Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 22, 2013

2013.09.22 “Walk on the Wild Side” – Luke 16: 1 – 13

Central United Methodist Church
Walk on the Wild Side
Pastor David L. Haley
September 22, 2013
Luke 16: 1 – 13

“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)

 

Since the financial Crash of 2007, the last five years have been financially difficult for almost everybody, with the exception of the very rich. The loss of income, the loss of jobs, the loss of investments, has been a consistent undercurrent that has left a worried look on almost everyone’s face.

Just after the crash, for example, I remember meeting a neighbor walking down the street with such a look on his face. “What’s up?” I said. “I just lost 40% (I forgot what actual number he used) of the value of my investments,” he said. “In order to make it, I’m going to have to seriously cut back.” No wonder he looked worried; at that point, everybody was; many still are.
Now, even though the economy has begun to show signs of life, for many the anxiety about jobs, income, and investments has remained. I would say that many (if not all of us) have had to rethink our financials plans, due to the economic repercussions that have shaped our lives since 2007.

For most of us, the result of this has been a constant anxiety. Will I have enough to make it? To keep my job, keep my apartment or my house, maintain my health and not be bankrupt by an illness, send my children to college, and to retire someday in the manner I desire? Anxiety about these things can have a serious dampening effect upon our lives.

Meanwhile, here at church, we are sometimes accused of not being connected to the real world and real concerns, such as financial concerns. Of not making the connection between the Bible and life, not making the connection between what we do here on Sunday and what happens in our lives Monday through Saturday. What: you can’t recite the names of the books of the Bible, you don’t know the route of St. Paul’s missionary journeys through Asia Minor, you don’t know Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, you even find it difficult to pray, because you are too concerned about the increasing gap between your monthly income versus expenses?

If this disconnect seems real, you will be glad to know it was not a problem Jesus had. Jesus had a sharp eye on both the material world and the spiritual world, and was constantly alerting his disciples to connections between the two.

That’s the case with today’s Parable of the Shrewd Manager, which has been called the most confusing parable Jesus ever told. Was Jesus really commending the dishonest actions of this manager? Exactly what are you trying to say to us here, Jesus?

It’s interesting to note that while in church it may seem like we talk too much about “spiritual things,” in Luke’s Gospel it is surprising to realize how MUCH time Jesus spends talking about material things, like wealth and money, and their consequences in our lives.

Clearly, Luke understands that the issues of wealth and poverty are complex, that anxiety about money is a disease shared by those who have it and those who do not, and that a generous sharing of one’s goods can free one from the danger to the soul which such things bring. Luke understands that not only prosperity but also poverty cast a shadow over life, and therefore it is the poor who are the objects of God’s special concern.

To this end, Luke uses practically every literary form to put the subject before us, to the degree that it practically becomes a refrain. There is the Song of Mary (1:46-55), the sermons of John the Baptist (3:10-14), the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1-2 (4:16-30), blessings and woes (6:20-25), the parable of the rich fool (12:13-21), warnings about anxiety (12:22-31), advice to guests and hosts (14: 7 -14), and now, the two parables of chapter 16, the Parable of the Shrewd Manager and the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which represent first a positive and then a negative use of money and material things. Both parables begin the same way: “There was a rich man.” Except let’s put the parable of the Shrewd Manager in modern terms:

Once there was a CEO (Chief Executive Officer) whose CFO (Chief Financial Officer) badly managed company finances. So the CEO says to the CFO, “Your performance has been woeful; perhaps even criminally negligent; turn in your ID and your keys and clean out your desk by 5 pm.”

The CFO panicked. She was too old to look for a new job, too young to retire, and too proud to apply for unemployment. What to do? She had a wicked idea. She called accounts receivable and picked three customers most behind in their payments. She called the first and said, “Look, we’re anxious to get this debt off our books. If you can pay by the 15th, I’ll give you a 25% reduction in your liability.”

To the second she said, “Look, we’re conducting an internal audit, and have come across some errors. What do your records show you owe? $50,000? Our records say $40,000. If you can pay that, we’ll call it even.”

To the third she said a shipping error, just discovered, had reduced their debt by one-third. Oh, and did I mention that at the close of each conversation she casually remarked that she planned to leave her present position soon, and hoped they would keep her in mind.

So later that day, as she walked out of her office for the last time with reduced pension benefits, no health insurance, and a paltry amount of severance pay, there was a smile on her face. Within a month she was hired as a consultant by each firm she called that day.

In fact, not long after, when she ran into her old boss at the yacht club, she turned to leave, but he caught up with her, put his arm around her shoulder, and said: “I’ve got to hand it to you; you can shoot pool with the best of us. I couldn’t have come up with a better scheme myself.” (Janna Tull Steed, Ministry Matters, September 22, 2013)

Great story! For those of us in Chicago, the City on the Take (I mean, City on the Lake), for those of us in the State of Illinois, who keep a Governor’s suite in the Federal Prison system, it sounds a little too familiar.

