Tell It Slant, VIII: Butch Cassidy, Bugs Bunny, and the Kingdom of God
Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. —Luke 16:10
The Parable of the Unjust Steward, sometimes called ‘The Dishonest Manager,’ pops up in the lectionary once every three years, but, looking back, I noticed that I’ve usually managed to avoid it.
Last time I preached on this passage was 2004 and the time before that it was 1992, so once every 12 years; I don’t know why it’s always an election year. Once when I preached about this parable, the sermon title was The Hardest Parable. That about sums it up.
Jesus tells the story of a rich man and his incompetent CFO. Now, for better and for worse, Jesus never gives any excessive detail in his stories. They are like Jillian Michaels: lean and muscular.
Not many details, but here’s the best guess from what details there are in the story: the rich man owns a mega-agribusiness; he’s like Cargill or Archer Daniels Midland: he owns thousands of acres of farmland and leases it out to sharecroppers, who pay their rent in crops—olive oil and wheat.
Over weeks or months, bad reports about the CFO’s competence and honesty start trickling in to the corner office from Cargill’s employees and customers. Or maybe it was the IRS who started poking around in his books. Apparently this manager has all the scruples of a Russian pole-vaulter.
Finally, the boss has heard enough, and like a certain famous reality TV star, says “You’re fired!”
But here the exit is not quite as swift as from the conference room on The Apprentice, because the boss gives the manager a few days to get his books in order.
The manager stumbles home shaking like a leaf, throws back a bottle of Maalox and another of Jack Daniels, and says to himself, “Shoot, what am I going to do now? I’m too weak to dig and too proud to beg.”
He can’t sleep; he stays up all night trying to figure out what to do, but near dawn he has a eureka moment: “I’ll network,” he says to himself. “Yeah, that’s what I’ll do: I’ll parlay my contacts into a lucrative future.”
He goes to the office the next day and gets on the horn to the tenants and borrowers who have outstanding loans with his boss. “Come on in, such a deal I have for you,” he says.
One debtor farms an olive grove on the Boss’s land. In the fall when the olive harvest comes in he’ll owe the rich man a thousand gallons of olive oil.
Well, how much is that worth, you curious Christians want to know. I asked my wife how much olive oil costs. She said, “What kind?” I said, “What kinds are there?” She said, “There’s Virgin, Extra Virgin, Super Chaste Virgin, and the Immaculate Mother Mary.” Or something like that. I said, “I didn’t know this was going to be so complicated.” So she says, “The cheap stuff is about $25 a gallon.”
So this is a nice wad of cash: by modern valuations, about $25,000. The manager says, “Here, I’ll sneak into the computer and cut it in half. The old man never pays attention to what’s going on; he’ll never know the difference.” So the unscrupulous manager has just saved his client $12,000.
But that’s a little misleading. One New Testament scholar said that 900 gallons of olive oil is worth about three years’ wages for an average sharecropper. What does the average teacher or police officer make these days: $50,000 a year? Do the math and be astonished at the CFO’s lavish, if fraudulent, generosity.
Another debtor farms a wheat field. He owes a thousand bushels of wheat. This is enough to feed 150 people for a year. The manager offers to slice the farmer’s debt by 20%. Do the math and be stunned again by the manager’s magnanimous, if shifty, benevolence.
You see what he’s trying to do, right? He’s trying to make some friends who will take care of him after the abrupt and imminent conclusion to his gainful employment, because, as he so bluntly puts it, he is “too weak to dig ditches and too proud to beg quarters.”
But he gets caught. There they sit in an opulent corner office like on The Apprentice. The CFO braces himself for the worst. “Has the boss called the cops, the SEC? Will they throw me in jail or just take my license away?” The boss’s face is set.
And at this point in the story Jesus pauses. A long, long, long time. Then he goes on, “And the rich man said to his manager. . .” Jesus takes a breath. “And the rich man said. . .” Jesus reaches for his glass of wine and takes a sip. “And the rich man said…‘Good job, you crafty little knave! All this time you have conducted my business with prosaic sloth and epic ineptitude. I’m so delighted to see a little initiative here that I’m almost ready to give you another chance.’” The story doesn’t actually tell us that the dishonest manager kept his job, but it’s possible.
