Well, what an impossible reading to reflect on for today's broadcast! This has always been one of those tough passages for me -- I mean, by now you are probably wondering, "Is Jesus praising unjust and sneaky financial dealings? Would He be inviting us to take our cue from the clever manipulations of the corporate rogues at Enron, for example? Padding their pockets in the moment they are about to lose their jobs? If I read it accurately, the story actually praises the wisdom of the children of the world, right? And yet, let me ask you, "Would you want this employee as your investment manager?"
Here is how the story breaks open for me. I think that the way it sounds to you depends on the character you inhabit in this power play. If you are the Master, this is insane. Your Profit and Loss statement just took a severe hit. If you are the one forgiven of debt, you'll be telling your grandchildren about this turnaround moment for years to come. If you are the one who just forgave, and kept your job, this is a really great story! You resisted the criticisms and the social norms, you took a huge gamble and it paid off - you gained the admiration of your Master and kept your job.
Scholars have reassured me that we cannot imagine what the original quote looked like - Jesus probably picked up a story from the local headlines and used it to answer his critics - the ones who despised his generosity of spirit. So, he offers this popular story to explain the absurd generosity of the ministry he was offering. What complicates the story are the three or four interpretations layered over the original.
I find it helpful to remember what leads up to this story - Jesus had consistently provoked the growing rage of his peers by freely forgiving the sins of those who came to him. He also healed them. In fact, Matthew 9 recalls that his critics didn't mind the healings as much as they were angered by his daring to forgive sins. In an odd way, this story breaks open a new view of God's impulse to "give the farm away!" This story of the rogue manager is most likely a picture of Jesus and the way he totally mismanaged his role as a Rabbi. You heard me right: He mismanaged the rabbinic responsibility to mediate God's justice and carefully mete out forgiveness only after appropriate evidence that forgiveness had been warranted and the law had been satisfied. I choose to believe that this manager's crazy and irresponsible behavior is a description of the outrageous Divine generosity squandered on all of us.
I also have no doubt that WE would probably scandalize this Jesus today as a rogue. He would not have made it through the ordination process in most of our denominations. Jesus bypasses right belief, Baptism, synagogue membership and societal standing when he goes around forgiving and reconciling so recklessly. I mean, if you knew you could go find Jesus on the street and experience Divine acceptance in flesh and blood, why would you want to go pay temple authorities to put you through the ceremonial ringer?
I have a sense that one of today's primary criticisms of Jesus would be that he was offering "cheap grace." I mean, he heals ten lepers without even inquiring as to the sin that must have made them lepers in the first place . . .and . . . He forgives a woman caught in adultery without first asking her to certify that she would leave adultery behind. Jesus is just giving these benefits away! All he asks is that those forgiven take up their crosses and follow him! The worst part is that the Gospel writer is inspired to record that this story has the stamp of Divine sanction!
So, at this point in our time together, I'd like to get really practical with you. Let me try on some potential applications of this story and invite you to note your internal responses. Imagine with me a continuum of responses. Over on one end of the continuum, you have "OK, I'm ready to take that idea on, unreservedly!" On the other end you have "Have you lost your mind, Brackett?!" I'll offer some propositions - you note the location of your responses on that spectrum, OK? I know this may sound crazy for a radio broadcast, but bear with me. On one end, "OK, let's try it." On the other end of the continuum, "Crazy idea, Brackett." Ready?
Here's the first one. What if the real objective of our churches is to train and nurture every follower of Jesus as rogue agents of God's radical and outrageous generosity? I mean like going out on the streets and giving away forgiveness and membership and healing and salvation? John the Gospel writer recalls Jesus as saying, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."[i] What if all the other concerns plaguing organized religion became secondary to this?
There is a remarkable story that comes close to illustrating what this idea might look like! One of the most popular videos on YouTube has scored more than fifty million hits in five years - by the way that's 19 hits a minute every day for five years running! Here's the story. In 2004, an Australian that goes by the name of Juan Mann showed up at a party severely depressed and lonely. He recalls how that a random hug from a total stranger that night made him, in his words, feel like a king! It was the greatest thing that had ever happened to him. [ii] After that experience, he makes a sign offering "Free Hugs" and holds it up as an invitation at his local mall. The movement starts ever so slowly and invites all kind of resistance. But over the last six years, people in seventeen countries have received "Free Hugs" as random acts of kindness - selfless acts offered as healing to total strangers.
