Rev. Ron Patterson
Plymouth Congregational Church
Fort Collins, CO
Lection: Luke 16: 1-13
Occasionally, Jesus introduces us to someone he knew we would have trouble loving. The older brother, the unjust judge, and the legalistic Pharisee are a few that come quickly to mind. Jesus gives us these characters, I think, to remind us that he’s no stranger to the real world, and that perfection is not a human quality. He offers us these less than perfect people to remind us that God loves us warts and all and to push the envelope well past our comfort zone toward the impossible goal of loving our enemies, all of them. And to remind us that the saints he wants us to become are just a flock of honest sinners; called to be people honest with themselves and with God.
Which brings me to this morning’s character: the dishonest manager. As Luke presents him, this person may be the least lovable individual in the entire New Testament. In a popularity contest, this unnamed administrator would even give poor Judas a run for his money. Our story begins with an incompetent manager about to be fired for poor performance. Our story starts with a man who can’t do his job, confessing that he is too weak to dig ditches and too proud to beg.
And from his ineptness and his confession comes a brilliant and successful plan for fraud, extortion and theft. He calls in his employer’s vendors one after another and invites them to falsify their bills. And he does it in a big way. In the process, he sets himself up for future kickbacks, possible blackmail and in essence builds his own golden parachute. Someone has referred to this character Jesus offers us as the patron saint of white-collar crime and crooked politicians.
But did you notice the unusual thing about this story? When the manager was caught, as Jesus tells the story, the person he had cheated, the owner of the business, instead of insisting on restitution and a stiff prison sentence, complements the dishonest manager on his shrewdness and treats him like grandma or grandpa when they find their beloved toddler with their hand in the cookie jar.
Now that is one confusing story. It is confusing, because it turns upside down every one of the normal assumptions about honesty and ethics and fairness and business that we learned from our parents or from our mentors or maybe even in Sunday school. This story seems to present and to praise the values most good people believe are worthy of prosecution and which most of the not so good people wish were not exposed to public scrutiny.
We all know that some people behave this way. We all know that some people get sent to jail for behaving this way. We all know that some people get away with behaving this way, and the saddest truth of all is that there are significant numbers of our fellow citizens who seem willing support politicians who act this way, but I would venture to say that not one single person within the sound of my voice would say that what the manager did was right or justified or good. The story is confusing, but then it turns bizarre.
It gets worse. Because then Jesus says that like this scoundrel manager, we should make friends for ourselves by using our dishonest wealth in this world, so that when our money is gone, we might find a welcome among the truly wealthy in the world to come. Now do you understand that? What on earth is Jesus talking about?
Let me make a few suggestions. I think Jesus knew that whenever money is involved, things are never simple; and that whenever money is present, there is compromise and a lack of clarity. Jesus was not opposed to having money. He was not against making money. He was not anti-business as some people have tried to suggest. He just knew that money was only as good as how it was used and only as dangerous as how it was handled. He called wealth dishonest, not because it was illegal or immoral, but because it has this terrible potential for confusing our values and compromising what is best and most beautiful about every one of us.
Jesus knew that we make better squirrels than saints. He knew that we are great at collecting things and weak when it comes to the really important values and weaker still when it comes to giving and generosity. In fact, in my experience we must work really hard to be generous in a way that reflects the love of Jesus.
And so, Jesus told the story of this rascal of a manager to get our attention. He told this story, I think, to raise the whole issue of our tendency to use people and collect things. He told this story to keep us alert and engaged in the eternal vigilance that a defense of basic decency demands in a society like ours. He told this story to raise the question of what true riches are in this life and in this world.
And what are those true riches? The Russian novelist and pacifist, Leo Tolstoy once wrote a short story that offered three questions that I think suggest the exact nature of the wealth Jesus is talking about. Let me ask them:
Question one, what is the most important time in our lives? What would you say? What is the most important time? Is it some point in your past? Was it the day you graduated or the day your “ship” came in and you finally knew you were successful? Was it the day you landed your dream job? Maybe it was the day of your marriage or the day your child was born? Perhaps it was the day something that clouded your horizon disappeared or the day you were relieved from the burden of worry that was beating you down? Could it be that the most important time is some date in the future when something you’ve really set your heart on will happen or when something you’ve feared doesn’t happen? All of those are possible answers, but every one of them misses what Jesus was trying to say about true wealth.
