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First Presbyterian Church

September 22, 2019

Brian K. Blount, Union Presbyterian Seminary

On Being Dishonest

Luke 16:1-13

For those of you who don’t know, the lectionary is a preaching guide. In the lectionary, there are biblical lessons, texts assigned to each Sunday of the calendar year. Generally, two Old Testament and two New Testament texts. All around the world, churches that use the lectionary are using the same texts. Though we worship in separate cities and villages and countries and on different continents, the lectionary binds us together. It is as though we are one great congregation, gathered in different churches, yet reading and reflecting upon the same verses. All across the world, our Bibles are open to the same page.

For ministers, the lectionary is helpful because it provides source material for preaching that over the course of three years covers most of the Bible. Preachers who follow the lectionary are therefore guided to preach the entire Bible. The lectionary forces a preacher who loves the New Testament to preach from the Old; it positions a preacher who treasures the gospels to call upon the letters of Paul. This is the beauty of the lectionary: it diversifies a preacher’s preaching routine so that he is not stuck preaching from the same texts over and over again. This is the horror of the lectionary: sitting apprehensively in your study, gearing up to start the process of writing yet another Sunday sermon, you look at those four scriptures and you know immediately, “I don’t want to write a sermon about any of these texts and my congregation doesn’t want to hear a sermon about any of these texts.” Well, if you’re committed to the lectionary, you’re gonna preach it and they are gonna hear it.

This morning, thanks to lectionary, you are gonna hear the parable of the dishonest steward. Let me just say it: I don’t like this parable. I don’t like the characters in it. I don’t like how they behave in it. I struggle to understand it. What if God gave you a job and resources to do that job? And what if the initial review was that you were either too incompetent or too lazy to do that job? What happens next? Is Jesus telling this parable to his disciples because he is suggesting that they are squandering the gifts that God has given them? Does Luke want us to hear this parable with the disciples so that we will ask whether we are squandering the gifts God has given us? Does Jesus see us the way he sees the dishonest steward in this parable? After spending a lot of time studying this parable, I am relieved to tell you that Jesus does NOT think we are like the dishonest steward. I am appalled to tell you that Jesus wishes that we were.

Though Jesus starts the story by introducing a rich man, the protagonist is the manager who works for him. The rich man owns a lot of stuff. So much stuff that he must delegate stewardship over it to others, like the manager. Just like God has a lot of stuff. A whole creation in fact. While we tend to the little piece of it we call Earth, God has an entire universe to super- intend. So, according to the biblical texts, God delegated the stewardship of this planet and the creatures upon it to us. Just like God delegates the stewardship of the church and its resources to us. What comes next in the parable is a reckoning. The rich man, upon his return, finds out that the manager has squandered his resources. Jesus’ implication is clear: what will God find when God comes back to check on how we have handled God’s resources?

It doesn’t look good. It doesn’t take us long to realize that this guy is not the person we would want to put in charge of the annual church stewardship campaign. You wouldn’t even let this guy manage your Monopoly money. He must have looked busy. Up to that point, he had kept his job. But he was clearly doing nothing. He was theatrically, passionately, demonstratively doing nothing. Sooner or later, in a world that expects something, doing nothing catches up with you.

It catches up with the manager the way it would probably catch up with anyone. Somebody tattles. “Ms. CEO, did you know that Susan comes into work late every morning? Yeah, she slips in the side door so you don’t notice.” “Mr. Supervisor, I’m worried about Henry. He’s been spending twice as long on his breaks as he’s supposed to.” “Now, Mr. Rich Man, you know I love your manager, he and I went to school together, he’s my son’s godfather for goodness sake, but I gotta tell you, and it’s breaking my heart that I gotta do it, but he’s just messing up your business and throwing away your money.”

The rich man responds without hesitation. He must trust his sources. Because he has already made up his mind when he approaches his manager. He asks for an accounting, but even before he sends the manager off to get the books, he tells him, you are fired. You can no longer be my manager because I’ve heard from reputable sources that you’ve been doing a poor job.

I want you to notice something. To this point, it is just that. A poor job. This is called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. But to this point, no one has said he’s done anything dishonest. He’s clearly unfit. He’s probably lazy. He is apparently worthless. But he is not dishonest. Not yet. He’s being fired for cause, but the cause is not corruption; it is incompetence. Because of that incompetence, the manager’s fate is sealed before he even has a chance to respond.

