Those of you from more Protestant traditions are familiar with pastors who do preaching series where they take a topic, make several sermons on it and weave Scripture into their sermons. I don’t roll like that. I’m a Lectionary based preacher and I start with the readings and work my way back into life. But today … I’m going to make an exception and continue a series … AND … (“But wait! There’s more!!”) weave in today’s Gospel reading too. So we’ll get Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son … and Lost Scruples.
So catching up from last week, we have sinners and tax collectors coming from all around to listen to Jesus and in the background, like a Greek chorus, are the Pharisees and scribes who say, “This man welcomes sinners … and eats with them!” Jesus then launches into three parables claiming how being lost is exactly what is required for grace to find you. He tells of a lost sheep (1 out of 100 – a 1% loss), a lost coin (1 of ten drachma – a 10% loss) and now he tells of a lost son (1 of 2 – a 50% loss). In each parable, the loss mounts. In this last one being both lost and dead come together.
There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
But then … queue the ominous music … the older brother shows up. Yes, Captain Buzzkill has reported for duty! He’s not dead yet. He’s still in the merit badge business of keeping score. He throws a hissy fit and complains to his father that he’s worked hard, played by the rules and never had a party … “But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Freeze frame … hold it right there … let’s admit it … we totally get the older brother. It doesn't matter how prodigal we may have been in our lives, we still see the inherent unfairness of this, don’t we? But the point of the parable isn't fairness – it’s about grace and grace is NEVER, EVER fair. Grace is … that’s all. Grace just is and we never, ever earn it. The older brother thinks we do, and sometimes we think we do … and the Pharisees overhearing this story definitely think we do … but that’s not how it works. What works is being a loser and dropping dead. God can work with that because it gets us and our small, finite, dead egos out of the way.
Which brings us to a really weird parable: the Dishonest Manager. Jesus is now going to use a really smarmy guy as an example … as if the Pharisees don’t have enough of a burr in their shorts already. This manager is brought up on charges he is squandering the rich man’s property – and the word for “squander” is exactly the same as the one in the parable of the Lost Son. Without an investigation or fair trial, the rich man fires the manager – so like the lost son, this manager is dead … or any semblance of his life is over. The manager (who is Jon Lovitz’s Tommy Flanagan in this version) thinks it through: “So … fire me will you? Well … two can play at that game. I’ll give you an accounting … after a few adjustments. Yeahhh! That’s the ticket!” I think he cooks the books for a couple of reasons. First, he ingratiates himself with the debtors who just might look favorably on him when he finally is out of a job (“Hey, you remember when old Tommy did you a favor??”). Second, he may actually have been able to collect some of this debt by reducing it and thus given his boss at least some return on the money and goods owed. The latter might explain why the rich man commends the dishonest manager in the end – not for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness: his ability to think on his feet and get out of an impossible situation. This guy who flouts the rules ends up exalted for his creative solution to an intractable problem.
And isn't this just what Christ does for us? Yes, I think the dishonest manager is the Christ figure in this story. Who else steps outside the lines of propriety, meritocracy and score keeping in order cook up a clever solution to the intractable problem of our lost, dead lives by getting nailed to a cross? Try as we might, no matter how we try to dress him up, Jesus is not a respectable guy! Remember? This is how the whole narrative starts … “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” No respectable person would cavort with the riff-raff Jesus does! He has no scruples … at least according to human standards. That’s the point … Jesus is disreputable by the measures of polite society precisely because he blows off the merit badge system of earning “brownie points,” following the rules, and hanging out with the A-listers to dive straight into grace by a dishonorable death on a cross … which in the end is the only thing that saves us.
So for all of us lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons and daughters … are you ready to lose your scruples too and turn your lives over to a shady manager who stands ready to erase your debt?