Some rules are made to be broken.
My friend, Rev. Courtney Allen, is the Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Richmond. She was raised to love the church by her parents, both of whom are active, committed members of their local Baptist Church.
But it wasn’t always that way. Not for her father. Courtney’s father, David, attended church as a boy. He was there every week, in fact, for Sunday School, Worship, Wednesday Night prayer meeting, until he was 8 years old. That’s when David’s father passed away. His dad had a heart attack on a Friday night. But the next weekend, 9 days later, on Sunday morning young David went back to church. It happened to be Sunday School recognition Sunday. Children were being recognized for learning Bible verses, reciting the books of the Bible, committing hymns to memory, and then it was time for the children to receive their coveted attendance pins. 8 yr old David stood up with his class and walked to the stage, and the Sunday School director began to call all the names one by one. But she didn’t call his. “Ma’am, you forgot to call my name.” And she said, “Well, David, you missed a Sunday…”
And she was right. He had missed a Sunday – the weekend of his father’s funeral. So he was short of perfect attendance; it was right there in the rules. And David left church that day, and he decided he wouldn’t be back. And he didn’t attend a church again until years later.
Some rules are made to be broken.
I say that as we listen to what is universally considered Jesus’ most puzzling parable – a parable that is puzzling especially for those of us who are accustomed to following the rules.
Sometimes called the “Dishonest Steward” and sometimes the “Shrewd Manager,” even Luke seems confused by the story, using both adjectives in the tale. But whether we call him dishonest or shrewd, unjust or crafty, we can agree it’s confounding to see someone like him lifted up as an example; in fact, it’s just the sort of confounding, frustrating, disruptive surprise that Jesus would use to tell us something about the kingdom of God.
“There was a certain rich man,” the story begins, telling of a wealthy landowner who one day calls in his business manager – he’s heard rumors that the manager was being careless, maybe wasteful, perhaps even cheating his employer. Whatever the case, it’s just not working, and the employer is drawing up a severance arrangement.
Jesus tells this parable in chapter 16 right after three parables of lost things in chapter 15: a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son, and now we have what we might call the parable of the lost job. But the manager is not about to lose his prime office job and be stuck outside – in the words of David Buttrick, “he had no callouses on his fine Presbyterian hands.” (1) Physical labor had never been his skillset, and begging wasn’t an option. So quickly he devises a plan to gain favor with those who owe his master money. He calls in the biggest debtors and reduces what they owe.
“How much does my boss say you owe him? A hundred jugs of olive oil? It’s more like fifty.”
“What, a hundred bails of wheat? It’s more like eighty, trust me. Drop it off next week and consider us even.”
These forgiven debtors are now indebted to the manager, who has cut them a deal. He’s woven a safety net so that when he loses his job he will have a soft place to land. But when the landowner hears it, he doesn’t fire him; instead, he seems to congratulate him. He calls him “shrewd” and crafty – the kind of manager he wants running things. And by the time we leave the manager, he’s cleaned out his desk, not to go out to the parking lot but up to his new corner office, all with a wink and a smile as he waits for the elevator up.
Such is the kingdom of God… if the Kingdom of God were to celebrate tricksters and thieves. It shakes our sensibilities to see someone lauded and promoted for breaking the rules. But if that’s true, maybe it’s because the rules have usually worked for us.
To quote the Emmy-winning actor Peter Dinklage, “It’s easy to confuse the way things are with the way things ought to be… especially if the way things are has worked out in your favor.” (2) That’s just the gospel according to television, but it sounds a lot like the gospel proclaimed by Jesus, whose parables point beyond themselves to the kingdom of God, inspiring us to reimagine the world if this kingdom were to come to earth. And that can be a confounding message for those for whom “the way things are” has worked.
But what about those for whom it hasn’t? For whom the way things are – the current state of things – has been exhausting, frustrating, even unjust?
