Saturday, September 28, 2013

When Dishonesty is Honored

Luke 16:1-9
September 29, 2013
William G. Carter

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

Our Wednesday night Bible study group confirmed what I believe about this parable: it can be a real stinker. Preachers avoid it. Teachers ignore it. It creates more trouble than it’s worth.

A wealthy landowner hears that his manager is wasting his property. Calling him in, he says, “Hand over the books. You are being relieved of your position.”

This is when we discover how greasy the manager really is. He devises a quick plan to cover his assets. Before word gets out that he is fired, one by one, he summons the people who owe his boss some money. “How much do you owe?” If the first man says, “A hundred jugs of olive oil,” worth the equivalent of a year and a half’s salary, he says, “Cross it out, write fifty.”

The next debtor says, “I owe a hundred containers of wheat.” He says, “Not any more. Cross it out and write eighty.”  We can expect a smile to emerge on both of their faces.

This manager is sly. He is as crafty as he is dishonest. He will cut a deal with the neighbors in the town where they will all continue to live. And if the boss discovers these deals, he will look terrible if he goes back on the manager’s word to tell the merchants what they really owe him. That’s assuming, of course, that he actually has kept track, and had not turned over the whole matter to the manager.

The manager cannot be trusted. That was the accusation, now we have the proof. And did you hear what the boss says when he discovers the whole mess? He says, “Good for you. I have to praise you. You are really on the ball.”

That’s the parable. The Word of the Lord.

Most people want this parable to say a good bit more. They want the Boss to condemn this behavior or to have that crook thrown into jail. But the Boss won’t have any of it. He compliments his former employee for his shrewdness and presumably lets him off the hook. He lets him go.

It seems like Luke, the Gospel writer, wants the parable to say a good bit more. He scrambles through his collections of Jesus’ teachings, tacking on some wise words about wealth and its corrupting power, declaring definitively, “Nobody can serve God and their stuff; it’s one or the other.” True enough, but it really has nothing to do with the heart of the story. Jesus is telling a story about a wily crook who gets away with his scam. He says it with admiration in his voice.

We know these people, don’t we? Of course we do. Part of the issue with reading this parable is that we read it in here, inside a church. But step outside the church and we see these people all the time.

Eugene Peterson tells about visiting somebody at the hospital in downtown Baltimore. He was looking for a parking space near Johns Hopkins Hospital. The parking garages were full. Needless to say, so were all the spaces on the street. Eugene circled the hospital three times, looking for something to open up. He even resorted to praying for a parking space.

Suddenly a space opened up right in front of him. It was perfect. And he knew he could brag to family and friends about what a wonderful prayer he had offered. He pulled in and parked. He went to see the patient. The visit went well. Whistling down the steps, he returned to the car, only to look inside and see his keys dangling in the ignition. He had locked his keys inside the car. He stopped and wondered what to do.

While he pondered this, a ten year old boy wandered up. “Something wrong, mister?” he said. Eugene muttered, “I locked my keys inside the car.” The boy said, “I can help you.” He removed a long wire contraption from his pocket, jimmied it in the window, and within thirty seconds, the door was open and he handed the keys to Eugene.

He was astonished. He thanked the kid, who looked at him and said, “Is it worth a dollar to you?” Eugene pulled out his wallet and said, “It’s worth two dollars.” And the kid bounded away with the money. Eugene drove away, thinking, “Here’s a kid at ten years old who already knows how to break into cars, and what a wonderful thing that he showed up right when I needed him!” Was he thinking about calling the cops and turning in the kid? No, not at all.

Step out of church when you hear this parable. This is how the world works, isn’t it? We had a man named Dave as one of our members. He’s transferred his membership to heaven. When he was still around here,  he was telling me about his work as an electrical inspector in the city of Scranton. “Reverend,” he said, “I can’t tell you how many times I inspected a wiring job, and a contractor or electrician said to me, ‘I have a paper bag full of money on the countertop and I am going to walk out of the room for a few minutes. Take your time. Leave whenever you need to.”

Dave was getting up in years. I said, “Is there anything you want to confess to your pastor?” He smiled and said, “Whenever that happened, I always failed the inspection and left the bribe behind. One time I called the cops to complain. They sent an officer over to check it out and the paper bag disappeared.” Dave sighed and said, “That’s the way of the world.”

