Cheaters Never Prosper?

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian

September 19, 2010

Luke 16:1-13

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 accounting 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. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?
And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

Last week we heard two of Luke’s three parables of Lost things—lost sheep and lost coins. The third “Lost” parable is of the Lost son. You may know it as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Remember how that great story ends? “Then the father said to his older son, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” And the narrative, without skipping a beat, launches into our text for today.

In today’s text, Luke doesn’t talk about “lost” things or people, per se. But I wonder if this parable continues the theme of being lost.

Losing track of value.

Losing track of what is worth pursuing.

Losing track of why we are here and what we have been called to do and who we have been called to be.

This text was tough for me. Pastors across the country let out a collective shudder when we considered this parable. One pastor told me that the last time she preached this text, a gentleman came up to her after worship and said, “Nice try, pastor.”

I read a number of commentaries about it and many voices tried to come up with ways to side step the uncomfortable-ness of the text. They seemed desperate to give Jesus an excuse.

One would say that the rich man had earned his money illegally anyway, so the shrewd manager was being like Robin Hood.
And another would say that the shrewd manager wasn’t being praised for cheating, but for his gumption and creativity.
And maybe they are all correct.

But what if Luke told the story this way on purpose?

I want us to spend a little time in the discomforting reality of this text, trusting that Jesus doesn’t need our defending and our best guesses about why he’s telling this maddening parable.

So, let’s look at what happens in this text. I invite you to open your Bibles and follow along because it goes off in many different directions.  We have a rich man who hears his manager has been cheating him. It doesn’t tell us what “fact checking” process the manager uses, but he decides to trust the hearsay and fire his manager.

The manager, in a moment of honesty and clarity, realizes he isn’t strong enough to dig ditches for a living. And he, unlike the Temptations, appears to be too proud to beg.

So he comes up with a plan that won’t benefit the Rich Man. And it doesn’t appear to financially, at least, benefit the manager. Because he tells the people who owe the Rich Man to tamper with the Books and reduce the amount of their indebtedness. One hundred jugs of olive oil becomes 50. One hundred bushels of Idaho potatoes becomes 50. And so on.
His plan, it seems, is that by endearing himself to those in debt to the Rich Man, he’s hoping they will look out for him, take him in, help him get another job, owe him a favor.

At this point, we know what Jesus will say, don’t we? “But I say to you, woe to those who lie, cheat, and steal, for they have received their reward on earth. Blessed are those who tell the truth and have integrity.

Somehow, not sure what happened here, but we get a completely unexpected and, quite frankly, unethical comment from the Rich Man. “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. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

What???!

He commended the dishonest manager for being shrewd? That would be like me standing up here this morning and praising a person for stealing my car! “I’d like to comend you, car thief, for your ingenuity and for doing what you needed to do to provide for yourself.”

My car hasn’t been stolen, but don’t expect to hear that kind of comment from me.

The Rich Man then gives a confusing statement about children of this age and children of light. I’m sure that we, as followers of Jesus are supposed to be the children of light. And clearly, judging by the state of the world, the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with things than we are.

But then there’s the comment: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Perhaps we should consider that the Rich Man may not be giving the best advice. It was commonly thought that if you ended up rich in Biblical times, you did so by stepping on a whole lot of people. So when he says to make friends by means of dishonest wealth, perhaps we should consider the source?

But he does, I think, speak some truth. “When that wealth is gone, your only friends will be your dishonest colleagues, so hopefully they will welcome you into the eternal homes.”
Is Jesus being sarcastic?

My little heart sure hopes so.

But even if he’s playing it straight here, he’s merely pointing out the consequences to the dishonest manager’s behavior. If you live your life in dishonesty and spend all of your time seeking to secure earthly riches and success, you will be praised by your Rich Man boss and will likely do pretty well in earthly terms.

But where is it going to get you? Which of these dishonest colleagues is prepared and qualified to offer you heavenly accommodations?

This isn’t a parable with a lot of explanation or even with much character development.  Some scholars think the actual parable ends with the “children of light” comment.

In any case, by the end, it seems they’ve forgotten about the characters and are just giving us proverbs.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”

And
“If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches?”

And
“If you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”

And
“No slave can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Ahhh, Wealth. People like to talk about money about as much as they want to talk about politics, but here it is.

You cannot serve God and wealth.

Our assigned text ends there, but the next verse is this:
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

We’re reminded that Jesus is talking to Pharisees, who were, according to Luke, lovers of money.

You cannot serve God and wealth.

I know that after two years of an economic recession, most people are thinking, “well I’m off the hook, then. Wealth is something far away from my life! Phew!”

But not so fast.

Even if you are not on the Forbes 500 list, you can still serve the false god of wealth.

Even if you have trouble paying your bills, it is possible you still serve the false god of wealth. For Jesus in this gospel, it seems clear that money gets in our way of serving God.

If the treasure of this age is what you seek, what you value, and what consumes your energy, is it not what you serve?

Is Jesus telling this story to remind us that we’ve lost track of what is worth serving?

What if we considered the wealth we’ve been given as children of light, the non-material gifts of grace, community, fellowship, and new life in Christ.  I suspect the “benefits” of faith seem different to each of us, but consider what it means to you.

And do you spend as much time, energy, and creativity in seeking and cultivating spiritual gifts as you do earthly ones?

How can we use our creativity, and our energy, and our time to further God’s kingdom with the same dedication the shrewd manager served his own ends?

Because it seems that this maddening and frustrating parable wants us to consider that we, as children of light, have not done the best job we can do to promote the kingdom of God. It seems that this shrewd manager in the parable has shown more creativity about dishonest things than we have about really really good news! It seems the children of light have lost a vision for kingdom living.

The connection in this parable between this life we’re living now and eternal life is strong. “…for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

We’re reminded that it isn’t enough to just say, “I have been promised eternal life”, and put your blessings on a shelf somewhere. Because the gifts we have been given can be shared now. In this parable, we’re reminded that we’re supposed to be expanding our eternal gifts in our lives and in our community now.

God’s love and mercy and justice will be, no doubt, better than we can imagine. But we can’t wait for it. We need to share it now. We are stewards of God’s gifts now and “we should use these gifts in light of our eternal relationship with God.” (citation below)

Listen to what I read this week about this text by Rev. Helen Debevoise:

Somewhere in the middle of our journey, we stopped living for Christ. We stopped believing that Jesus died and was resurrected and that life was made new. Somewhere along the way it became easy to serve all those pressing demands—of people, of schedule, of money. Somewhere along the way, the vision for God’s call became cloudy and muddled. We stopped hearing God’s voice and joined the crazy survivor takes all mentality. Somewhere along the way, the challenges seemed so much bigger than the answers. So we huddled in an effort to save what was left and forgot about living for something greater. We buried our treasures.”(Helen Montgomery Debevoise, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 4 (WJK 2010) page 96.)

The Good News is this: Christ is calling us to renew our vision for God’s call in our lives. We have been given great gifts and we are being called to use all of our imagination, creativity and love in pursuit of expanding the gifts of grace, justice, community, and new life given us in Christ.

This maddening parable is, I think, ultimately one of hope for a world where God’s eternal gifts are to be shared with those who need them most, right here, right now.

May it be so. Amen.

Advertisements

One thought on “Cheaters Never Prosper?

  1. I don’t mean to come across as an OCD person, but my email to Marci isn’t getting through. I want to attend the new member class Sun. with my husband, and bring our other certificates if you wish. Also, my LDS father has gotten himself into this website and found this Sunday’s preaching rather interesting….Stranger things have happened in my life. Christ’s peace….Diane

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s