Convocation Worship Service
Yale Divinity School, Morning Worship
October 15, 2008
The Rev. Scott Black Johnston
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
New York, NY
Luke 16: 1-9
Cooking the Books
©Scott Black Johnston
In the past two months,
as the world economy has swung from downturn to recession to near meltdown,
the politicians vying for the presidency of this country
have agreed on one thing…
It is Wall Street’s problem, Wall Street’s greed,
that is having a bad effect on Main Street
and Prospect and Canner and every other street.
Journalists have been gone a bit deeper
in examining the roots of the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
In general, they argue that there is no single-thing
that is to blame for our present mess.
And yet, there is,
in the opinion of many of these business reporters,
a general corruption fueling our current predicament--
simply put, they accuse our corporate stewards of falling prey
to plain, old-fashioned greed.
As in, wealth, riches, property.
As in, you cannot serve both God and mammon.
none of these analysts,
in speaking of mammon,
refer to today’s biblical story
in which the term appears.
You would think that
an ancient tale of accounting fraud
would be perfect for their purposes...
Smack dab in the middle of Luke’s Gospel
Jesus tells the story of a steward
devious enough to edit the books at Lehman Brothers.
Here is a man who fixes accounts, adjusts the numbers,
and in the process, knits for himself a golden parachute—
a first-century severance package complete with a retirement villa.
The parable looks like a great fit, a prophetic word for today,
except for one, rather ticklish detail:
Jesus seems to like this white-collar criminal
and actually sanctions his underhanded ways...
“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves
by means of dishonest wealth
so that when it is gone,
they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
In the words of my YDS roommate,
“How in the world did THAT get into the Bible?”
Unfortunately, it is too late for a cover up.
Luke put it down in black and white,
and heaven knows how many copies of it are in circulation now.
It is probably only a matter of time,
before some conscientious accountant
from the Security and Exchange Commission
shows up at Dean Attridge’s door demanding an explanation.
I can see the headlines now...
“Jesus of Nazareth defends 1st century financial corruption.”
Clearly, we cannot wait around for that story,
we need to start an internal audit now...
Because we do want to know:
why this parable is in the Bible, and what its strange conclusion is all about...
Jesus cannot be saying that dishonesty is the best policy...
The parable begins with a rich man.
This is not necessarily a positive sign in Luke’s Gospel;
you remember (don’t you?) the whole difficulty involved
in squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle!
Generally, this gospel writer is pretty blunt
about the peculiar burden of wealth.
But that is not the issue here, at least not right away,
for we soon realize
that this rich man is significant
primarily because he has a manager.
Like other wealthy people in the ancient world,
this guy has a steward, someone
who watches over his household,
who keeps the accounts,
who hires and fires servants—
a custodian who even has the power to negotiate financial transactions.
Clearly, it is a position that relies on trust.
And “trust” is precisely what is called into question here...
.. .because charges are brought to the rich man
that the steward has been squandering his boss’s property.
Immediately, the master of the household
confronts the accused with this grave indictment,
thundering, “What is this that I hear about you?”
Without pausing for an answer,
the rich man demands a final statement of the manager’s accounts
and declares that his days as a steward in this home are over.
It all seems a bit abrupt, doesn’t it?
After all, nobody offers any proof of misdeeds.
no careful inquiry into the charge...
no mediation by someone from human resources...
not even time for a breath between
the accusation and the pink slip.
With everything so hurried, we might wonder:
Is Jesus suggesting that this firing is unfair?
Although the steward’s own actions work against him.
Does he protest the accusation?
He hatches a plot.
Weighing the prospect of ditch-digging or begging,
the steward swiftly decides
that he would like some open doors waiting for him
once he joins the ranks of the unemployed.
So, he summons his master’s debtors,
and in each case, forgives a part of their debt.
He lowers their financial obligations to his boss,
hoping to raise their personal obligations to himself.
But there is a hiccup in his plan,
the master finds out about his manager’s creative bookkeeping.