The disciples are utterly baffled and the Pharisees are delighted. They turn to each other and say, “See, I told you he was no good. I told you. Do you want your kids listening to this guy? His stories are disgusting!”
As a matter of fact, enemies and critics of Christianity from the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate in the third century to Frederick Nietzsche in the nineteenth have said pretty much the same thing: “See, I told you this Jesus was nobody we ought to pay attention to.”
What in the world is Jesus’ point? Well, I’m glad you asked! Why does Jesus give us a picture of an incompetent, selfish, irresponsible, weak, proud, dishonest knave and say to his disciples, ‘Be like that’?
Well, in the first place, in giving us this picture of a clever rogue who outwits the wealthy, we discover that Jesus has both a sense of story and a sense of humor. He is using a familiar literary convention—the figure of the cunning rascal who lives by his wits and both infuriates and delights us.
In the mythologies of ancient peoples, it is often an animal—sometimes a raven, other times the badger, most frequently the fox or the coyote. There is Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods. There is the serpent in the garden of Eden, who stole immortality from humanity. There are Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. There is Brer Rabbit, and yes, even Bugs Bunny.
Who wasn’t crushed when those bank robbers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their grisly end? How does George Roy Hill get us to root for bank robbers? Well, it doesn’t hurt to cast them with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but still.
Who doesn’t have a soft spot in his heart for Ulysses Everett MacGill, the vain, crooked, escaped convict and license-less lawyer with a passion for hair gel from O Brother, Where Art Thou? You know you want this bona fide paterfamilias to get his family back.
You gotta admire the crafty rascal who both infuriates and delights us. But Jesus is giving us more than an interesting story here. There’s a further point to this story. Jesus is not, of course, commending the manager’s dishonesty, but his shrewdness.
Jesus himself gives us the key to unlocking his hardest parable in verse 8. He says, “The children of darkness are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light.” In other words, why is all the creativity and cunning on the side of evil? Why is goodness so dull and lazy?
Why do Christians pretend they’re brain dead half the time? Jesus says, “Get a plan, Get a brain, Get a life!” Jesus almost says, not quite but almost says, “I prefer inspired knavery to pedestrian innocence.”
Many, many, many provocative things to talk about in America this week. For instance, have you seen Aroldis Chapman’s 105 miles-per-hour fastball yet? The only human being on the planet, so far as we know, who can throw a baseball at that velocity. This guy has splintered more wood than Paul Bunyan.
He’s a chiseled 6′ 4″, 215 pounds—a Caribbean deity brave enough to defect from Cuba a few years ago. They call him The Cuban Missile.
And so of course the Cubs just had to have him to chase down a championship in this stellar season. Theo Epstein grabbed him from the Yankees for a top prospect.
This bothered some folks because Aroldis Chapman once choked his girlfriend and fired eight bullets into a concrete wall near the Florida home where his four-month-old daughter was sleeping.
I don’t know how I feel about the Cubs’ decision, but I was intrigued by Theo Epstein’s defense of it. He said, “I told you when I got here that every chance to win is sacred.” Sacred, is what he said. I don’t know what God feels about it either, but God does suppress a chuckle over inspired if dubious initiative. Every chance to win is sacred. That could have been the dishonest manager’s motto.
Jesus wants to know why we pursue our careers with passion, our hobbies with enthusiasm, and our religion with indifference. He wants to know why our prayers are prosaic, our religious sensibilities dull as dirt, and our theology flat as Kansas.
He wants to know why we are willing to spend $200,000 to send our kid to Stanford for four years, and then complain if we have to drive them to church for 20 confirmation classes; it’s free, for Christ’s sweet sake! The children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their generation than the children of light.
Can I tell you my own little parable? Just like here, my church in Connecticut had an office mascot—Dudley’s predecessor; his name was Duncan. Like Dudley, Duncan was a golden retriever, but that’s where the similarity ended. Dudley, my current golden, is very kind to children, but towards other dogs, he is a big-time Alpha. He will not be challenged by a larger dog. “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape; You don’t spit into the wind; You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger; And you don’t mess around with [Dudley].”
