Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 19, 2010

2010.09.19 “Consider the Scoundrel” – Luke 16: 1 – 13

Central United Methodist Church

“Consider the Scoundrel”

Pastor David L. Haley

Luke 16: 1 – 13

September 19th, 2010

            “Jesus said to his disciples, “There was once a rich man who had a manager. He got reports that the manager had been taking advantage of his position by running up huge personal expenses. So he called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? You’re fired. And I want a complete audit of your books.’

“The manager said to himself, ‘What am I going to do? I’ve lost my job as manager. I’m not strong enough for a laboring job, and I’m too proud to beg . . . . Ah, I’ve got a plan. Here’s what I’ll do . . . then when I’m turned out into the street, people will take me into their houses.’

“Then he went at it. One after another, he called in the people who were in debt to his master. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

“He replied, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’

“The manager said, ‘Here, take your bill, sit down here — quick now — write fifty.’

“To the next he said, ‘And you, what do you owe?’

“He answered, ‘A hundred sacks of wheat.’

“He said, ‘Take your bill, write in eighty.’

“Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way — but for what is right — using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

Jesus went on to make these comments:  If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; If you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things.  If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?  No worker can serve two bosses: He’ll either hate the first and love the second or adore the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and the Bank.”- Luke 16: 1 – 13, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

     It comes around only every three years and maybe that’s just as well: “Unjust Manager” Sunday, the day when we recognize the contributions (or theft of same) made by all those shady managers, accountants, and hustlers, wherever and whoever they are. 

      Given that we only do it every three years, it’s amazing that there is a never-ending list of those who qualify for this dishonor. Just a few examples from the last decade alone would include Enron, Bernie Madoff, Goldman Sachs, and the “to-be-continued” story of former governor Rod Blagojevich. The names change, but the crimes are the same: “creative accounting” we might call it; cooking of the books or the shifting of funds, into one’s own pocket or the pockets of friends, while investors are left holding the bag, an opportunity that is “bleeping golden.”

      As I’ve pointed out on other occasions, we who live here in Chicago, Illinois, ought to spot such characters from a distance.  Chicago, after all, as it’s been said, was a city built, not just on the lake, but on the make. As the late Mike Rokyo used to say, the motto of the City of Chicago ought to have been, not “Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden)” but “Ubi Est Meum?” (Where’s mine?) And Illinois may be the only state in the nation with a governor’s suite in the state penitentiary.

      Of course, such shenanigans extend beyond Illinois. “Creative accounting” has been refined to such an art that not only did it almost bring down our economy, most of us still struggle to understand what happened.

        There are some who say, that was the point. One of the books I want to read before we talk more about this next month during our stewardship campaign, is Michael Lewis’s bestseller about the 2008 collapse of the financial markets, The Big Short; Inside the Doomsday Machine (2010). If we don’t understand interest rate swaps, mezzanine collateralized debt obligations, or credit default swaps, according to Lewis, that’s exactly how Wall Street wanted it.

          But it was such credit default swaps which fed upon the subprime mortgage boom, making it possible for a Las Vegas stripper to own five investment properties, or a strawberry picker with an income of $14,000 a year to buy a $724,000 house. These mortgages to people “one broken refrigerator from default”, many of which required no proof of employment, income, or money down, were designed to fail, says Lewis, so that the poor borrowers were forced to re-finance with even riskier loans from the rich banks. Subprime mortgages with floating rates eventually comprised about 80% of mortgages. In the end, we the taxpayers paid when the stripper and the strawberry picker defaulted on their loans. We also bailed out the Wall Street executives who still “earned” tens of millions for their “work.” (Quoted by Dan Clendenin in his September 12, 2010 blog,  “Faith and Wealth: Gospel Lessons, Wall Street Examples,” at The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself.)

      While we’ve all suffered from the economic bust, we’ve likely also suffered from less grandiose scandals. It may have been through workplace dealings, fraudulent investors, or even churches, God forbid.  Someone – previous thought reliable – begins creative accounting, starts shifting funds, and suddenly they’re in over their heads, and unfortunately you with them. Michele’s previous congregation in DuPage county, a Lutheran church trying to rebuild from a devastating fire in 2005, teetered on the edge of existence this year, thanks to the misdeeds of the congregation’s treasurer, who will likely go to prison for what they did. That’s why, whether in government or churches, safeguards and systems of check-and-balance are important for all involved.

      Given this, how all of us have been burned by scoundrels and scandals great and small, on Wall Street and on Main Street, it takes a lot of gall for Jesus to commend to us the dealings of one such manager.  Let’s try to understand exactly what it is Jesus is commending about the Unjust Manager’s actions.

      The Parable of the Unjust Steward, as this story is known, is one of the most baffling stories in the Bible. What makes it particularly irksome is that the manager Jesus praises is dishonest, a scoundrel. Does Jesus want us to be deceitful, cheating others to protect our own skins, further our own interests, the interests of God’s kingdom? I don’t think so. Why then, does Jesus praise this dishonest manager?  Truth be told, we’re not sure. As we learned last week, such stories are narrative time bombs: after hearing them, the more you think about them, the more the story shifts, and the more they reveal.

      One possibility is that Jesus tells this story to urge his followers – both then and now – to greater wisdom in the ways of the world.

