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Adjusting the Bottom Line

(a sermon for September 22, 2019, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 16:1-13)

(A podcast version of this message can be found here)

Let’s just say this up front: our text for this morning is by no means “easy.” In fact, let’s just go with what a whole lot of biblical commentators over the centuries have confessed in one way or another: that of all of Jesus’ parables, this so-called story of the “Dishonest Manager,” is perhaps the most “notoriously difficult.”

And it’s easy to see why:  I mean what we’ve got here is a parable that’s chock full of immoral, unethical behavior from beginning to end!  We’ve got this property manager who’s called out on the carpet by his wealthy boss for “squandering his property” – presumably cheating said boss out of his money – and demands an audit of the books before he’s fired.  So this “dishonest manager,” realizing that his days are most certainly numbered, immediately goes into crisis mode (after all, he reasons, “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.”) and decides to go around to at least two of this master’s renters and tells them to reduce what it is they owe; this to ingratiate himself to these people so perhaps he might have a place to stay after he’s out of work!

So, basically what we have here is a shady character involved in some very shady dealings, a swindler engaged in the act of swindling his soon-to-be ex-boss, “adjusting the bottom line” to his own advantage and to save his own skin!  There’s nothing here  the least bit inspiring or commendable; this man is a scoundrel and most certainly a criminal, someone who if justice were served would be convicted of fraud and tossed into jail! And yet, it turns out that not only is the boss impressed with the guy’s shrewdness but worst of all, it seems, so is Jesus!  In fact, says Jesus to his disciples on the heels of this story, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” adding, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Or, as it’s paraphrased in The Message, “I want you to be smart in the same way” as this unjust, crooked manager!

And you and I, together with generations of biblical scholars and faithful disciples, are left with the same question:  what’s that all about?  What is Jesus even thinking here?  It’s bad enough for him to be suggesting that God’s people might have something to learn from such a criminal, but could Jesus really be suggesting that as his followers we ought to be engaging in such unethical, not to mention selfish, behavior?  It’s no wonder that there have been those biblical scholars over the centuries who have wondered aloud if Jesus actually did tell that particular parable, or if maybe, just maybe, Luke got it wrong in the telling!

I think, however, if we dig a little deeper into this parable, and Jesus’ assessment of it, it actually makes a lot of sense.  And as so often is the case when we look at scripture, it comes down to language and context.  First of all, we need to understand that when we’re told that “charges” were brought against this manager, the Greek word there is probably better translated as “slandered,” which suggests that perhaps this manager wasn’t as dishonest as we were led to believe (granted, just about every Bible in the world refers to him as the “Dishonest Manager,” but it’s worth noting here that as often is the case with any accusation there might just be a rush to judgment… just sayin’!).  And the charge itself, that the manager had been “squandering” his property, in the Greek language has more to do with spreading it around rather than wasting it; literally in sense of sowing seed!  To quote Richard Swanson, could be that “the manager was investing.  Or he was diversifying.  Or he was stimulating the local economy.  Or he was making allies for his master against a time when allies would come in handy.”

Could be… or maybe not.  But can you see how a particular choice of words would serve to make a heretofore thoroughly dishonest manager a shrewd manager (oh, and by the way, the Greek word used for shrewd is phronimos, which also suggests wisdom and prudence)?

It’s also important for us to understand that Jesus tells this particular story immediately after he’s told a trio of other very familiar parables: that of the lost sheep, the lost coin and of course, the parable of the prodigal son.  Remember, those three stories were in response to the scribes and Pharisees grumbling and complaining that Jesus was welcoming tax collectors and sinners, of all people, and eating (!) with them (15:1-2).  So these stories about how God reaches out to those who are lost and draws them back into his loving embrace; about how even the worst of the worst and lowest of the low could be welcomed back home by the father who loved and forgave him actually flows very nicely into this next story about a supposed low-life criminal who is commended for his incredible shrewdness!  And isn’t it also interesting that the next thing Jesus says is a reminder to his disciples and to us that “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?”   Or, to quote The Message again, “If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?”

Kind of changes our whole reading of what Jesus is saying in this parable, doesn’t it?

No… I don’t think that Jesus is actually suggesting we go out into the world and seek to mismanage other peoples’ money for the sake of the Kingdom of God, nor is it for us to take undue and unfair advantage of a particular situation in which we find ourselves.  But it does seem to me that the point that Jesus is making here is that God calls us to make use of the resources that we’ve been given; to make an assessment of all that God has provided us, in trust, to care for and invest; doing the absolute best in whatever way we can with that which we’ve been given so that when that final day of accounting comes for us we also might be commended for our shrewdness, our prudence and our wisdom.

