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Surprising Grace

A sermon on Luke 16:1-13

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]

Raise your hand if the gospel we read today is your favorite parable!

Not so much, right? It’s just such a weird story with an even weirder ending: An unsympathetic character gets caught out, then steals from his employer in order to make a soft landing for himself… and gets praised for his shrewdness by the master he ripped off.

WHAT? Maybe I should ask for a show of hands if you wonder why this parable is even in the Bible.

Nevertheless, when I took a course on parables in seminary, this parable was the very first homework assignment. My professor – Bishop Fred Borsch (who has written whole books on the parables of Jesus) considered this parable so important that he wanted our exploration of Jesus’s favorite teaching method to start with this confusing and unexpected story.

Why? Precisely BECAUSE it’s such a weird story that violates all our expectations and doesn’t seem to offer us any interpretation that makes any sense! One of the most important lessons for understanding the way that parables teach us is the importance of surprise: the way that Jesus tells stories that end in unexpected ways to shake us out of our comfortable assumptions that we already know the lesson he is trying to teach.

We need the shock value to jar us out of our formulaic habits of interpretation: There’s no satisfying allegory in this story – no obvious God-figure and no human hero whose example we should follow. And the moral message of the parable is ambiguous at best. Jesus doesn’t end the story with “go and do likewise.” He ends it by contrasting these character (“the children of this age”) with his followers. This isn’t an easily-imitated story of how we should live.

Rather, this is a very human story. A story about the messiness, and anxiety, and scheming, scrambling struggle to stay afloat that looks like... well, real life. We might not relate to the details - hopefully none of us are facing the prospect of needing to steal from our employer in order to save ourselves from the imminent prospect of begging for food - but if we step out of our expectations about the moral formula we are “supposed” to hear in Bible stories…maybe we can hear a story to which we can relate:

It’s a story about a man who is in a bad situation – in his case, he is facing the prospect of unemployment. He is in this situation because he has been accused of “squandering” his master’s property, of wasting it.

By the way, the same word is used in Greek for the process of threshing wheat – where the grain is thrown up into the air to separate it from the chaff, which gets caught by the wind. It’s standard procedure, but there is skill involved – fling the wheat too high and you will lose some of the profit, along with the useless chaff.

So there’s ambiguity even in the initial accusation.

Maybe the man was deliberately cheating his master, or maybe he was a bit lazy, or maybe just incompetent – not really having the skill set he needed to do the job at hand.

Or maybe he was a bit too generous for his master’s liking – not maximizing profits in the lending work he conducted.

Or maybe the accusation wasn’t even true, and he was being targeted unfairly – the story only says that charges were made, not that he was guilty.

Regardless, the man is in this situation and he asks himself a question that I’d be willing to bet we have all asked ourselves at some point in our lives:

“What will I do?”

When we are faced with a crisis our instinct is to scramble for a course of action. We all know the anxiety of those frantic thoughts: “What are my options? Nothing really seems that great. There’s no shining beacon of hope on the horizon. I’ll just have to try to best thing I can think of.”

The man in the parable runs through his options in his mind. The job alternatives don’t seem very promising… but if he does nothing he will soon be begging on the streets. So he improvises – he decides to use what resources he has in his current position to make friends for himself.

It’s a morally ambiguous move. From the perspective of his responsibility to his master: it’s wrong – he’s falsifying accounts, with the practical consequence of stealing his master’s goods. But, on the other hand, he’s not stealing for himself directly… he’s benefitting others. You could even read these transactions as a form of Jubilee – the practice of even-ing out economic inequalities in the Hebrew society, which the Jews were supposed to practice every 50 years, and which Jesus evoked as the description of his own ministry in his very first sermon in Luke’s gospel (Luke 4:16-21).

But, of course, the man’s motives aren’t altruistic. He’s trying to make friends for himself with his master’s money. Whether or not he had been mismanaging the accounts before, he is clearly doing so now!

The whole scene is just MESSY! He’s scared, and scrambling, and doing the only thing he can think of in a bad situation and the result is less than ideal… in other words, this story is... kinda relatable!

Until the end. The end of the story is entirely unexpected!

When we get caught out in our imperfect responses to messy situations we don’t expect to be commended – at least not by the people whose interests we have compromised. No master would do that! This has to be a joke, right?

In a way, yes. It is a joke. Jesus’ original audience probably would have laughed in surprise. This is a parable, an exaggerated story, and the twist at the end is the punchline. But the point of the punchline isn’t just to get a laugh… it’s also to teach a lesson. The lesson comes in the surprise. (That’s why Bishop Borsch had us start our parables class with this story). The shock value is what makes us re-evaluate our assumptions, so that we can learn something new.

So, what is that new lesson? I believe this parable offers us a powerful and nuanced picture of our relationship with grace.

It’s a well-worn saying that “grace means getting what we don’t deserve” (just search that phrase on Pinterest and you’ll find hundreds of beautifully penned and decorated variations on that theme). This parable gives us a story of grace that matches that definition – the man didn’t deserve commendation - but it’s a story with more flesh on its bones that the Pinterest saying provides:

It’s a story of grace AFTER a person has done their anxious, scrambling best and knows they don’t deserve the master’s praise.

It’s a story of grace that is almost more shocking than reassuring.

And because of that shock-structure this story pulls against an attitude of passivity in the expectation of grace. We are confronted in this story with our own brokenness – with our inability to find an unambiguously good plan of action when our circumstances, or our lives, or our world are messed up. But our response to that reality shouldn’t be despair or apathy. We aren’t called to thrown up our hands and do nothing in the hope of being saved.

We are called to ask: “what will I do?” even though we know we can’t create grace on our own.

Jesus doesn’t call his disciples to imitate the activities of “the children of this age,” but he does challenge them to consider the model of shrewdness, of scrappy, persistent problem-solving, and to apply that model in the kinds activities to which we are called: activities with more eternal consequences. Not because we can fix everything on our own, but because grace can surprise us by the way it uses our imperfect efforts to work miracles!

In Bishop Borsch’s reflection on this parable he concludes with this observation:

“In the darkness of so much wrong in the world thoughtful people struggle with what they call the problem of evil, and apparent meaninglessness. What the parable may leave one wondering about is the problem of good – not good over against evil but good even through evil, hope and grace enabling (a fallible character) to pick up again and cleverly carry one. That, after all, is a mystery too – that people will go on trusting that there is purpose and value in life. In spite of sin and roguery, just that people are survivors may be commendable, maybe even lovable, in the Creator’s eyes.”[1]

This parable pushes against the danger of being paralyzed by our expectation of grace, and the way that expectation can immobilize us into passive waiting.

Whatever the messy challenges in our lives – whether personal challenges like the loss of a job, or global challenges like the climate crisis that was protested around the world this week, or anything else in between – we can be pretty confident that OUR solutions to these problems won’t be perfect.

But we can still ask “what will I do?” And we can make our best, imperfect effort – always keeping in mind the master we are called to serve.

And we can know that we won’t EARN any grace by our efforts. But we can also know that our Master likes to surprise us by grace all the same.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Frederick Houk Borsch, Many Things in Parables: Extravagant Stories of New Community, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998, p.24.

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