will just tire of the so much corruption and simply tune out.  Friends, we do that at the peril of our enduring values.  We do that in betrayal of what Americans have lived and died for.  I can’t believe that this is where Jesus’ teaching wants to take us.  What???  Rot is good?

Listen to Amos’s counsel:  Woe to those who ask when shall the Sabbath be over that we can make hay?  When we can jigger the weights and tweak the scales.  Make the ephah small and the shekel great?  How soon can we deal deceitfully and grind the poor into dust?  Money’s there for the making.

Amos warns that such a generation shall be cast adrift.  They shall be utterly lost.  To such a generation the Lord will send an intense hunger.  “Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord God, “When I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.  They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”[1] 

The denizens of the swamp shall prevail.  As Hobbs predicted, it will be a war of all against all.  And Gordon Gekko rings the opening bell of Wall Street trading every single day, even on the Sabbath.  That’s the dystopian future that derives from the business ethic of the Unjust Steward.  Jesus, is this your counsel?

These are consequences for a generation that has lost its mooring, that has lost its soul.   They are not like a tree planted by a living stream with deep roots, but like the chaff which the wind quickly blows to the four corners of the earth. 

Is this the business ethic Jesus is recommending to his followers?  If this is the course of action Jesus was suggesting through this story, it has certainly taken hold in our time with a vengeance.  In such a society no institution is exempt from the seeping mire.  A parent with a wad of cash can buy admittance to the most prestigious schools in the nation.  Bankers cheat their customers with fake accounts they concoct out of thin air in the middle of the night.  Even the church is not exempt.  We, too, are a very human community not exempt from temptation and malfeasance.  However, I can assure you that here at St. Francis we have no golden faucets or a huge bank account stashed away.   

No wonder the gospel writer was so perplexed.  No wonder Luke was hunting for any rational explanation for this parable. 

It happened that I was sitting at lunch last Thursday at Pilgrim Place with a noted biblical scholar.  I told Dennis what the upcoming lectionary selection from Luke was, and how on earth was the preacher to make any sense of the Parable of the Unjust Steward?  Was Jesus commending the ethics of a snake like Bernie Madoff to his followers?  Or was something else going on that I was missing?  Please, Dennis, give the preacher some help here!

Dennis suggested that there was indeed another way of understanding this problematic story.  Perhaps Jesus was telling his hearers that they should be just as wise and artful in doing good as those steeped in the corrupt ways of the world.  We were not to do as the Unjust Steward but were to be just as clever as he in building the Beloved Community.

Lift each other up with the same determination and the same foresight.  Not for evil, but to a different end.  Be wickedly smart in doing good, just as smart as that crooked steward.

Well, that makes sense.  Such sentiment warms the heart. Much better sense than that Jesus would be counseling us to loot, steal and cheat.  And sink into the mire of the swamp.

Listen to the wisdom of our biblical heritage: “Choose life that you and your children may live.”  And as the writer of 1 Timothy urges, we should commend all in prayer, even the vipers of the swamp, that “…we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.”  Despite all evidence to the contrary, we must hold out for the possibility of redemption – even for ourselves.

Yes, let us be adroit and canny in doing good.  Let us be persistent in such things as compassion.  We’re talking about patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness – the fruit of the Spirit.  The attitudes that make for life.  It’s the “attitude of gratitude,” as they say in the twelve-step movement.

And where does such a moral compass lead?  Here’s where such gifts of the Spirit lead us.  It’s a story I came across scrolling down through the AOL news one morning last week.  It is about a young, sixteen-year old high school girl named Whitney Kropp. 

Whitney has always been a fairly quiet girl, usually sitting in the back.  She wasn’t known for having many friends, and her family came from fairly modest means.  They were certainly not among the movers and shakers in their Michigan community.

Well, some of the school bullies — girls of the so-called “in” clique, as a prank, decided to put forth Whitney’s name for homecoming queen.  What a joke, they thought it would be, on such a nothing girl who wouldn’t have had a prayer for that honor.  Yuck it up, ladies.  Lots of fun at a nice person’s expense.  Of course, no one told Whitney.

