Monday, September 20, 2010

Dishonesty and Shrewdness

My sermon from yesterday, Proper 20 Year C – Luke 16:1-13

Have you seen the TV ad for a bank with the slogan “even kids know it’s wrong”… ?

It goes like this… A market researcher asks a little girl if she would like a pony. She says, “Yes!” and he reaches in his pocket for a plastic horse. She takes it and plays with it, smiling. He asks the other girl if she would like a pony. She, of course, says “Yes!” He leans a bit to the side, clicks, and out from behind the cubicle wall walks a live pony. Both kids are wide-eyed in amazement. The camera zooms into the first girl’s face – she says, “How come I didn’t get a real pony?” and the market researcher says, “Well, you didn’t ask for one,” The narrator closes the scene with the moral of the story… “Even kids know it's wrong to hold out on somebody… "

Hearing today’s gospel,we may feel like that first girl… “even kids know its wrong” to be dishonest, especially with someone else’s accounts. Why did the master commend the dishonest manager?

I recently watched a film called The Proposal. Sandra Bullock plays Margaret, Exec Editor of a big New York publishing company. She is bossy, pushy and cold. In the opening scenes, she barks out several commands to Andrew, her mistreated assistant.He has to help her to fire the #2 manager. Then, the company president calls her to his office. He explains that her visa expired - she is being deported to Canada.

You can almost see the bubble over her head, “what shall I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?” (But it’s a film, so you have to imagine it.)

“I have decided what to do,” she explains to her president,and calls Andrew into the office. In that moment, she forces Andrew to say they are getting married. Andrew plays along, there, (he’s used to covering up for her), but is very reluctant later, when he thinks about it. He agrees to the deal after Margaret reminds him that if she goes, he goes, since he was complicit in firing of the #2 manager earlier.

You can almost see the bubble over his head, “what shall I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?” (again, it’s a film!)

“I have decided what to do,” he explains to her after the INS interrogation, convincing the officer that they really were getting married. He shrewdly insists that Margaret make him the editor and also publish his book. So now they are both in this for personal reasons. The plot thickens as they go to Alaska for his grandmother’s 90th birthday – and they announce their engagement. After a weekend of shenanigans, they do hold the wedding with the whole community there.

At the last minute, right before the “I do’s,” Margaret calls off the wedding. She admits her selfishness in the situation and flies back to NY for the deportation. This forces Andrew to face his own selfishness. He has to now think about how he really feels. In the last scene, he arrives in New York just in time as she is cleaning out her office. He admits his selfish ambitions and that in all of this, he forgives her and says he is actually falling in love with her. He then asks her to marry him. She admits her part, too, she forgives him and agrees to marry him. The closing credits show them snuggling and smooching happily.

Like our gospel reading, this familiar plot shows how “someone in trouble can stumble into grace practically by accident.” Although they were in this for themselves,their hearts softened as their relationship deepened with the weekend shenanigans. In several scenes, they began to see each other as human and they learned to forgive.

The dishonest manager in the parable also “stumbles into grace.” In the debt-reduction scenes, those who owe money appreciate his forgiveness and begin to see him – and the master – in a new light. They appreciate the manager and this bodes well for future job possibilities. And, by grace, it works even better than planned! The debtors get a better deal and the manager gets praise from the master! Because of his shrewdness, the master looks like a good guy. Everyone wins, and the closing credits could show them snuggling and smooching.

Well that’s just crazy! Why would someone so bad end up in such a good situation? Some of us might want the manager to pay for his dishonesty – not get out of the situation even better than he started.

What kind of moral example is this? Well, it isn’t one.

Its simply an illustration of the outrageous nature of God’s grace, and our call to live in it with forgiveness.

It sounds a bit like the story of Jacob. He was the trickster patriarch who deceived his father, cheated his brother and then made off with most of his father-in-law’s flock. God’s blessing was always available to him. Jewish folklore – which Jesus knew – is full of stories of clever and wise rascals…

The dishonest manager is praised but not for his thievery. With one folklore-ish parable, Jesus pushes his disciples and critiques the scribes and Pharisees, whose efforts alienate the very people to whom they ought to be kind. Jesus rhetorically asks, in essence, if a selfish guy can make friends in this way, with a little forgiveness… what more can he do with the grace of God behind him the whole way? What if he used this cleverness to bring about good-ness, not just to serve himself?

We have to consider, what about us? When are stressed by this dog-eat-dog world, when we get anxious about earthly things – money, status, power, the kind of phone we have, the brand of clothes we wear… what do we do? We get clever and shrewd and use our best skills for ourselves alone.

That’s the challenge in today’s message: How can we, as disciples,use our cleverness to love things bring about good-ness, not just to serve ourselves? How can we, with God’s grace, offer forgiveness, feed the poor, welcome the outcast, love each other more deeply?

The good news in today’s message is that we can, with God’s surprising grace and with acts of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is an act of discipleship, not an emotion.

Through forgiveness, Margaret and Andrew found what really mattered.
Through forgiveness,the manager gained friends and the master saved face.
Through forgiveness and by the grace of God, our relationships are deepened, our hearts are softened, and unfair systems are up-ended.

Forgiveness, the starting place for living into God’s’ dream. If God was keeping score, we’d be in debt like the folks in the parable today. With grace preceding us, we accept it and pay-it-forward with forgiveness to others. That is how to be a disciple and to create ripples of goodness into an expansive sense of God’s justice.

It is grace that fuels the engine of forgiveness that drives our journey into God’s Love.

We who receive it gladly are called to share it freely.



  1. Wonderful message on grace. What a debt I owe. What an Amazing God! Peace Vicki-GJ

  2. Hey, great post/sermon on a difficult passage. But you managed to open it up and make sense of it, even if it paradoxically doesn't seem to make sense. Does that make sense? Great illustration using The Proposal, I loved it. I like the big proposal line at the end of the movie, "Margarat, will you marry me, cause I'd like to date you?" Haha. Thanks for the thought provoking comments. Was this your sermon? Like did you preach recently? If so, you're in trouble because I would've loved to know about it and come worship with you. Best. Yaar N.