In 1968, the American political and cultural scene was complicated – in many ways as it is now. Race relations were fraught. Martin Luther King Jr assassinated; the Civil Rights movement in full swing. A man named Charles Schulz took notice and after nudging and more nudging, decided to include an African-American child in his all-white comic strip, Peanuts.
Those of you reading Peanuts in the late ‘60s will remember Franklin, the boy Charlie Brown met on the beach in July 1968. But Franklin’s appearance did not come easily for Schulz. A California white woman, Harriet Glickman, started it all, writing Schulz a letter earlier that spring:
“In thinking over the areas of the mass media which are of tremendous importance in shaping the unconscious attitudes of our kids, I felt that something could be done through our comic strips…
It occurred to me today that the introduction of Negro children into the group of Schulz characters could happen with a minimum of impact. Sitting alone in California suburbia makes it all seem so easy and logical. I’m sure one doesn’t make radical changes in so important an institution without a lot of shock waves from syndicates, clients, etc. You have, however, a stature and reputation which can withstand a great deal.”
Charles Schulz quickly wrote back, “I am faced with the same problem that other cartoonists who wish to comply with your suggestion. We all would like very much to be able to do this, but each of us is afraid it would look like we were patronizing our Negro friends. I don’t know what the solution is.”
Glickman didn’t stop. She asked her African-American friends to chime in and respond to Schulz themselves.
Schulz soon got a letter from Glickman’s friend, Kenneth Kelly. Kelly writes, “You mention a fear of being patronizing. I’d like to suggest that an accusation of being patronizing would be a small price to pay for the positive results that would accrue!”
Soon after, Franklin was born. The artist later recalls how his actions angered editors, and they tried to make him change it, citing the already complicated culture. Schulz said, “Print it or I quit.” The Peanuts strip ran until the year 2000.1
It takes a lot of courage, a lot of chutzpah, to be willing to break the mold, to disrupt business as usual. As Schulz said himself, we’re often afraid. We think there is no solution – living as we’ve always lived seems a far better, far safer pattern by which to measure our lives.
And so that’s what we do, right? We keep on keepin’ on, just as we always have – even when the world is pounding on the doors of our hearts and minds for something different. We keep binding ourselves to the systems that work, that are sensible, beneficial.
We make ourselves beholden to what everyone else is doing. Going to the “right” school. Taking the “best” classes. Investing in the “most” successful careers. Buying a house in the “best” neighborhoods. Wearing the “right” clothes. Driving the “nicest” car. Getting the “same” phone or gadget or whatever as everyone else. Making the “smartest” financial decisions. Ensuring “enough” for retirement. Business as usual, right?
Look, it works. It works well for those who have access to it, who can afford it in any measure. It works for us in so many ways. I am nothing if I am not a product of this system, of parents who did everything they could for my future, of knowing the right people, going to the right schools, working at an established church, marrying into a secure family system. I have checked all the boxes and live well because of it.
I am – almost gladly – beholden to this system. I cannot rationally escape it nor would I even begin to know how to do so. I am entrenched in it, mind, body, heart, and soul, and so is almost everyone else I know. As much as I like to think of myself as a rebel, as one who beats the rhythm of her own drum, I am bound and bred and the benefactor of this system, of business as usual.
It hurts me a bit to admit this because I believe that this system is a system and thus, inherently divisive, perpetuating the breach between those who can and those who cannot, those who have and those who have not, those who know and those who know but are barred from the club. And yet… I keep on with it, fearing what it would be like to turn the tables of such a sacred and sedentary temple.
Such systems – such ways of the world – have always been. Such is true for our story from this morning. I will tell you that this parable is not my favorite. It is confusing and strange and takes a great deal of mining to find any glimmer of golden Good News. It took me understanding the economic context of the manager’s world to begin to untangle this mess and see what he saw: a system long-founded in keeping the rich of money and access separate from everyone else.
The manager was a steward – “the middleman between the landholder and the merchants and tenants in the exchange of goods and services, such as buying and selling grain, oil, and crops and collecting rents.”2 The manager’s job was to get the master his money, bottom line. He could charge a little extra, though, and put it in his own pocket; the master didn’t mind. In fact, it was expected he’d do so.
