Taking Care of Business

It was a late Friday afternoon; this was to be Joe’s last day at First Federal Bank in the town of Outback.  Joe was beside himself.  He’d just been given notice “his services were no longer needed.”  Fired – in short.

Okay, he wasn’t the sharpest teller on the line.  His drawer rarely balanced out at the end of the day.  He held the record for just rushing through the doors at the last moment each morning, right before the first customers had arrived.  He’d been admonished for his tardiness several times a week.  His attire barely passed the dress code, rumpled shirt, stained tie and all.  Not the image of sartorial splendor.  The Steve Bannon attire with a haircut by whoever did Boris Johnson’s.  You get the picture.

He’d been warned time and again.  Finally, the branch manager had just had it.

This distraught teller panics, pulls out a gun and demands that each of the other tellers fill an empty sack with as many bills as they have in their trays.

As the dishonest teller flees the bank, waving his gun about, he meets several of his cronies out on the sidewalk.  In haste he begins distributing the contents of his sack to them.  All in the hopes that if he is caught, some of these friends might feel ingratiated to him and put him up when he’s out of prison.

As he’s just finishing passing out the ill-gotten loot, the bank manager erupts from the door.  Seeing what is taking place, the manager now praises this teller for his ingenuity and shrewdness.  For “the art of the deal,” if you will.  For taking care of business.

Do we buy this story?  Can’t make this stuff up?

Well, listen to the story Jesus tells.  In what way is it any different?  A crooked manager has been caught out by the owner of the estate.  He scurries about, asking each debtor to jigger his note, reducing what was originally owed the master.  On discovering this deceit, the owner smiles and praises this dishonest manager who has now cheated him twice: “And the master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly…”

Most scholars believe that this is the point at which Jesus’ parable originally ended.  The add-on maxims and such on wealth and the “children of this age” are Luke’s attempts to make this story palatable to moral sensibilities.  He didn’t quite know what to make of it any more than us moderns.

Indeed, this is a most difficult saying.  Are we to believe that Jesus actually encourages, praises such dishonesty?

We’d be crying, “throw the book to be thrown at him”.  Where is Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice when we need them?  Should this grift go unpunished?  Is there no indictment?  “Lock him up.  Lock him up.  Lock him up,” would be the chant.

The beauty of Jesus’ parables is that they admit a number of interpretations.  They are polyvalent — capable of a multitude of images, interpretations and meanings – and have always been, down through the ages.

One of the reasons for the shrewdness of the “Children of Darkness” is that they are totally unapologetic in their cynicism, in their grift.  It’s all about them, nobody else counts.  Might makes right.

Maybe Jesus praises their authenticity as scoundrels.  They are grifters and make no bones about it.  They know how to take care of business.  They are the practitioners of “Realpolitik.”

It’s Stalin’s boast when Winston Churchill brought up the possibility of the Pope’s involvement in the Teheran Conference, “How many divisions does the Pope have.”  That realism will always trump naïve religious idealism in the councils of this world.

As Martin Luther King and the leaders of the 50s and 60s Civil Rights movement learned, if one is to depend on “soul force,” you’d best get it mobilized and know the right moment to deploy it.  Rosa Parks did not decide to refuse to vacate her bus seat for a white just on a spur of the moment whim.  Her protest was well planned in advance.  Malice of forethought.  And the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott was launched off that effort.

Reinhold Niebuhr drew on this story when he penned his book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.  Why is it that the Children of Light so often end up with the short end of the stick?  They are too often oblivious to their own mixed motives, thus too hesitant.  “We’re too nice,” as my friend Vern would often say.

So, what to make of this disturbing parable?  Here’s my take.  In the cause of human solidarity, act boldly.  Or as Luther said, “Sin boldly – but believe in the grace of God all the more.”  And keep your wits about you. 

Here’s a story on how this all worked out for our prison chaplain Chris Hoke — a lay visitor to the incarcerated and agricultural workers in the Pacific Northwest.  A very improbable journey of daring, suspense, danger and, well… you judge for yourself.

Part of his ministry has been in the migrant labor camps, providing whatever support he could with his limited Spanish and resources.  Chris had been working for sometime with Tierra Nueva, his job being to visit and accompany migrant families to appointments and such.

In part, this is the mission statement of Tierra Nueva, Chris’s employer:

“People marginalized due to race, social class, language, lifestyle, or legal status often reach the conclusion that God is against them and that they are not welcome in the Church. And mainstream church members find few opportunities to encounter people at the margins. Bridging that chasm not only elevates those on the outside, but it can also transform those inside the Church”.[1]

Chris introduces us to two laborers from one field cabin, Arnulfo and his friend Magdeleno.  Both men had met a couple of years ago in the asparagus fields near Stockton and decided to stick together.

Arnulfo left his family in Michoacan, Magdaleno had left Puebla as a single man.  He spoke Zapoteco and a smidgen of Spanish.  “They belonged to no one.  All season they had only each other.”[2]

It’s the end of the season with cold rain settling in, it was time to be on the move.  Arnulfo and Magdaleno had no car.  They wanted to fly – not down to the San Joaquin Valley in California, but to New Jersey where some friends had carpentry work for them.  They had to fly, as traveling by bus was considered too risky due to all the ICE agents who stalked the Greyhound stations.