Hey! I want to ask you, "Isn't that our job?" How is it that a depressed and lonely man without community has to remind us? We need to be out there on those streets offering those free hugs on behalf of the living God. I think that the Jesus of this parable came to convince us that God longs for us to be reconciled - set free to forgive and love and be made whole and love in return, unabashedly!
OK, here's another proposition for us to try on. What if our way forward as mainline American churches is to give away the very gifts we've been guarding so carefully behind our church doors? I mean, for example, what if we advertised services of baptism for anyone that wanted to show up and be baptized? I know this is thin ice for many of us but let's be daring. Come on out here with me. Baptism as a rite of initiation was established as prerequisite for insider status long after Jesus' ministry. It was probably precipitated by the need to differentiate between insiders and outsiders during several decades of fierce persecution. If we decide to hold on to Baptism today, even though Jesus' practice never supported it, we need to judge the merits of this rite of initiation by its real time impact on those we baptize. Does this ritual act really impart a sense of the radical love that Jesus shows in this story? Does Baptism mark the beginning of a relationship with a faith community that loves the newly baptized soul into a wholeness you can't get anywhere else?
I know, I know, this may be too daring - maybe even threatening to some of you. So let's try on something a little tamer. Let's ask how else might we freely offer the gifts of the church to the average person on the street? Most of the time we expect the stranger to show up on our chancel steps so we can show them Christian hospitality. In a surprise variation on this, Sara Miles and Paul Fromberg of St Gregory of Nyssa organize the members to stand in San Francisco's busy Transit stations on Good Fridays, offering a smudge of ash and prayers for healing to people too busy to show up in church. They've taken ashes and oil and prayers and hugs and God's outrageous love to the streets two years in a row and the response has been, at once, heartrending and so beautiful. So many have said words to the effect that, "Never before have we had the church come to us" or, "We couldn't make it to church but you brought God to us." Hey! I want to ask you, "Isn't that our job?" And, isn't that what Jesus models for us in this crazy story?
But let's get really daring here. Ready? What if we worked to make Communion available to everyone - I mean everyone? This is a tough one, isn't it? At this point I find it helpful to remember that, just as franchises are built and maintained by holding out exclusive rights to the brand, religious establishments are tempted to claim a unique grasp on access to the Divine. I know, I know, some of you want to remind me that I am, after all, an Episcopal priest. I, too, am a part of an ecclesiastical hierarchy that's tempted to act like a franchise, as well. I mean, we say,
" You can offer the wine, but not the bread."
"You can come join us for the meal but you can't actually eat anything."
"You can attend our services but you have to pay your dues for voice and vote."
No wonder Jesus' actions infuriated his peers! He was defying their constitutions and canons. You could even say that he had marked down the fee for Divine forgiveness so much that it was affordable to everybody! And it was accessible. I think that's the key. So, can you imagine what our world would be like if just a few of us started to freely forgive each other like this?
So, at this point in my time with you, let me ask you something. What did you feel as I named these potential applications of this crazy story? Did you feel the urge to set this straight and tame it down a little? With which of the characters do you more readily identify? Do you imagine your resistance to be much different than the response you would have had if the Gospel story had been the story of your accounts receivable manager and the way she might write off half the money people owed you?
Jesus holds out an invitation to us from 2000 years ago. He says something like, If you forgive someone's sins, so does God. If you hold out on them, though, so does God.[iii] I mean, this is really almost a dare, isn't it? In the barest form of this story, Jesus praises the Manager for acting generously on the Master's behalf. He holds this out and dares us, "Go ahead, get lavish and give it away. Watch how Shalom and Hesed become you! Watch how my world is restored and all of creation is reconciled to my Dream when you say "yes!" to this story.
May I offer you what helps me when I try on this dare? I close my eyes and imagine the Great cloud of Witnesses that surround us, waiting with bated breath, hoping we'll say "Yes!" All those who have gone ahead of me who now know that, in this story, is the key to a tomorrow I want to pass on to our human family. It is the key to a Season of Jubilee to which everyone has access. It's the Dream of God, isn't it? And so I'm wondering, would you join me and say "yes!" to God in this moment?
Let us pray.
O God, Mother of us all, birth in us a new courage to give away the best of what You offer us. Be patient with us as we learn how to empty ourselves of our fears and protectiveness. May we be a part of your dreams coming true, oh Lover of our Souls! Breathe into us new life, new courage, new generosity and even new daring so that with every one of our breaths we can say "Yes!" to You. Into your hands we commend our Spirits. Amen.
[i] John 20:23
[iii] Adapted from John 20:23