Season of Peace (III): Comically Shrewd
by Tim Mooney
Robert Funk writes, “If the destiny of a [character] turns upward, in a good or salutary direction, during the course of a story, the shape of the plot is said to be comic. If the destiny of a [character] turns downward, in the wrong or evil direction, the shape of the plot is said to be tragic. The terms comic and tragic do not refer to humorous or sad aspects of the plot.”
Tomorrow is a very big anniversary! Do you know what it is? I will celebrate one year since my car accident! Yes, celebrate! I didn’t hit anyone else! I grazed the median wall instead of straight into it. I had facial bruising, and only ten stitches. They discovered a lesion on my brain, which sounds very tragic, but after brain surgery, the biopsy came back negative! I healed quickly, was approved to drive, bought a used car, and I have not had any seizures since. I am so grateful that the shape of my life story is comic, not tragic.
Which seems to be the opposite of this shady manager in Jesus’ parable! He’s found out! He’s gonna get fired! He’s not strong enough to work, too proud to beg, so he ingratiates himself to his master’s debtors by falsifying their accounts! He’s in deep trouble. Surprise #1! The master commends him for being shrewd! Surprise #2! Jesus says we can learn something from this low-watt beacon of virtue, this immoral clod! There’s something comic to be learned, not tragic.
Jesus’ parables involve reversals. He suckers us in with our expectations, then flips them on us. The last, shall be first! And the first, last! What? Get slapped on the cheek? Fight! No, offer the other cheek. Conscripted to carry a soldier’s gear for one mile? Go two! The parable immediately preceding this one? The eldest, hard-working, loyal son will be the inspiring hero, right? Nope. The prodigal son is welcomed home with a party! Then Jesus flips it again. It’s really about the father’s compassion for both his sons. Jesus flips expectations to reveal something about us. Then he flips expectations to reveal something about God.
Jesus invites us to be shrewd, quick-witted, on our toes. But it’s a certain kind of shrewdness: comically shrewd. To act shrewdly for righteousness, justice, peace, so the destiny of the characters in the story of our lives moves in an upward, salutary direction.
Here’s an example of being comically shrewd. Folk musician Woody Guthrie, and his sidekick Cisco Kid, found themselves in a difficult situation in Los Angeles, shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. While they sang for free drinks in the Ace High Bar, they heard glass shattering. Everyone ran out and saw other revelers assaulting the Imperial Bar, and threatening the Japanese-American owners. “Japs is Japs,” someone yelled. “We’re at war with them yeller-belly Japs. We come down to get our share of ‘em.” The blood-thirsty crowd began to chant, “Get ‘em, jail ‘em, kill ‘em.” What did Guthrie and Cisco Kid do? Quote appropriate scriptures? Tell the crowd, “Hey that’s not right. Stop that right now!” No. Guthrie and Cisco Kid grabbed their guitars and worked their way to the head of the crowd and began to sing. We will fight together, we shall not be moved, we will fight together, we shall not be moved. Just like a tree, that’s planted by the water; we shall not be moved. Others in the crowd began to sing and stand between the mob and the Japanese couple, until the anger and would-be thugs disappeared into the night. Comically shrewd, shrewd for righteousness, justice, peace.
Relationships are not ruled by accounts, accounts are ruled by relationships. This parable is against account keeping altogether. God doesn’t work that way.
What would it mean for us to be comically shrewd in this moment in our country, our world? I’m not sure. Partly because being shrewd often happens in the moment. Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor and writer says, “the tragic [in our lives] is the inevitable. The comic is the unforeseeable.” (p. 57, Telling the Truth) What would be unforeseeable? Inviting ourselves over to a Muslim congregation to share a potluck meal? Inviting a Jewish Attorney General to come and talk to us about how his faith informs his notion of justice in our country? Oh, we’re already doing that! Yes, that was a shameless advertisement for next Sunday as we host Phil Weiser for our Adult Faith Formation class at 9am and will speak to us in our worship service at 10:30am!
The unsavory steward in this parable shows us something about us. We can become shrewd for the good. But it shows us more, something about God. Most biblical scholars criticize the steward for “falsifying” accounts. His behavior is immoral and reprehensible. That’s why it’s so hard to see him as any kind of example. But there’s another way to read his actions. By falsifying accounts, the steward shows that on a spiritual level, it is false to keep accounts. Keeping an account of emotional debt, knowing who has wronged us, who owes us something, is a false way to live. It’s not God’s way. It’s that old eye-for-an-eye, which Gandhi said, leaves the world blind.
The Master recognizes and commends his steward’s comic shrewdness. Relationships are not ruled by accounts, accounts are ruled by relationships. This parable is against account keeping altogether. God doesn’t work that way. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “Blessed is [the one] who is not offended that no one receives what he or she deserves, but receives vastly more. Blessed is the one who gets that joke, who sees that miracle.”
The rhetoric in our country is adversarial. “It’s their fault not ours. They’re the problem, not us. They must pay! We must “get ‘em, jail ‘em, kill ‘em.” Please hear me. People must be held accountable for what they do. The steward did not let his master’s debtors get off scot-free. They still owed something. But it was much less than they ever bargained for. The master lost money, but the debtors thought him to be kind and generous! A good man! The perpetrators of injustice in our country must pay something. But it’s not pay back. Keeping rigid accounts, an eye-for-an-eye ledger, is not at the center of the universe. Something greater is at the center of the universe: Grace. So it’s not pay back. It’s something shrewd, comically shrewd. Maybe pay it forward.
Remember the film, Pay It Forward? A 7th grade social studies teacher gives his class a year-long assignment: Find a way to change the world – and put it into action. 11 year-old Trevor comes up with an idea. Do something to better three people’s lives, not because they’ve earned it, but simply because a random act of kindness can change someone’s life. And tell those three to pay it forward to three other people. Sounds utopian. But as the movie unfolds, we see that individuals still have responsibility for their lives. You cannot hold the three people accountable for your gift of generosity. You pay it forward, and they can squander it. Sometimes nothing changes. And sometimes paying it forward comes with a personal price. But paying it forward is comically shrewd.
I don’t know if our government and world political bodies can act comically shrewd in this war on terrorism, refugees, people of color, the poor, the environment. But I believe we can act comically shrewd, because we are made in God’s image, because God is comically shrewd, giving more than could ever be accounted for. There is no accounting for God’s love that holds us, not only in life, with its tragedies, but even in death.
On 9/11, two friends worked together in the World Trade Center. A Jew and a paraplegic Christian. As they made their way downstairs as the building burned, the Jew told his friend’s young attendant to hurry down. He could handle his friend’s wheelchair. What do you think the paraplegic thought? How often had he seen the look in other people’s eyes that he was a throw away, not worth much anymore? And in that moment, when every second counted, surely he was feeling more expendable than ever before. The Jew’s comically shrewd action valued the young attendant’s life by saying, “Go, get down, live!” And it valued his friend’s life by saying, “I’m sticking with you.” They did not make it down alive. There is no accounting for that. Except to say that the relationship mattered more than life itself. Relationship is what life is about. And relationships are not accounts. They never have been.
The tragic in our lives and in the world may be inevitable. But paying it forward makes the comically unforeseeable that much more possible. How might we be comically shrewd for the good? Amen.