Dudley’s predecessor Duncan, on the other hand, was a complete pacifist. He never growled in anger at another living creature, human or otherwise, and if another dog, whether twice or half the size, 120 pounds or 12, attacks, Duncan instantly assumes the humiliating canine coward position flat on his back with his feet on the air. I called him my Quaker dog; he refused to bear arms. Duncan was a Conscientious Objector.
Duncan did love to chase squirrels, though. I don’t know why. He could never catch one. Golden retrievers are not the speediest canines on the planet and Duncan was far from the quickest golden the breed has ever seen. He doesn’t sprint; he lumbers.
He could never catch a squirrel, and he would have no idea what to do with one if he ever caught one, but apparently he thought his canine honor would be besmirched if he didn’t chase squirrels, so he did. He’s like Dug the talking golden retriever in that movie Up, constantly distracted by Squirrels. He also had an unhealthy fascination with skunks, but that’s a story for another day.
So, Duncan came with me to the church every day, and during the day I’d walk across the street to our Nursery School playground where all the swing-sets and Jungle Gyms and climbing bars and what-not are supported by dark wooden logs that look a lot like telephone poles, and also a little like tree-trunks. It’s like our playground behind the church; it’s all fenced in.
One day I went over there and Duncan surprises a squirrel. At first sight, Duncan shifts into high gear. Granted, Duncan’s high gear isn’t very fast, but it was his best. It’s fenced in, there’s no place to go but up a tree. The squirrel takes off towards one of the swing-set posts that look a lot like telephone poles and a little like tree trunks.
And as I was watching this high drama from the animal kingdom, I could see the emotions passing across the faces of these two animals. The squirrel gets closer and closer to the telephone pole and suddenly realizes that this is not at all what he should have done. There is nowhere to go at the end of that telephone pole; he meant to go up a tree.
A look not quite of panic but of sheer self-disgust passes across the squirrel’s face. It was as if that squirrel were saying to himself, “This is not what I meant to do. This is not my exit on the expressway.”
So this squirrel, utterly disgusted with himself, climbs a couple of feet up that telephone pole anyway before climbing back down and trying again. This huge 90-pound dog is two feet away. And so for the first and last time in his life, Duncan has a legitimate shot at actually catching a real, live squirrel.
But this is not good. A look of utter confusion falls across that dog’s face, and it is as if the dog is saying to himself, “Oh no, this is not at all what I had in mind. I never meant it to come to this. Now what do I do?” I never saw a dog put on the brakes so quickly in my life.
Turns out Duncan didn’t want to catch a squirrel; he just wanted to chase a squirrel. The squirrel goes safely up a real tree and all is well and good. Duncan glances over at me with a huge grin on his face wagging his tail sheepishly, and I could almost hear him say, “I meant to do that.”
That’s my parable for how many of us chase the kingdom of God. We want to seek God, but we don’t want to find God. Good God, what would happen to us if God actually appeared? What if God actually answered our prayers? What if the kingdom of God really came like we pray for it to come every time we say the Lord’s Prayer? We’d have to change everything about our lives. So we put on the brakes when we get too close to God. Chesterton said, “Never invoke the gods unless you really want them to appear; it irritates them very much.”
Some of us spend more energy and imagination on our golf game than we do on our religion. Anybody here feel convicted by that? Of course not; they’re all at the golf course. Maybe Jesus is hoping that this alarming little story will shock us into pursuing our salvation as creatively and passionately as we pursue our vocation and recreation.
In any case, in the end, when we dishonest managers of the master’s world stand before God, having been first lazy and finally deceitful in our dealings with God’s property, fearing for our positions and for our lives, we will find to our astonishment that the Boss is more gracious than we ever dared to dream.
There God sits behind the desk, trying to suppress a chuckle over our crafty mischief. There we stand, awaiting the fearsome sentence, and what do we hear? What do we hear? “Good job, you crafty knave! At least you tried.”
These contemporary equivalencies were calculated by Klyne Snodgrass in Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), p. 406.