AND… the two of them would look less suspicious if traveling with a tall, white U.S. citizen.  At this point Arnulfo pulled back the corner of his mattress to extract a wad of cash, which he folded and put it into Chris’s hand.

Well, part of his duties at Tierra Nuevo was to accompany workers to appointments and such… but to New Jersey?

They would use the money to also buy Chris a round trip ticket as well so they could more easily move through the airport with some degree of confidence.  It took Chris some fifteen minutes to understand the plan due to Arnulfo’s rapid-fire Spanish.  He had to repeat himself several times.  Finally, Chris got it.  He was to turn this wad of cash into three tickets to New York. 

“If I’d know how to say “Hell yes!” in Spanish, I would have.”  This would definitely be a stretch to the duty of “accompany.”

A week before the flight Chris sat in that small cabin on one of the mattresses and pulled out the boarding passes from his coat pocket.  And a receipt with the exact change left over.  He wanted to make it clear he was a pastor, not a coyote, a paid smuggler.

It began to dawn on Chris that he could get in real trouble here.  It was one thing visiting jails and labor camps, quite another “aiding and abetting the movement of undocumented immigrants across the U.S. interior.”  And it wasn’t just him.  He’d persuaded his fiancée Rachel to come along.  Being half Panamanian, she would make the group of them look less suspicious.  Besides, she’d always wanted to see New York. 

On further reflection, he wondered what on earth was he thinking, putting her at risk as well.

Inside the airport, security lines moved slowly as our small group of travelers approached the podium.  The TSA agent leaned forward, passing a blue light over Chris’s and Rachel’s boarding documents.  On the other side of the scanner, they waited for their two companions.

The agent scrutinized the identification papers of Arnulfo and Magdaleno, paused a moment and motioned over two other TSA agents.  After a few comments to Arnulfo, he said to the two men, “These IDs have no expiration date,” which he then repeated to Chris.

Chris had called the airport ahead of time and was told that these Mexican national identity cards would be no problem.  “Every ID,” the agent snapped, “must have an expiration date.”  Mexican identity, apparently, does not expire.

“I’m going to have to ask you four to step into this line over here,” motioned the agent.  We were trapped.  Caught.

“Yes, I thought to myself. Yes, I’m a failure.  A bad coyote.  A bad pastor.  Mission failed.”[3]

Chris’s thoughts racing through his mind, contemplated the future.  Arnulfo and Magdaleno would not be going to friends tonight.  They would spend the day answering questions and filling out papers.  And headed for a deportation hearing.  No friendly skies.   No complementary Cokes or pretzels.

After being directed to pass through the scanners, the four were escorted to an enclosed area and told to wait.  And they waited and waited, but no one came. 

As they stared at each other, Chris said, “Vamos” — let’s go.  They sidled out into the main concourse.  They heard no shouts behind them.  And their gate was soon right in front of them.

Flashing red letters proclaimed, “FLIGHT DELAYED.  Estimated time one hour.”

What to do?  Chris could think only of disaster.  As they waited, huddled together on a small padded bench, Rachel had a better idea.  She broke out a sandwich and divided it into four pieces.  Arnulfo suggested a reading from the scriptures.  Chris flipped through the pages of the Santa Biblia while expecting at any moment someone in a uniform to appear around the corner.

He found in Acts the story of Peter’s imprisonment.  Chris asked Magdeleno to read.  He read of Peter’s captivity in chains and guards watching him in the night … of how angels wake Peter and he slips through four layers of security as the guards slept close by.  “Get up quick!  “Put on your coat and follow me,” the angel urges.

By the end of the story, the announcement came over the speakers, it was time to board.  As they stood in line for their boarding documents to be scanned, Chris noticed one important thing missing from Arnulfo’s and Magdaleno’s passes:  the initials of the agent who would have checked them through.

He quickly took both passes and a pen and scratched on them their authority for departure – JC.

“Enjoy your flight,” the attendant chirped as she scanned the four through.

Now, for the last six years, when December winter cold comes to the Northwest, Chris and his now wife Rachel, can expect a call from Arnulfo, who is now back with his family in the home he saved for and built in Michoacan, Mexico.  He also sends Magdeleno’s greetings.

He congratulates Chris and Rachel on their recent marriage.  As soft snow settles over the landscape, Christmas is coming.

That’s how, through a bit of grace, hutzpah, and savvy – that’s sometimes how we children of The Way make a “way out of no way.”  And through the guidance of the Spirit, it shall be sufficient.  Heart pounding, but sufficient.  Taking care of business.  Amen.

[1] https://www.tierra-nueva.org/peoples-seminary

[2] Chris Hoke, Wanted (New York: Harper One, 2015), 56-73.

[3] Ibid, 65.

September 18, 2022, 15 Pentecost, Proper 20

“Taking Care of Business”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

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