Yet, even as we prepare for the rich man
to blow his top a second time,
the parable betrays our expectations.
Instead of cursing his devious employee, the rich man applauds him.
Or to translate the Greek a little more literally:
the master praises the unrighteous steward for being wise.
Can you be “unrighteous” and “wise” at the same time?
Can the phrases “unjust steward” and “a child of the light” describe the same person?
We may be trying to mix theological water and oil.
And yet, perhaps that is what happens in this parable.
I know it seems far fetched,
but what if we think of it this way:
Sure, the steward is a bit shady,
but so was Robin Hood.
If you like “caper” movies,
this interpretation may work for you.
In the typical caper movie,
(this week I have got to mention Paul Newman’s “The Sting”),
the main characters are not your everyday law-abiding citizens,
on the contrary the law is often in hot pursuit of these individuals.
Still, there is something noble about them;
something that leads us look beyond their legal indiscretions;
some winsomeness of spirit
calling us to root for the thief, the bandit, the con man.
When that happens,
it is as if we are saying
that somehow, something about this person is so commendable
that we are willing to suspend the normal rules.
Sure, they are dishonest, but...
there is so much more that can be said!
In his classic novel, “The Power and the Glory,”
Graham Greene tells the story of a whiskey priest
who is attempting to flee a province in southern Mexico
during the anti-clerical, anti-Catholic-Church purges of the 1930's.
This unnamed clergyman is (by all reasonable accounts) “a bad priest.”
He is an alcoholic; he has broken his vow of chastity; he has fathered a child.
He is a tattered, shoeless, unclean man who reeks of cheap wine.
What’s more, he is convinced that he is damned.
Why? Well, primarily because he loves the result of his sin.
He loves the daughter who was conceived in a moment of lust.
Still, the priest carries on.
Despite being certain of his own damnation,
and in defiance of the military forces that seek his death,
the priest performs his duties.
Traveling from village to village,
being welcomed into people’s homes,
the priest continues to celebrate mass—
placing God in the mouths of his hungry flock.
Flawed? Without a doubt.
But noble too, profoundly so.
Yet is that the case in our parable?
What, if anything, is noble about the steward?
I admit, it is hard to generate a whole lot of enthusiasm
for someone whose shady efforts
all seem bent on saving his own skin.
Yet, before we are too critical of the steward’s efforts at self-preservation
we may want to look at who the audience is for this parable.
Luke tells us that Jesus speaks this story “to the disciples.”
It is not a general word for the crowds,
or a proverb aimed at the scribes and Pharisees,
rather, it is a parable spoken to those who are close to Jesus—
the individuals charged with carrying out Christ’s mission in the world.
Perhaps you remember:
In the tenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel,
these same people were sent out by Christ:
“as lambs in the midst of wolves”...
as people who would travel
from town to town,
from household to household
having no concern for money or property
—“without a purse, or a bag or sandals”—
as disciples who were utterly reliant
on the charity of others
while they traveled about
proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom.
It is a lovely picture... an ideal portrait of ministry.
But I wonder if we find Jesus
(six chapters further along in Luke),
working to expand his followers’ notion of discipleship.
Maybe too many of the lambs got chewed up by the wolves.
So, Jesus provides them with a healthy dose of realism.
Listen, in ministry, as stewards of earthly households,
you, my disciples, are going to have to touch money.
You are going to have to
sift it from the brass collection plates,
count it in back rooms,
and as you parcel it out to the needy
you will see that it has stained your fingers.
For the unrighteousness of mammon rubs off on those who handle it.
Somehow, the presence of money in the church
constantly tests our righteousness and our wisdom.
Early in my first year of teaching at Austin Seminary
someone in the development office stopped by
to see me and to ask for a favor.
He explained that on a particular Thursday later that semester
a number of significant donors would be on campus.
He went on to say that he knew that a student from my class
was scheduled to preach in chapel on that Thursday.