This put the manager in a difficult spot. He had a plush life, compared to many in his ancient Palestinian community. He had money and a job; he could read and write since he kept his master’s accounts. But, he was also vulnerable. If the customers felt they were swindled too much and reported him, it was the end of his career. And if he was fired, he couldn’t do much more. His reputation would be ruined, especially in a culture where honor was a highly-valued attribute.
The manager recognizes this – sees this truth about himself and about the system he is a product of – in verse 3, “Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.’” He is stuck in a very thorny situation. If he loses his job, the only type of job left is physical labor and he is not strong enough nor does he have the training. Unable to make a living, he realizes he’ll have to beg and his pride stands in the way. No job equals no money equals no food equals death. A moment of transformation is needed and needed fast or else the end is nigh.
So, in an act of shrewdness and manipulation, the manager decides he will reduce the debts owed to his master so that the tenants and merchants will feel indebted to him, charmed by his compassion and offer a quid pro quo upon his pending ousting. He says, “I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people will welcome me into their homes.’” Home = food = life.
It seems the manager himself is so aware of this corrupt economic system that he plays it to his advantage. He knows the consumers are in debt and that he is about to be knocked down financially, too. But, he also knows that he has a slice of power left so utilizes it as best he can. Almost an, “I’ll show you, master. I’ll get mine and you’ll get yours.” Business as usual, right? The ones on top scam those on the bottom to protect their assets. The ones on top mess with the numbers so that it works for their own benefit. The ones on top put themselves first. Business as usual.
But, this is the story of Good News, right? This comes to us from the gospel so what if it isn’t business as usual? What if we are so entrenched, so beholden, so stuck in thinking that this is as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be that we cannot see inside to what the manager is actually doing? What if we took the time to pick up this text – these words that come from Jesus and so must have some bit of merit – and looked underneath them, around them, through them, inside them and found that golden glimmer of Good News?
What if the manager’s actions were shrewd and crafty but in a way that turns the system upside down but for a mere moment? What if his actions were a tiny tear in the very fabric that binds the people to an economy of injustice and abuse of power? What if the manager was so vulpine that he ushered in God’s economy without anyone but a few noticing?
For the manager to forgive the debts of the debtors meant he – not the master – broke the chains that kept the poor perpetually poor. Now sure, the manager was expecting some reciprocation – but really, he might be secure in his housing and food for a few more days, not a lifetime. But those whom he helped, whom he relieved of their debts? Their security was restored. Their way of life improved. Their place in society lifted up. Their ability to access resources transformed. Business was not as usual. The way of doing things was no longer the way for the manager. In his own complex and, at first glance, manipulative way, he has craftily and shrewdly turned the tables of what everyone expected. And in doing so, the manager points to what Jesus says all along in the Gospel of Luke: God’s economy – God’s call to relate and care and serve one another in a way that is beholden not to power and prestige, not to wealth and the health of one’s bank accounts but instead is beholden to how we serve and tend to the poorest of God’s children. That’s the bottom line.
When we speak of a life that follows Christ, we speak of a life that commits oneself and one’s actions to putting others first. This isn’t business as usual. It is not practical. It is often not immediately beneficial. It is risky and messy and complicated and scary. But as is the case of the manager, we are called to take decisive actions to help usher in a new reality. It might look strange at first – it did for him – and it might take the prodding of lots of other people or being stuck in between a rock and a hard place to get you there – but, it is our collective call. The manager’s actions were profound but at the end of the day, minute when you account for all he’d ever done. It was a step, a wee little step but – it was a step. It was listening to the needs of others. It was paying attention to one’s surroundings. It was breaking the chains and trusting that God would meet him there.
May we walk toward justice, toward God’s economy, toward a life lived for others. In the name of Christ who came that we might know life and know it abundantly, Amen.
1. Why Charles M. Schulz Gave Peanuts A Black Character (1968), Paul Sorene, 27 November 2015.
2. McKenzie, A. M. (2007). The parables for today. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 69.