If that all still sounds a bit suspect, let me put this another way: in a world that ever seems to be shifting beneath our feet, it would seem to me that a greater sense of responsibility as regards our faith is paramount in importance.  In this seemingly outrageous parable of Jesus we are being admonished that in times of crisis, when all the other securities of this life have either fallen short or crumbled altogether, our actions as God’s people need to be decisive, bold, creative and above all, faithful, even if some personal risk is involved; because the future, as uncertain as it might seem, is ever and always God’s future, and we who would call ourselves believers are stewards of it.  The steward in the parable takes a rather precarious and bleak situation and works with it; he  wheels and deals and does whatever he can, “adjusting the bottom line,” literally and in faith that somehow, someway some good will come out of it.  Likewise, you and I are called to take what we have, this treasure which is the hope and love and peace and joy of God Almighty, working with it in and through all the joys and challenges of this life that by our efforts and God’s grace, it will become transformed into something sacramental and miraculous.

This is what Jesus is getting at, and it’s a crucial understanding of the Christian life for you and me, and a challenge as well. Maybe it’s not tantamount to the shady dealings of a soon- to-be unemployed property manager… but the point is, if he was able to do this why can’t you and I, as the children of God and stewards of something infinitely precious, show the same vigor and determination in preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom?  Likewise, if you and I who seek to follow Christ cannot use to our best advantage the resources of this life and this world, then how can we ever be expected to be good managers – that is, good stewards – of the true riches to which God wants to entrust us?

I think that what all this means for us in these days of confused and challenging situations is that now, perhaps more than ever, where our lives as Christians and as the church is concerned it can never be “business as usual,” if in fact there ever was such a time.  As stewards of all that God has given us in such abundance, we can no longer merely rest on a safe and easy “bottom line;” that is settling for a “warm and fuzzy faith,” basking in what’s comfortable and easy and convenient about our relationship with God, daring not to risk ourselves on what one Celtic hymn refers to as “the steep and rugged pathway,” the way which requires from us courage and some struggle, not to mention wisdom and prudence.  Our bottom line needs adjusting, friends; we need to be stirred out of the comfort zone that keeps us from being bold stewards of God’s future.  And that’s true for us both individually and collectively: you have often heard me say from this pulpit what I’ve long believed, that the best thing that the Church can do in these times is to actually be the Church; well, I’d like to add to that.  If we truly hear Jesus’ words in this parable, perhaps the best thing we can do right now as the Church – and each one of us here as part of that sacred body – is to be all that we can be… and more.

Of course, along with being bold and courageous and occasionally outrageous in doing so, we also must be… cautious.  Don’t forget here that Jesus makes the point of reminding us that “no slave can serve two masters,” because “you’ll either hate the first and love the second or adore the first and despise the second;” [The Message] all this to say that you can’t love God and wealth, any more than you can employ the ways and means of the world in your faith without risking becoming sucked into that kind of a life rather than one that’s wholly centered on Christ and his kingdom… so maybe Jesus wasn’t advocating the life of a scoundrel, after all (and also, by the way, if you read the next verses in Luke, you discover that the scribes and Pharisees, “who were lovers of money,” ridiculed Jesus for what he was saying about this… which just sort of proves Jesus’ point)!  The point is to be bold, yes; but it matters how… and that’s what you and I need to remember as we seek to live out the ways of God’s purpose and plan in this life.

I remember how, on the days following 9/11, a few of us who were pastors in our community decided to hold an ecumenical prayer service in the aftermath of that horrible day.  As I recall it now, it all pretty impromptu,  there was little or no time to promote it, and really, we weren’t at all sure what we were going to do or say once we got there!  But word got around, and come the evening of the service, that sanctuary – which was at the Catholic Church, the largest in town – was filled to overflowing – standing room only, fact (!) – with just about every congregation in town represented and including a whole lot of people who’d rarely, if ever, had darkened the doorway of a church until that night.  It was surprising and humbling, to say the least; and what I will always remember is that our host pastor, a wonderful priest by the name of Fr. Jim Morrison, stood before these literally hundreds of people who’d come out that night and simply said, “Well, at least one good thing has come out of these terrible events.  It got us all together.”  We were together… in faith, in fellowship and above all in prayer… and we sang and we wept and we embraced one another in that moment as one people of God, relying on the power and grace of God to sustain and lead us. It was a truly holy moment, one that I know with every fiber of my being was good, and right, and acceptable to God.

It’s often said that on 9/11, the world changed forever, but the truth is that our world is always shifting and changing; and so are we in our lives and living. Each new day, each new event, each new change brings with it a new challenge for you and me as people of faith.  But whatever happens, whatever changes come our way, one thing remains the same:  God’s future is sure and God’s kingdom is forever.  And because of this, we can move into God’s future with hope, confidence and strength.

