The Allure of Respectability and Good Order

Today’s scripture readings:
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who lived in Germany during the first half of the twentieth century. When Adolf Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, most German Christians, including most pastors, embraced Hitler as a great friend of the church and a champion of German patriotic ideals. But not Bonhoeffer. From the beginning, he understood Hitler to be an enemy of the Gospel, someone whose words and deeds were totally contrary to the ways of Jesus.

As Hitler consolidated his power, Protestants in Germany became divided. Most churches toed the Nazi party line and became known as German Christians. Captivated by Hitler’s anti-Semitism, they stopped reading Old Testament scriptures in worship and purged their hymnals of any references to their Jewish ancestors in the faith. They encouraged obedience to Hitler’s regime, often citing that passage from Romans 13 that says we should be “subject to governing authorities,” for their authority comes from God, and which goes on to say that those who resist the authorities will incur judgment. All of this sounded ridiculous to Bonhoeffer, to whom it was obvious that Hitler was a menace and a danger to the church and to society. He and other like-minded Christians formed a Confessing Church movement and an underground seminary to train Christian leaders who would not submit to Hitler’s authority.

As Germany hurtled toward war in the late 1930s, Bonhoeffer fled to the United States, accepting an invitation to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. But his stay was short-lived because his conscience was deeply troubled. He knew he belonged back in Germany with his people, facing whatever the future might hold with faith and trust.

Most people think pastors should be paragons of virtue and righteousness, but this is the part of the story where Pastor Bonhoeffer becomes dishonest, deceitful, and even homicidal. Bonhoeffer joined the Abwehr, sort of the Nazi version of the CIA. To outward appearances, he had become a Nazi informant, traveling around to learn about Germany’s enemies and reporting his findings to the regime. In truth, he was a double agent, spending much of his time working to smuggle Jews to safety in Switzerland. All the while, Bonhoeffer and others were conspiring to undermine and topple the Nazi regime. Most famously, he became part of a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was clear. He was certain that killing Hitler and overthrowing the Nazis was God’s will, and he would do whatever it took to accomplish that will, even if it meant lying, cheating, and even murdering a head of state. His efforts proved unsuccessful, as he ended up being arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately executed just weeks before the end of the war.

Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during the war and that country’s leading anti-communist, was once asked how he could reconcile himself to being allied with the Soviet Union in the struggle against the Nazi regime. Wouldn’t he be embarrassed to ask his government to support the communists? Churchill replied, “Not at all. I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler…. If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”

History is full of great leaders who took seemingly immoral actions to advance a righteous cause. During the Civil War, President Lincoln didn’t think twice about suspending the right of habeas corpus, a fundamental right in the constitution that protects against unlawful imprisonment. The Supreme Court determined that Lincoln didn’t have the authority to do that and ordered him to relent, but Lincoln defied the Court and ignored their order. He said it needed to be done to put down the rebellion in the South.

All of these stories raise interesting questions about means and ends. Do the ends justify the means? How far should one go in taking action to support a righteous cause?

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How we answer those questions shapes our interpretation of the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson.

A wealthy landowner fires the manager he had put in charge of his property. So the manager calls in the landowners’ debtors, and one by one, he slashes their debt. “How much do you owe? A hundred jugs of olive oil? Tell you what, make it fifty. One hundred containers of white? Mark it down to eighty instead.” The manager is a liar, a cheater, and a fraud. And what’s crazy is that he is commended for his actions.

Commentators are virtually unanimous that this has to be the most puzzling of Jesus’ parables. What has this manager done that is worthy of praise? New Testament scholar Sharon Ringe says that, in this story, “clearly, something wrong has been made right.” Why else would Jesus commend the manager who marked down the debts? She suggests that the excessive accumulation of wealth in the hands of one person, like the wealthy landowner in this parable, is evidence of injustice that must be corrected by a redistribution of wealth. Today’s Gospel lesson ends with Jesus saying that you can’t serve two masters, that you can’t serve both God and wealth. And he repeatedly says in the Gospels that we should not store up treasures for ourselves on earth but rather to store up treasures in heaven, for where our treasure is there our heart will be, too; that it will be exceedingly difficult for one who is rich to enter heaven; that those who are wealthy should sell all they have and give it to the poor; that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Jesus goes on and on and on about the dangers of wealth and the injustice of poverty. So we shouldn’t be surprised by the notion that Jesus might applaud someone like the manager in today’s parable who takes it upon himself to orchestrate a redistribution of wealth from one who is rich to many who are poor.

But that doesn’t make the manager any less of a crook. How can we commend his behavior? I love what Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon says about this parable. He writes: “The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability…. [Jesus] was not respectable. He broke the sabbath. He consorted with crooks. And he died as a criminal. Now at the last, in the light of this parable, we see why he refused to be respectable: he did it to catch a world that respectability could only terrify and condemn.”

The controversial organizer and activist Saul Alinsky writes in his book Rules for Radicals that people of action view the issue of means and ends “in pragmatic and strategic terms…. [They ask] of ends only whether they are achievable and worth the cost; of means, only whether they will work. To say that corrupt means corrupt the ends is to believe in the immaculate conception of ends and principles.” The real world is corrupt, he says. “Life is a corrupting process from the time a child learns to play his mother off against his father in the politics of when to go to bed.” Maybe one of the lessons of this challenging parable is that we ought to dispense with the notion that only respectable means are permitted in the pursuit of justice and that we should at least entertain the possibility that a righteous endeavor may call for actions others might find distasteful.

I know that my own desire to inhabit the world of respectability and good order has too often prevented me from taking risks for the sake of justice. I like to think that, faced with the horrors of Naziism, I would follow Bonhoeffer’s example, risking it all to bring about Hitler’s demise. But I wonder if, actually, I’d be more like the people “who drew their window blinds to shut out the shameful spectacle of Jews and political prisoners being dragged through the streets… who privately deplored the horror of it all—and did nothing,” held back by the allure of decency and respectability. I wonder how far I’d go. How far would you go?

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I’m uncomfortable preaching this sermon, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. I think discomfort is what Jesus was going for when he told these parables in the first place. I’ll leave you with these words from the conclusion of Robert Farrar Capon’s commentary on this passage. He writes: “You don’t like [this parable]? You think it lowers standards and threatens good order? You bet it does! And if you will cast your mind back, you will recall that is exactly why the forces of righteousness got rid of Jesus. Unfortunately, though, the church has never been able for very long to leave Jesus looking like the attractively crummy character he is: it can hardly resist the temptation to gussy him up into a respectable citizen. Even more unfortunately, [the church] can almost never resist the temptation to gussy itself up….” The truth is, Jesus “is the only mediator and advocate the likes of us will ever be able to trust, because like the unjust [manager], he is no less a loser than we are—and like the [manager], he is the only one who even has a chance of getting the Lord God to give us a kind word.”


Resources consulted:

Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1989).

Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).

Sharon H. Ringe, Luke, in the Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995).


The featured image for this post, “Black Live Matter March,” is from David Geitgey Sierralupe on Flickr and is made available by a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


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