An Unrespectable God
St. Philip Lutheran Church
18 September 2022 + Lect. 25c (Pentecost 15)
Rev. Josh Evans
After a money laundering scheme for a Mexican drug cartel goes wrong, the Byrde family suddenly finds their lives uprooted – as they relocate from their comfortable home in Chicago to a new life in the Lake of the Ozarks.
By the time the fourth and final season of the hit Netflix series Ozark rolls around, the Byrdes have more blood on their hands and more shady dealings with mob bosses, local crime families, and even the FBI. Things are complicated, to put it mildly, and the family is in deep, with no other choice than to desperately keep trying to tread water.
It’s hard to find any redeemable characters in Ozark – there are a few, but not many. Still, even when a character seems beyond redemption, compromising and risking everything, even at times their own family, it’s just not that simple.
“I am trying to keep this family a family,” pleads Wendy Byrde, who begins the series as an initially resentful spouse whose husband got them all into this mess to begin with and ultimately becomes a formidable figure that is arguably the biggest driving force behind the family’s ambitions at surviving.
As I watched the final season unfold, it was increasingly difficult to find a shred of sympathy for Wendy. Her ambitions get the better of her, and her tactics aren’t always the most palatable. But even behind her worst moments, when Wendy lets down her guard, there is a wife, mother, daughter, and sister who is fiercely, if not fatefully, protective of those she cares about.
People are complicated like that. No one is ever entirely corrupt and evil, and certainly no one is ever entirely good and pure either. We are all both “sinner and saint,” as a good Lutheran theologian would say. To suggest otherwise ignores the nuances of what makes humans human.
People are complicated. So are parables – and the characters in them. Not least of which is today’s story, the “Parable of the Unjust Steward,” or what the late Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon calls “the hardest parable.” If you joined us for Bible study this past Wednesday, you know that this parable resists any simplistic interpretation.
As soon as we start trying to assign real-life counterparts to the parable’s cast of characters, things get murky. No one here seems to be entirely good – like the parable’s moral exemplar – and no one seems to be entirely evil – like the parable’s scapegoat. Sure, the master commends his manager for acting “shrewdly,” and even Jesus, at face value, suggests that his disciples ought to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” But that feels a little icky, doesn’t it?
In his commentary on this, “the hardest parable,” Capon is convinced that the manager is nothing less than a Christ-like figure, “a dead ringer for Jesus himself.”
For Capon, this is a parable of grace – and importantly: “Grace works only on those it finds dead enough to raise.”
There is death and resurrection here. The manager who has squandered all of his master’s wealth is called to account. He’s about to lose his job, and his life as he knows it is about to come to an end. In that death, there comes a certain freedom “to think things he could not have thought before,” as he begins to knock down the debts owed to his master.
Working from the bottom of the heap, where the manager has suddenly now found himself, he ends up becoming an “agent of life” for everyone else around him. His “shrewd” actions transform his master’s outlook, and they also give new life by way of debt relief to his master’s debtors – precisely because they were willing to deal with someone like themselves who was, as Capon puts it, “dead to all the laws of respectable bookkeeping.”
“The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus,” Capon concludes, “is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability … This parable, therefore, says in story form what Jesus himself said by his life. He was not respectable. He broke the sabbath. He consorted with crooks. And he died as a criminal. Now at 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. He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead.”
This parable is complicated and messy – and so are the characters in it. This parable resists a simplistic interpretation because it offers something so much more profound.
I would stop short of inserting any Christ-like figures into a show like Ozark. Yet, at least for me, someone like Wendy Byrde helps us understand a little better the way the so-called “unjust steward” behaves. For both of them, their tactics are questionable at best and even cringeworthy at times. They are far from respectable. But even in that un-respectability is something.
In her own warped way, Wendy always tries to do what is best for her family – or at least what she thinks is best. The unjust steward, too, makes his own last-ditch effort to not just save himself but to try to help those at the very bottom with him at the same time.
How much more profound is the way Christ throws off all respectability in order to save us who are lost and despairing.
The cross is the devil’s mousetrap, St. Augustine writes. “And it is a mousetrap for us, too,” Capon adds.
Like attracts like, after all. Jesus baits and attracts us by placing himself where we’d least expect – God-made-flesh dining with sinners and tax collectors, cleansing lepers, healing demoniacs, and extending his arms in love on the cross.
In the upside-down, inside-out reign of God, where the powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted up, and where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty, all expectations are subverted.
Defying our expectations, Jesus throws off all respectability in order to become one of us, to enter into the fullness of our human reality, and to walk alongside us.
And Jesus, who throws off all respectability, will indeed bear us from death into life.