So let us not be afraid to adjust the bottom line of our lives in faith, proclaiming this sure and certain hope boldly with wisdom and all shrewdness that we might be entrusted with the true riches. Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Faithful in Little, Faithful in Much

Psalm-121(a sermon for September 25, 2016, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; based on Luke 16:1-13)

The story is told of Henry Ford, the legendary industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company, who, while on a visit to his family’s ancestral home in County Cork, Ireland, was approached by two local officials seeking contributions toward the construction of a new hospital in the village. And Ford, who by this time was very wealthy and very much used to requests such as this, immediately pulled out his checkbook and generously wrote out a check for $5,000 toward the project; which, given that this was the 1930’s, was a great deal of money.   So, wonderful; except that the next morning at breakfast, Ford opened his copy of the local daily newspaper to read the banner headline:  “American Millionaire Gives Unprecedented Gift of $50,000 to Local Hospital!” 

Needless to say, Ford wasted no time in summoning the two trustees who had visited him the day before!  Waving the newspaper in their faces, he demanded an explanation, and the trustees apologized profusely for what they claimed was a typographical error:  “Dreadful mistake,” they kept saying.  “Dreadful mistake!”  In fact, they promised that they would get the editor to print a retraction the very next day, and on the front page, which would declare that Henry Ford had given not fifty thousand to this worthy endeavor, but only five.

Well, you can guess what happened next; Ford looked in the eyes of those two smiling trustees for a long moment, and began to see what was really happening.  In the end, he decided to add another 45 thousand to the original gift, so to make the full fifty thousand a reality, but would do so on one condition: that the trustees erect a marble arch at the entrance of this new hospital, on which there be placed a plaque with these words from Matthew 25:35, drawing straight from the King James Version:  “I was a stranger and ye took me in!”

That’s a great story; and actually, the shrewdness of those two hospital trustees is fairly reminiscent of that of the manager who is at the center of the story Jesus tells in our text for this morning; that is to say, single-minded, quick-thinking, and more than a tad deceitful (!), which gives you an idea as why there have been those over the years who have had some, shall we say, difficulty with this particular parable!

I mean, it’s not exactly the kind of story, or the kind of hero we’d expect from Jesus:  here’s this manager who squanders all the company’s money for his own personal comfort, and then, when he realizes his boss is on to him, quickly starts buying off the company’s clients, skimming off the top of his master’s profit margin so to save himself later on.  It’s not by any stretch an “ethical business practice” and far from what anyone, then or now, would consider to be righteous behavior; and yet, in the context of this parable Jesus seeks to glorify it!  Not only does this low-life manager apparently get away with what he’s done, he ends up being praised by his master for his shrewdness and, as The Message translates it, for knowing “how to look after himself.”  Kind of works against the whole “do unto others” thing we’re used to from Jesus, doesn’t it? And as if this weren’t unsettling enough, once he’s told this story Jesus then turns to the people around him and says, you people could learn a thing or two from that dishonest manager! “I tell you,” he says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth…” 

Whoa! I’ve got to imagine that at this point, even the person who was sitting there only half-heartedly listening to Jesus telling this story was now paying complete attention!  “By means of dishonest wealth?” What’s that all about?  It’s a shocker, even by our standards; and especially so coming from Jesus; but that, you see, was the whole point.  And the reason for the parables themselves: Jesus knew that if he could hook them, and us, in with a story of one crooked manager’s clever treachery, then he could get us to pay attention to something ultimately much more important!

To wit: if, in his utter desperation this dishonest manager showed such resourcefulness in providing for himself – making full use of the very thing that had corrupted him the first place – why can’t the children of God, who are the stewards of something infinitely precious, show the same vigor and determination in preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom?  Likewise, if you and I who seek to follow Christ cannot use to our best advantage the resources of this life and this world, then how can we ever be expected to be good managers – that is, good stewards – of the true riches to which God wants to entrust us?

Indeed, as Jesus himself says it, “whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”

I think back to when our children were very small, and Lisa and I would seek to invest them with a sense of responsibility in life; in other words, to have them share in the work of our family, to give them a chore or two! Of course, the reality is you can’t send a pre-schooler to wash the supper dishes or to do the laundry; they’re kids, after all, and too young and inexperienced for those kinds of jobs. No, you start them out with the smaller tasks of picking up their toys, or taking their dishes to the sink, or cleaning their rooms; which, as I recall, sometimes worked out pretty well, but oftentimes… not!    But it did instill this idea that doing the little jobs made you ready for the bigger ones later on!