James Scott – a political scientist at Yale – has said such people throughout history have used any number of strategies to survive and challenge. Calling them “everyday forms of resistance,” he cites things like foot-dragging, false compliance, feigned ignorance, lies and half-truths as ways that people who feel overpowered by the economic and political structure around them will attempt to survive or bring about change. (3)
Maybe that’s one way to understand this shrewd manager – doing whatever he can with the methods available to him to keep his job.
In our own American history, we can look to the history of slavery and see the strategies of survival and resistance employed by those overpowered and overwhelmed, using the means available to them to survive or even creatively resist the economy of the household and beat the house at its own game. And in the instances when this courageously swelled to revolt – like in Nat Turner’s rebellion, memorialized in the acclaimed “Birth of a Nation” this fall – those slaves who took up arms were using what Audre Lorde has termed “The Master’s tools.” That is, since they didn’t have their own tools, they used the ones available to them.
Just yesterday, the 99 yr old daughter of a former slave – Ruth Bonner – was helped to her feet to ring the bell that signaled the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. It was an emotionally riveting moment. It signaled distance spanned. But it was also a living link reminding us that we are not so far away, and recalling how often throughout history the powerful have wanted “the way things are” to remain intact?
Will Campbell, spoke to this reality throughout his life. An iconoclastic Baptist minister and activist, he called himself a “bootleg preacher,” because he prided himself on never taking a salary from an institution. This meant he could say whatever he wanted, or whatever the gospel wanted from him, and those were very often the same thing.
Like when he preached famously at the Riverside Church in New York. Situated on the northern tip of Manhattan Island, on the Hudson River, Riverside was built on a hill by John D. Rockefeller in the early 20th Century – a great cathedral of Protestantism, which still stands today as an important and vibrant witness. But Will Campbell just didn’t have much use for Rockefeller’s cathedral. He was invited to preach in the 1980s by his old Yale Divinity School classmate and Riverside pastor, William Sloane Coffin. “Bill tells me you want me to hear about how to follow Jesus…But you don’t want to hear about that…” and he looked up at the ornate gothic nave, the stained glass, the sacred art and said, “You want to hear about how to follow Jesus, while keeping all of this.” (4)
And isn’t it true of me? Isn’t it true of so many of us? We want to follow Jesus, but maintain the state of things. We want to see a kingdom come to earth, assuming it preserves all the things we value and doesn’t ask us to change. We want to believe that this is the world as it ought to be.
But I think this parable works because it assumes that the audience believes that the world of this rich man – the world that enabled his empire – is not the world as it ought to be. And we have a clue of this from the first line: “There was a certain rich man.” The gospel of Luke includes numerous characters whose resources are vast and used to bring about signs of the kingdom on earth – like a father of a prodigal son who throws a grand party, a Samaritan who takes a wounded man to an inn and pays whatever is owed, or a man who hosts a banquet and fills the seats with the poor, crippled, lame and blind. These are all wealthy characters who have great resources and use them to make known the kingdom on earth.
But I want to suggest that the rich man described here is not one of those kind of characters. “There was a certain man,” is Luke’s version of “once upon a time.” It’s used in many parables to introduce a character like. But three times the adjective “rich” is added to the phrase. And in the gospel of Luke, when that’s the first thing you hear of someone, it’s a clue you might already know the rest of the story. It shows up to describe a rich farmer in Luke 12, who builds barns to keep his grain and is later called a “fool.” It introduces a rich man directly following today’s parable in Luke 16 who feasted and enjoyed the finer things while a poor man, Lazarus, sat at his gate all along. With this adjective and introduction, the man in today’s parable is tied to them – their attempts to preserve, their self-centeredness that can’t see the world around them beyond their walls, their systems that excluded and exploited others on their way to the top. And this is especially true when you consider Jesus’ early audience and their experience of the world.