Well, it turned out, the joke was on them.

As you can imagine, Whitney was flattered.  Flabbergasted, really.  Could it be that, after all those years of being the quiet girl in the background, high school life was finally opening up for her?  Maybe she wasn’t the ugly duckling after all.

Whitney soon became suspicious when, after the homecoming court was announced and she had heard her name over the speaker, that she happened to glance over at a group of kids laughing their heads off.   She noticed the group of the soch girls – you know the ones – the snooty, moneyed girls who think they’re better than everyone else — giggling and pointing at her.

However, she decided to ignore this.  Just pay no attention.  They’re of no account.  On the day of the announcement Whitney couldn’t wait to tell her family and friends.  One of her friends posted the news on Facebook.

As Whitney didn’t fit in well with her classmates, it began to make sense to her when she discovered that her nomination had been a cruel joke.  It was the work of this little group of school bullies.  To make matters worse, she discovered that many in her school had been in on the joke. 

Whitney was devastated, and her mind went to some very dark, destructive thoughts.  In her depression she even contemplated suicide.  She also discovered that one boy so did not want to be associated with her that he had rejected a nomination to homecoming court.  You can imagine how the news hit this vulnerable, young girl!  She began to feel like SHE was nothing but a big joke.  She didn’t belong.

When she finally mustered the courage to tell her family, of course, they were devastated.  But they encouraged their daughter to attend the homecoming game anyway.  It wasn’t going to be easy for this fragile girl whose confidence had been completely shaken, but they would have her back.  Myself?  I think I would have hidden in my closet and never come out.  But Whitney’s family was strong and Whitney discovered an inner strength from their support.  They would show these bullies what real family strength was.

Whitney’s sister started a Facebook group to support Whitney and inform the wider community what had happened.  In a flash this group exploded to thousands as the story spread.  And as community businesses learned of the recent events, they offered all sorts of support:  shoes and a new dress fit for a queen, a complete makeover by a local hairdresser, a homecoming dinner and a limousine for a ride in style to her coronation.

That night as Whitney walked across the field at halftime, under the glare of stadium lights, escorted by her proud father, she was still nervous.  And then she looked up.  She saw hundreds of folks in the stands cheering her as they stood in her honor.  They held signs and wore orange tee shirts to match her stunning, new, orange dress.  And there were the news teams.  Whitney, who had thought she was a big nothing, was overwhelmed by the awesome embrace of so, so many strangers who come out to honor her that night.

When being interviewed that evening by reporters, Whitney had a message for every girl in America, “The kids that are bullying you, do not let them bring you down.  Stand up for what you believe in and go with your heart and go with our gut.”

This is what happens when an entire community excels in doing good, when a family is wise in the ways of social media and reaching out, every bit as creative as those who had intended evil.  Just as clever as that Unjust Steward.  Every bit as cunning as that proverbial serpent.  Just as adroit as that reptile in its serpentine deceit, but this time, for doing good.  And in the doing, God was most highly honored that evening.

Gospel faithfulness is life indeed.  Whitney, her family, and entire community chose life.  What some self-absorbed and inconsiderate classmates intended for evil, they chose for good.

Friends, that’s my take on this most problematic of parables.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

St. Paul reminds us that the gifts of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.”[2] 

That night, at the coronation of a radiant girl in a small, mid-western American town, all the gifts of the Spirit were let loose.  They gushed forth like an ever-flowing stream of righteousness.  Whitney and her clever Beloved Community chose life.  Life abundant.  Brimful and overflowing.   

As songster Jim Manley writes: “Did somebody say that you’d never be queen?  Send them our way and we’ll paint their nose green.”  Amen.

[1] Amos 8:12, the RSV.

[2] Galatians 5:22-23.  RSV.

Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach, San Bernardino

Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

Proper 19, Year C, September 22, 2019

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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