Jesus tells this story about a dirty rotten scoundrel who easily worked the system of the day. Not only did he get away with it, he is commended by the boss and is held up as a sort of left-handed good example of what the kingdom’s people might be if they were a good bit shrewder than they are. Certainly we know church people who think things to death and then never get around to doing anything.

Not this guy; he says, “My back is not strong enough to dig ditches, and I have too much pride to beg.” So he devises a slick plan to do what he wants to get done. Jesus says, “Hey church – pay attention to him. Learn from his artful cunning.”

Now the problem, of course, is good Christian people hear this story, maybe for the first time. They get alarmed at the morality of this dishonest manager. True enough; Jesus seems indifferent to the man’s morality. He’s one of the dramatic rogues of the stories that Jesus tells, like the cranky judge who refuses to hear another word from a persistent woman, or the man who refuses to get out of bed when his friends knocks on the door at midnight. Jesus tells stories about Jewish boys who fall down so far they end up tending pigs and solitary travelers who don’t have the good sense to avoid the lonely road to Jericho. In the next couple of weeks, we will encounter a few more of these parable characters.

Sure, the hero in our story is a crook. But this is not a story about morality. If you want morality, recite the Ten Commandments. The text is clear: Thou shalt not steal. Jesus knew that one; he was there on the mountain when it was given. But that’s the Ten Commandments, not Luke 16.

Please understand: Jesus is not teaching morality in this parable. He is teaching about grace. The Boss discovers that his manager cannot be trusted. Does he throw him in jail? No. The manager cuts a few deals with the people who owe his Boss some money. Does the Boss call a stop to it and exert his rights? No. The dishonest manager gets away with it.

It’s just like the story immediately before it. Remember? A son says, “Father, give me my inheritance,” an insult like saying I wish you were dead. What does the father do? He gives it to him…without punishment. And when Junior slithers home, does the father judge him? No, he throws him a huge party. And when the older brother refuses to dance, what does the father do? He goes out to try to bring him in, because the party is for everybody. That is grace.

Do you see what grace does? It lets people get away with things. It cancels all forms of punishment. Grace declares that God’s heart is so full of joy, that God’s life is so full of laughter, that nothing matters more than a complete union between heaven and earth.

It’s no wonder that a lot of people don’t like grace. If somebody hurts me, I want them to pay for it. If somebody offends me, I demand that they apologize. But what if we simply forgave them? What if we canceled the debt? What if we stopped the chain-reaction of “he said, she said”? What if we let it go – if we gave it away – if we for-gave? That would be the same thing that God does for us . . . it would be hard thing, because it is a holy thing.

We don’t want to do the holy thing, we want to do our own thing. Maybe that’s why the human race continues in the mess that it is. Imagine what kind of shape we would be in, if we could be gracious to one another? Merciful to one another?

The Boss discovers what his manager has done, and he cuts him a break. He cuts him a break. Can you imagine that? When was the last time you cut anybody a break? When was the last time the Boss cut you a break?

On Friday night, my wife and I parked in Row 27 at the Bloomsburg Fair. I think that’s about six miles from the main gate. But the walk was refreshing, and there were deep-fried Oreos waiting for us. After tasting all the delicacies that the fair had to offer, we walked back to the car, but it was Friday night about 9:00. Looking at the traffic jam, we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while.

After sitting for fifteen minutes in our perfectly-positioned getaway parking spot, some kind soul let us into the exit line. Not that it mattered; the line wasn’t moving. We inched forward, then paused. Another inch, then stop. I waved to another poor soul and let him pull in ahead of me. Nobody was moving.

Then the glacier began to budge. We began to roll ahead. But to my shock and dismay, I discovered the guy that I let in ahead of me was letting everybody in ahead of him. Why was he doing that? It is one thing to allow in one car; that’s paying ahead the favor that somebody first paid you. But to let everybody else in? Why, that would be . . . why, that would be just like God!

How gracious God is; how stingy I am.

You know, there is one prayer that I pray every day. I highly recommend it. It is the one prayer that I really want to have answered every day. It fits every circumstance. I need to pray it every day.

Goes like this: “God, be merciful to me…” And God answers it with more grace than I could ever expect. Know what I mean?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved. 

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