So, here was the favor...
Could I fix it so that a “good” student would preach on that day?
“After all,” he said, “we want the donors
to see a promising example of what the seminary is up to...”
Well, all sorts of indignant alarm bells went off in my head...
What about the integrity of teaching?
Who was I to judge
(before the class even started)
which students would be good preachers
and which ones not so good?
I cared not for donors, but for the people enrolled in the course...
students who deserved classes that were scheduled
according to the principles of good pedagogy
and not according to the needs of fund-raisers.
Calmly, my development friend questioned my righteous fervor:
“Just how many students,” he asked,
“do you think you would have without us fund-raisers?”
It was true.
He was there, not purporting some evil scheme, but doing his job—
working to make to make the seminary look good,
so that donors would like the school, and want to give us more money,
so that students could then leave here with less debt,
so that God’s kingdom would be advanced.
As stewards in the kingdom,
we are continually put in such difficult positions,
and once there, the church relies on us—
trusting that we will make faithful decisions
in contexts where righteousness and wisdom conflict.
But, how are we to make these decisions?
Are we really supposed to trust the message of this parable?
Jesus says to the disciples:
Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon,
so that when it is gone they may welcome you into eternal homes.
Is he saying that:
selling out is acceptable?
money trumps principles?
the end justifies the means?
It would be nice if it were that easy.
Jesus tells one other parable in Luke sixteen.
The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
You remember Lazarus, that poor, sore-covered guy
who sits outside the rich man’s front door and begs for crumbs.
Then, without warning,
both Lazarus and the rich man die.
Lazarus goes to be with Abraham.
The rich man descends into torment.
Curiously, however, the rich man can see Lazarus
and so he calls across the great chasm and begs for comfort.
In effect, the rich man asks to be welcomed
into the eternal home of the poor man.
Jesus is clear here.
If you are going to make friends for the kingdom,
make the right kind of friends.
When you stewards wield that unrighteous mammon,
remember that you serve not the mammon,
but a God who would have us love and care for
the outcast, the homeless, the forgotten poor.
No, this is not a parable that advocates selling out.
Instead, it is a story that reminds us that
handling money in the church is a surprisingly messy business.
Which brings us back to the whiskey priest
who thought that he was damned
because he loved, not his sin,
but the result of his sin...
I suspect that is how it was for the unjust steward too.
His action was unrighteous, even he doesn’t dispute that,
but with it, he secured a place where he simply had to be...
another home, where he could continue his vocation.
When recently graduated seminarians
are about to assume their first call in the Presbyterian church
they are usually examined by the presbytery that they are entering.
Standing in front of a few hundred people
the candidates are asked questions to test for their
theological fitness and pastoral readiness.
One of the favorite, let’s-watch-‘em-squirm questions
that Presbyterian curmudgeons occasionally put to these candidates is:
Are you willing to be damned for the glory of God?
Are you willing to be damned for the glory of God?
It is a question designed to trip a neophyte pastor up...
Although, I do know of one fellow who responded,
“Yes sir. In fact, I am willing for this whole presbytery to be damned.”
I used to think the question was a silly paradox.
But I bet the steward in our parable,
and I know the whiskey priest in Greene’s novel,
They would be the curmudgeons out there
asking the same question
of everyone who is about to be ordained...
Are you willing to be damned for the kingdom?
Are you willing to handle unrighteous mammon for the glory of God?
Have you no other vocational possibilities?
Have you rejected begging and ditch-digging
and everything else under the sun as your calling?
Are you certain that God has summoned you,
to serve as a steward in holy households
to handle mammon and to be tainted by its stain...?
If so... then you will do well in your ministry to remember that
Jesus does both judge and praise the steward for cooking the books.
And beyond that you can rest assured
that the biggest accounting cheat of them all
is our God—
the Holy One who takes the names
of whiskey priests and unjust stewards
along with countless women and men
who have become soiled in the messy work of ministry
and writes them boldly in the book of life.