But if you’re not sure what to make of this parable, take comfort in the fact that perhaps Luke did not either. There are at least four interpretations offered after the parable proper ends:

1. The children of the light need to act more shrewdly.
2. Christians should make friends by “dishonest wealth.”
3. If you’re not faithful with dishonest wealth, who will trust you
with the true riches?
4. You cannot serve two masters.

But what if the steward and master in the parable don’t represent anybody; what if Jesus is just making this ironic comparison: “Look at the scoundrels (and here in Illinois we have no shortage of them to look at) who spend their time and energy scheming to ensure their own comfort and security. If only my followers would be that shrewd, that creatively reckless, that single-minded in serving me!”

Surely, if we the followers of Jesus put into following Jesus and serving others, the energy we’ve spent majoring in minors, fighting each other, and building our own kingdoms, by now we could have cured cancer, ended hunger, established world peace, and brought the Kingdom of God on earth. Is Jesus saying to us, as he seems to be saying to them, “Ladies and Gentlemen, brothers and sisters, we’ve got to do better and work smarter, even learning as we can from the ways of the world, except for the cause of good rather than evil, others rather than self.” Can we do it?

While preparing for this sermon, I came across a discussion at the TED talks, which brings together people from the three worlds of Technology, Entertainment, Design, around ideas worth spreading. Here’s the issue: For 40 years, charitable giving in society (and the church, I might add) has been stuck at 2% of U.S. GDP (Gross Domestic Product.) In a world of increasing demand and fiscal belt-tightening, where government is stepping back from social programs, two percent isn’t going to do it.

So in a recent TED talk, entrepreneur, author, and humanitarian activist Dan Pallotta asked, “Could it be that everything we’ve been taught about charity, about giving, and about change is backwards?” Pallotta created such multi-day charitable events as long-distance Breast Cancer 3-Day walks, AIDS Rides bicycle journeys, and Out of the Darkness suicide prevention walks. Over nine years, 182,000 people have participated in these events, and raising $582 million.

Pallotta asks, “How would you react if you knew someone was getting wealthy in charity? How would you feel if you saw your favorite charity run a $3 million ad on the Superbowl using charitable donations to fund it? What would you think if a charity lost a million dollars on a new fundraising idea that flopped? Lastly, what if you learned that a charity had just paid an investor a 100 percent return on a loan?” Aren’t these the kinds of scenarios that make us mad, the kinds of practices that give charities a bad name, right?

But what if we’re wrong? What if the things we think are wrong are actually the things it will take to end humanity’s most vexing and extreme forms of suffering?

Suppose that the person getting wealthy in charity was worth it? What if the Boys & Girls Clubs hires a leader who gets a total compensation package of $1 million annually, who triples revenues in 8 years from half a billion annually to $1.5 billion annually, which allows the clubs to double the number of kids served. This actually happened; and the Boys & Girls Clubs were criticized for it.

What if the $3 million Super Bowl ad brings in $6 million in new revenues from just the first showing, and another $6 million in gifts over time from new donors who repeat their gifts? The charity turned each original donor’s dollar into four dollars.

What if the $1 million lost on a charity fundraiser that flopped, taught the charity something they never knew, that allowed them to create a new fundraiser that raised millions? That would mean the donors that funded the “loss” were actually funding an investment in learning that reaped millions.

As for the investor getting a 100 percent return on a loan, what if the loan was to finance a new, risky, fundraising idea? The charity needs a million to cover the upfront costs to launch it, but it’s risky; it’s never been done before; it could fail. No bank will touch it, so an investor comes along and says, “I will put up the million, but I want $2 million back if it succeeds, to compensate me for the risk of losing my money. The charity agrees. The event is a huge success, netting $10 million in the first year. The investor gets $2 million, leaving $8 million for the cause – a figure that would have been zero without the investor. Now, because the concept is proven, banks are willing to finance the event in future years at lower interest. The event nets $8 million a year for ten years – $80 million total, all for the tiny cost of $1 million paid to the original investor.

All these are true stories. When you hear the whole story, suddenly it seems unconscionable not to do the things we’ve been taught it would be unconscionable to do. We allow the for-profit sector to feast on the tools of capitalism, while we deny those tools to the nonprofit sector, in the name of charity. If we take responsibility for the thinking that has been handed down to us, revisit it, and revise it, we could change our whole approach to changing the world. And then, says Pallotta, “things could really begin to change.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dan-pallotta/charity-fundraising-ted-talk_b_3957550.html)

Says Jesus, “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)

Can we do it? Instead of just letting money and material things weigh us down, can we think differently about them, about the way we fund Church, about the way we give and raise money for the sake of God and Good? In the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, isn’t this what Jesus asks of us?

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