Here is my sermon from September 19 at First Presbyterian Church of Boonville. It is the second of three parts in a series on grace.
The text is Luke 16:1-13.
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For you insatiable readers out there, here’s the written version:
I’d like to start this morning by asking you a few simple questions about the United States:
In what year was the Constitution written?
How many changes, or amendments, to the Constitution are there?
Name the amendments (by number) that address voting rights.
15, 19, 24, 26
What U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services form is used to apply for naturalized citizenship?
How did you do? I didn’t know the answer to any of them without cheating. All of these are questions that appear on the test one takes when applying to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Could you pass that test?
Before applicants can even sit for the test, here is the process they must go through to legally apply for citizenship:
Unless they are refugees seeking political asylum or have immediate family members who are U.S. citizens, they must have a college degree and a job offer from an employer who is willing to pay up to $10,000 in legal fees. After that, they must wait up to six years to receive a green card. After receiving a green card, they must wait another five years to apply for citizenship. Only then are they allowed to take this test (the one that most of us just failed).
I hope this gives you an idea of the difficulty faced by farm workers and manual laborers who have little formal education but desire the opportunity to escape the poverty of their home country. For many of these people, theirs is a legally impossible situation. That’s why so many of them resort to paying smugglers called “coyotes” thousands of dollars to sneak them across the border illegally.
Like these migrant workers, the dishonest manager in today’s gospel reading finds himself in a legally impossible situation. His employer catches him misusing the resources that had been entrusted to him. Faced with unemployment, he considers his options and ultimately decides to take matters into his own hands. The manager goes to his employer’s debtors and has them adjust the amount they owe.
This is one of Jesus’ most troubling parables. It seems like Jesus is advising his followers to engage in practices of fraud and embezzlement! Biblical scholars are at odds with one another about how to interpret it. Some see it as a warning against materialism while others see the dishonest manager as a kind of “Robin Hood” character who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Personally, I think this is a parable about grace. Here’s why I think so:
This parable appears in the same section of Luke’s gospel as the passage we read last week about the lost sheep and the lost coin. It’s the same scene in the movie, if you will. Jesus is seated at dinner with a group of notorious misfits and outlaws. They are the most undesirable people imaginable in that society. The religious leaders who witness this activity are unanimously appalled by what they see. In response to their disgust, Jesus tells a series of stories. Last week, we looked at the first two of those stories. The third story is the famous parable of the prodigal son, which is usually read during Lent. All of these stories center around the idea that God seeks after lost sinners and showers them with undeserved love. Today’s gospel reading picks up right where the story of the prodigal son leaves off. The author gives no indication of place or time being changed, so it makes sense to conclude that this parable of the dishonest manager is part of that same conversation. And if these parables are part of the same conversation, it makes sense to look for common themes and ideas that run through all of them. I believe that common theme is grace.
We’ve already noted that this dishonest manager, stuck in a legally impossible situation, has taken matters into his own hands and committed fraud. How does he do this, specifically? He forgives debts. Through this illegal forgiveness, the manager hopes to initiate relationships where he can find a home.
Isn’t this exactly how Jesus is acting in the scene where this parable is told? The sinners and outcasts, with whom Jesus is associating, are literally “outlaws”, that is, they live their lives outside the boundaries established by the law. Like the dishonest manager and the migrant workers I mentioned, they are stuck in a legally impossible situation. They have no hope of redeeming or improving themselves through legal means. For all intents and purposes, they are damned.
Since there is no hope for these people in the law, Jesus goes outside the bounds of the law (that is, acts illegally) to initiate a relationship with them. Jesus makes a radically gracious gesture of acceptance and forgiveness. Their debt of sin has been cancelled through an act of unconditional (and illegal) grace. The religious leaders, self-proclaimed custodians of God’s law, are shocked and offended by this grace.
You and I are also sinners. We, like outlaws in this gospel story, are unable to save ourselves through legal means. We are stuck in a legally impossible situation. The relational breach between God and ourselves is only crossed as Christ steps outside the law and meets us where we are with the good news that our debt of sin has been forgiven. This truly is amazing grace. It is radical grace, it is shocking grace, it is offensive grace, and it is illegal grace.
You and I have failed the citizenship test for God’s kingdom. Like so many aspiring migrant workers, the way of legal entry has been shut to us. But Jesus has become our coyote. He ushers us across the border and brings us into God’s kingdom where we receive the benefit of abundant life today and the hope of eternal life tomorrow. All of this comes to us through grace, that is, “outside the law”. Through Christ, we are all “illegal immigrants” in the kingdom of God.
The word “wetback” is a derogatory term directed toward immigrants who come into the U.S. illegally. They are called “wetbacks” because many of them have to wade through the waters of the Rio Grande in order to cross the border. They are soaked from head to toe as they take their first steps onto American soil. As Christians, we are initiated into Christ’s Church through the sacrament of baptism. We too are made to “pass through the waters” on our way into the kingdom of God. In a sense, we too are “wetbacks”.
As wetbacks and illegal immigrants in God’s kingdom, who are we to pass judgment on others whose theology, politics, worship, or lifestyle might differ from ours? We have no more right to be here than they do. Who are we to set ourselves up as the “Border Patrol” for the kingdom of God? This is exactly what the Pharisees and other religious leaders were doing with their long and detailed lists of how people ought to eat, dress, think, and talk. Jesus had a name for them: “Hypocrites”. When they ridiculed him for his illegal graciousness, he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts”. The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:
“Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law… [S]ince all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Romans 3:19-20, 23-24, 27-28)
Rather than setting ourselves up as the Border Patrol in the kingdom of God, let us extend to others a portion of the radical grace that has been bestowed upon us. With the dishonest manager, with tax collectors & sinners, and with Jesus our coyote, let us celebrate together this general amnesty that has been pronounced over all of us wetbacks and illegal immigrants in the kingdom of God:
From Ephesians 2:19:
“You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Amen.