The rules didn’t really work for them. Most of the people who followed Jesus were not simply poor, some were even expendable. But Jesus made his life with such people. It was with them he imagined a kingdom of God, and he did so often speaking of things like the unfair relationships that could exist between employer and employee, inequitable wages, the excesses of some alongside the consequences of poverty for others. To such a crowd of people, the owner in this parable was probably viewed in collusion with the Roman rulers. With no evidence to the contrary, they probably would have assumed he was one who preserved for himself, exploiting others in the process, charging high interest on their debts, while in contrast, this manager is described as one who spread things around. The verb translated “squander” means to sow seed – to pass around, like a farmer scatters seed. That’s bad business. But isn’t that the kind of abundance that Jesus urges?
The parable describes a manager for whom the rules haven’t worked, to people for whom the rules haven’t worked, and then they watch as he is shrewd and bold enough to imagine and make possible another way.
We can imagine who those people are in our world. Maybe some of you even now have a sense that whatever is going on – wherever the power is and the important decisions are being made – you’re not a part of it.
I think that’s some of what we see in our world – most especially this week with the latest cries that Black Lives Matter. Clergy friends of mine in Charlotte have shared about the power of the protests they’ve witnessed and accompanied – a much different narrative than the warzone the media has depicted. Such protests are very often evidence that people have not felt heard or empowered. We lift up the family of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa. We lift up the loved ones of Keith Scott in Charlotte. And we know that they have experienced the world in such a way where the rules haven’t seemed to work. What did Terence Crutcher’s father say, but that when his son was shot he was doing what he had taught him to do his whole life? He was following the rules his father had taught him.
So before I ask anyone to control their rage I have to understand where it comes from.
Before I caution for patience and waiting for the facts, I might try to understand why such a high percentage of people of color don’t trust the “facts” I seem to value so much.
Before I ask for compliance with the rules, I better consider how well the rules are serving the vulnerable in our world today.
Because I think this manager was that kind of person. He was vulnerable. In the end it wasn’t that he was unjust or unrighteous. He was lost, like the prodigal son whose story preceded him, and the coin in the corner, and the sheep on the hillside. He was lost in a world that had rewards for the powerful, but a pink slip for him. That is, until he started to change the rules.
Which is what happens in the Kingdom of God – lost sons welcomed home, lost coins searched for urgently and recovered in the corner, lost sheep pursued by a reckless shepherd who leaves the rest behind in single-minded hysteria. And all the while the Pharisees and scribes, to whom Jesus is telling these stories, grumble at the notion; they are keeping careful account of who’s staying within the bounds, and acting with honesty and good sense. But they’re failing to see that they’re the rich man in this story, and that things are changing while they’re oblivious to it all. The proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down while the lowly are lifted, the hungry are filled and the people who have exploited or overpowered others are sent away empty (Luke 1).
And if that confuses us, if we find it confounding or disrupting, well, then it might say more about us than it does about Jesus. It might tell us that the rules have often worked for us, when Jesus came especially for those for whom the rules didn’t always work. Because, remember, the rules didn’t always work for him.
That’s why he calls us in our own times and places to be just as shrewd, to imagine this world if it was redeemed by the love of God and to use whatever means available to us to make it known. Just as God did in Christ.
What if God was only just? Which is to say, what if God only followed the rules? But instead, God in Christ came to this earth, moved about, crossing boundaries and defying conventions. And every time he came up against a standard of what was just and ordered, he seemed to respond with mercy, challenging convention and canon, acting graciously and lavishly, spreading love around in this world, provoking the rage of his peers by freely forgiving, healing those who came to him, giving the farm away, mismanaging the things that would be preserved, squandering generosity, and forgiving debts until such mercy was accessible to all, even you and me.
What if God had followed the rules? What if God had asked for all that is owed? Well, the wages of sin is death. It’s right there in the rules.
Thank God, some rules are made to be broken.
- From a lecture at Vanderbilt University, Spring 2006.
- From Game of Thrones, “The Dance of Dragons.”
- James C. Scott, “Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.”
- From Lawrence Wright’s profile of Will Campbell, “The First Church of Rednecks,” Rolling Stone (December 1990).