What is the most important time? Right now! Right now; this instant, not the last instant or the one to come, but this instant is the most important time. The past is gone, the future is in God’s hands, and you and I only have right now to be and to do and to let the light of God’s love shine. Now is the most important time. Now is the time for us to be faithful with the gifts we have been given.
Second question: who is the most important person in your life? Think about this one a bit. Is it some celebrity? Could it be the president or some figure from history? As I recall, years ago our candidates for president were asked this question in one of the debates and great political hay was made over the answer because one of them said that Jesus was the most important person in their life.
One day a minister giving a children’s sermon ask the children if they could name the animal he was describing. He said it had a bushy tale and no hands were raised. He said it ran up and down trees and still no child said a thing. Finally, the minister suggested that this animal gathered acorns and stored them for the winter and still none of the children responded. Finally one little boy raised his hand shyly and said: “Pastor, I think you’re talking about a squirrel, but I know you want me to say ‘Jesus.’" Who is the most important person in your life? What’s the answer?
The most important person is the person you are with in any given moment. It is that person who bears the image of God. It is that person who bears the image of Jesus. It is that person whose life you could transform by your loving or whose love could transform your life.
Treat each person that way; treat each person as if they are the most important person and you will never confuse your values with your money—your true wealth with the part which rusts and remains behind when this physical life is over. The most important person is the person you are with.
Third question, what is the most important thing to do? What are some of the answers we hear everyday? How about exercise or eat your fiber or get enough sleep? How about watch your weight and listen to your doctor. Most of us are walking encyclopedias of the nagging necessary and contemporary conventional wisdom. Most of us are wrapped up in a bundle of things we think are important. Most of us cut our teeth on little gems of practical advice like Poor Richard’s famous “early to bed and early to rise, makes one healthy, wealthy and wise,” but that’s not the correct answer either.
The correct answer: the most important thing is to do the good you can do as soon as you can for the person nearest at hand. In other words, the most important thing to do is to love your neighbor. Love your neighbor. Do that, Jesus says, and you will be wealthy, you will have abundant life, you will have treasure in heaven.
Let me tell you one more story. Early in my ministry I met a woman who had three daughters. She loved them all. I grew to like all three of them, they were wonderful people in so many ways. When all three were in worship, you could count on the fact that whichever one came in first would sit near mom, and the other two would sit as far away from the first as possible and as far away from each other as that small meeting house would allow. The three sisters mistrusted one another and were jealous of one another. They were just so very different. I don’t really know, but something must have happened between them as teenagers or as young woman they just couldn’t let go. They would speak, but they could not communicate.
When their mother died, she left some money with the stipulation that all three of them had to agree on how to spend the money. It had to be spent and they had to agree. It was the mother’s hope I think that they would share with one another some adventure or some project or perhaps a vacation and maybe rediscover the love they had known as little girls.
Well, it didn’t work, they mistrusted one another too much to share and since it was the only thing they could agree about, they spent the mother’s money on the most lavish funeral I have ever attended.
Jesus would have understood. Jesus would have understood that it was not the money that caused the problem; it was the attitude and the actions of the human actors that got in the way and made that money dishonest.
Here’s the thing, when it comes to money, too often too many people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. All three of those sisters knew the price of their mother’s funeral, but they had missed the value of her love and the depth of her grief over their failure to love one another. And Jesus understood that behavior like that seems to be a part of our original equipment.
Remember the dishonest manager? He succeeded in his dishonesty. He was wise in the way of the world. Jesus invites us to succeed with the same cunning on our life journey. Now is the time, the one we are with is the one, and our call is simply to love and to share in anyway we can. That is the way that leads to life.
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.”