      You have to give Jesus credit; he had a sharp eye for the characters around him, both good and bad. His teaching is full of power and politics, lost coins and lost sons, sloppy farmers and crooked managers, all kinds of places and people through whom life lessons could be learned, as with this story of the crooked manager.

      But when he looked at his followers, perhaps he saw them as sorely lacking in what he saw as the street sense of the people around him. And so Jesus praises, not the manager’s dishonesty, but his shrewdness, and holds him up as an example. Is Luke suggesting that if Christians were more financially savvy we’d have what we need – especially the money we need – to advance God’s kingdom without constantly begging?

      Think about it. You go to a concert, the technology is mind-blowing, state-of-the-art sound and lighting; but when you go to church, we’re lucky if we can get the microphone to work. You go to a corporate dinner and the meal is lavish, with multiple courses; you go to church we have to bring our own food, cook it, and then give a donation to pay for the food we brought? You look at the Trump Towers of the world, the John Hancock buildings, they’re awesome, gleaming skyscrapers; but you look at many churches, they’re falling down. What does that say about us? Why are we Christians such poor givers to the cause we most believe in, such poor managers of what we have, such poor practitioners of what we do? No wonder Jesus suggested to his disciples they could be a little less heavenly minded, and a little more earthly good.

      A second suggestion of what this story is about is that, how we relate to money is an indicator of how we relate to God. It’s even been called, “a sermon about money without asking for any.” (David Lose). Jesus didn’t hesitate to use money as a yardstick to measure spiritual health.

        Several years ago, in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (January 25, 1996), there was a cartoon picturing a man who had just died standing before the pearly gates. Obviously THE interview is in progress, as St. Peter looks down and advises, “Charitable giving isn’t the ultimate test of one’s humanity, but it gives us some numbers to play with.”

        Is Jesus saying here, “Use your money to buy your way into heaven?” I don’t think so.  What’s he saying, is, I think, that to “make friends” by money is to use our money in such a way as to advance God’s cause in the world rather than our own, to help others rather than ourselves, and in such a way that it will do the most good for the most people.

        How are we doing? If God were to go over our finances, our checkbook, our credit card bill, would there be any evidence that we’re Christian? Would there be any numbers for St. Peter to “play with?”  On the contrary, would the charitable giving of some non-Christians – as we’ll see in just a moment – put us to shame?

The final suggestion of what this story is about is clear, and it is this: while money can be used to further both ourselves and God’s kingdom, it cannot be worshiped. Jesus is clear, we cannot serve both God and the Bank. Either our money will serve our faith, or our faith will serve our money.

      This does not make money evil. Often in church, especially for those in business or financial industries, the consistent message we get is that money is dirty and filthy, even evil, that is, until, there’s a stewardship campaign, or the boiler breaks, or the roof leaks or the pastor comes asking for money.

      If anything, the fact that we do not worship money provides a perspective from which to think more faithfully about money. If we worship God, and God alone, then how should we use our money, how should we use our financial savvy, how should we use our business acumen to help this world that God loves so much?

      As an example, consider this. While in our economic train wreck there have been endless villains, there have also been a few shining lights, people who demonstrate Jesus’ parable that “the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than the people of light.”

        In 2006, billionaire Warren Buffett – who describes himself as an agnostic – gave away 85 percent of his fortune, or about $37.4 billion, to five charitable foundations; the greatest share, $31 billion, going to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

On June 16th of this year, Buffett went even further, publishing a letter in Fortune magazine in which he pledged to give away 99% of his wealth to charity. (Warren Buffett, “My Philanthropic Pledge,” Fortune, June 16, 2010)

        In his letter he acknowledged that:

“My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well. I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious.”

He also acknowledged that:

“Measured by dollars, this commitment is large. In a comparative sense, though, many individuals give more to others every day. Millions of people who regularly contribute to churches, schools, and other organizations thereby relinquish the use of funds that would otherwise benefit their own families. The dollars these people drop into a collection plate or give to United Way mean forgone movies, dinners out, or other personal pleasures. In contrast, my family and I will give up nothing we need or want by fulfilling this 99% pledge.”

But that’s not all. Just over a year ago, in May 2009, word leaked out that Buffett and the other richest man in America, Bill Gates, had organized and presided over a confidential dinner meeting of billionaires in New York City. Guests included such people as Oprah Winfrey, Ted Turner, David Rockefeller, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, and others.

Buffett, Gates and his wife, Melinda, set the goal: They are asking the super-rich, starting with the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, to pledge — literally pledge — at least 50% of their net worth to charity during their lifetimes or at death. If their campaign succeeds, it has the potential to dramatically change the philanthropic behavior of Americans, inducing not only the super rich, but for all of us, to step up the amounts we give to charities and churches, such as our own.

Brothers and sisters in faith, where is our Luke 16, our specifically Christian version of the Buffett challenge?

Perhaps Jesus WAS right: “the people of this world ARE more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than the people of light.”  And so Jesus says:

“I want you to be smart in the same way — but for what is right — using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”  (Luke 16:9, The Message)

My thanks this week for material in this sermon from:

      – Dan Clendenin in his September 12, 2010 blog, “Faith and Wealth: Gospel Lessons, Wall Street Examples,” at The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself,

      – and also David Lose, “God and Money,” at Working Preacher, 9/13/2010,


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