Well, this is what Jesus is saying here: to be faithful in very little means you can be counted on to be faithful in a great deal.  And yes, we are talking about stewardship here; the stewardship of all of life: the ways that we faithfully make use of the blessings of time, skill and circumstance, all these the resources of worldly ways and means that are ours by God’s own blessed abundance.  The fact is, there is so much in this life of ours that we deal with, budget and prioritize quite literally on a daily basis; there is so much before us that can be used to the good of life, on the one hand, or else can be made to create divisiveness, dependency or degradation on the other.  You can make your choices based on faith, or you choose to follow the prevailing winds of whatever’s happening in the world this week; either way, however, into the midst of this “stewardship of life” comes the Christ, and his question – his challenge – to us is clear and direct:  if we cannot handle the resources we’ve been given aptly and shrewdly for the sake of God’s kingdom, then how will we ever be a true steward of God’s greater gifts?

Understand, friends, this is no mere hyperbole!   You and I are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ, and as such we are tasked with managing all of life and the world for his sake; we are meant to be gauging and measuring the impact of everything we do by the manner which God is glorified, justice is done and love is exemplified!  We are to be regarded as children of light in a world of darkness; and yet the truth is that so casually and often even unknowingly, we acquiesce all these many blessings of our lives for the sake of the world’s continuing darkness.

And we can’t have it both ways!  In our reading today, Jesus goes on to talk about how “you cannot serve God and wealth,” that such a thing would be akin to a slave serving two masters, “for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other;” in other words, it can’t be done.  And make no mistake, there’s a clear admonition here from Jesus against our making wealth and power a priority over God.  But I think in this context it’s also a warning against “compartmentalizing” our lives. For truly, with all the concerns that pull at us in this world, it becomes tempting and all too easy for us to relegate our faith in God to a specific and limited part of our lives; while letting the rest of our lives be directed elsewhere.  But what Jesus tells here, as much as we might think this works, it can’t; just as we can’t serve both God and wealth, we cannot expect to be good and honest managers of the Kingdom of God when our attentions have been divided here, there and everything in the world!

Let me give you a small example here:  some years ago I was a part of an online discussion group with other clergy-types that had a lively back and forth on the subject of… clocks; specifically, clocks hanging the back walls of church sanctuaries (yes, this is what pastors talk about!).  Now I have to confess that I have a very love/hate relationship with the clock on the back of our wall!  On the one hand, it serves to more or less keep me on track time-wise (more or less!), but on the other hand, because of that clock I will always feel as if I risk becoming a slave to the hour instead of to the proper act and attitude of Christian worship, to the movement of God’s Spirit in our midst, and to my calling as your pastor in this church.

Well, come to find out I wasn’t the only pastor who worries about these things, and I’ll never forget what was written about this by one of my colleagues, the Rev. Christopher Brundage, wrote about this:  “A clock and a cross,” he wrote, “ do not belong together in the same room.  [They] exclude each other.  We simply cannot serve both of them.  A cross represents love, blood, and sacrifice; while a clock represents quantity, measurement, and this dangerous illusion that we can manage and control the events that swirl around us.”

Now, friends, I don’t suggest we get rid of the clock, here or anywhere; but my point is that we need to be mindful of what a clock represents in our lives:  about “getting there on time,” or “finishing before time’s up,” or how we all try so hard to fit a week’s worth of worry into a single day.   Better for us to consider where we place the true emphases of our lives; best for us as followers of Jesus Christ to begin to reclaim those parts of life and living that have been relegated to the peripheries of a world that pulls us in a multitude of other directions.  It’s not about turning wholly away from everything else we know in this life; rather it’s about incorporating everything else into that which is the most important of all; understanding all of it belongs to God.

We are the managers, beloved; we are the stewards of the life we’re given. It’s only when we are faithful stewards of the here and now that we can ever hope to be entrusted to the true riches with which God wants to bless us even now in the coming kingdom of God.

So how will you spend this day?  Or maybe, more to the point, how do you intend to spend the day tomorrow, or on Tuesday, or on any of the days that follow?  How will your time be used?  What kind of choices will you make with the resources you’ve been given?  And after all that, what do you want your legacy to be?

Beloved, let me just say that how you answer those questions makes all the difference in the world… literally and spiritually!  But I also have to say that the answers come one little act of faith at time; and the good news is that if you and I can be faithful in all those little things, we’ll certainly be faithful in much.

Beloved, let it be said of us that we lived faithfully unto all of life… now and in the kingdom to come.

And may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2016 in Discipleship, Faith, Jesus, Sermon, Stewardship

 

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