Have you even been in a situation where it looked like no matter what you did, everything was already decided against you? Where it looks like it is too hard to change the situation and there is nothing you can do except take it. Writers and movie makers love showing people who face such devastating moments. They show us characters who, overwhelmed by the moment and the self-pity that preoccupies that moment, lie down, curl up, and surrender … just before they rise up and fight back. There is this scene from one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption, when a man who was unjustly imprisoned for life finds himself at a point of complete surrender, when it looks like his life is trapped in injustice and confinement, when it appears that there is no way out of the reality that has incarcerated him except this one, crazy, risky, daring escape maneuver, he says: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living. Or get busy dying.” Because, sometimes, when faced with an incredibly difficult situation, like the one in which the manager finds himself, you have to decide. Will you let life keep driving you the way it has been driving you? Or will you take control and start making the turns.

The manager has come to such a crossroads. Time for him either to get busy living or stay busy dying. It is in the business of living that he makes a radical decision about making a risky move. He goes dishonest. This is the point where the lazy, incompetent steward becomes the dishonest steward. When he decides to do the hard thing. When he decides to get busy living. By being a crook. But he is going to use his crookery to a good end. Can you be a good crook? Is that possible? Well, Jesus apparently thinks you can. And here is how.

The manager comes to a realization about who and what he is. Self-realization is important. But it is hard. And, too often, people fight it. “Who, me?” “It’s not my fault.” “The devil made me do it.” Sometimes, you just have to realize who and what you are before you can become who and what you might be.

Faced with this critical moment in his life, the manager comes to such a moment of self-realization. He doesn’t flop. I love sports. In basketball, if you get fouled you get to take free throws. Free throws are good. You get to shoot the ball with no one trying to block your shot. You get to make some points with no time running off the clock. So, next to getting a basket, getting fouled is a good thing. So, sometimes, basketball players try to encourage the referees to call a foul even when no foul has been committed. By flopping. When an opposing player gets too close to them, they fall down, and scream out in agony, and things are happening so fast, the referee figures, “He fell down, he must have gotten knocked down; he cried out, he must have gotten hurt. I’m blowing my whistle. Foul!” Of course, the opposing player, who did not touch the player who fell down, is appropriately outraged. But what are you going to do! Flopping got so bad in the NBA that the league started fining players thousands of dollars for flopping to get them to cut it out. Flopping is a way of earning something, free throws in basketball that you really didn’t earn. You keep convincing yourself that you did earn them, you keep flopping, and sooner or later you start to believe you are a better player than you really are.

Children are great floppers. They get caught doing something wrong. They look at you like an innocent little waif just out of a Charles Dickens novel. Hand stuck in the cookie jar, lamp lying on the floor broken all in pieces, toilet stopped up with Play-Doh, all running over, and you walk in and they go from Dennis the Menace who caused this mess to sweet little angel who can’t believe all this mess is happening to her. “And, daddy, isn’t there anything you can do to fix this?” “And, I love you so much daddy,” with those soulful, tearful, puppy dog eyes, and she reaches up for you to pick her up and hold her, and she’s crying and you feel so sorry for her, and she whispers, “We don’t need to tell mommy about this, do we?” And, of course, we don’t. We just need to fix this up and forget about it. Children flop. Adults flop. Men flop. Women flop. All over the church and world, Christians flop.

I’ve seen Christians flopping around the church and world like fish hauled up out of the water flapping around on the deck of a boat. All the floppable reasons we give why we can’t give, why we can’t serve, why we can’t minister, why we can’t risk, why we can’t change the world the way Jesus wants us to change the world because the world is just too big and too stubborn, and we’re too small and too weak to make a difference. In the NBA we’d get fined $5,000 for that kind of flopping. I wonder if this is Jesus’ point. Like the manager, God has given us so very much, so very many resources, so very many churches. By telling this story to the disciples, by implying that this manager is like the disciples, Jesus is kind of telling the disciples, not only have you not been properly putting God’s resources to use, you’ve been flopping out excuses as to why you’ve not been putting them to use. I kind of think Jesus is warning his disciples against flopping. Because maybe Jesus knows, you put people in an intense situation of giving or living, and people like to flop.

But not this manager! As bad as he was on his job, this manager resisted flopping in this critical moment with his boss. He could have flopped out a bunch of reasons why the money wasn’t coming in right: he could have claimed an illness that kept him from doing his job properly; he could have insisted that he didn’t have the right tools to do the job the right way. He could have argued that he wasn’t the problem! He could have argued that the rich man’s clients were the problem. He could have flopped.

Instead, to his credit, he accepts responsibility. The manager sees himself clearly now. Perhaps for the first time. He is NOT strong. So, he can’t be a laborer. He IS proud. So, he can’t be a beggar. He is not likeable. So, no one is going to stick up for him. But he is also cunning. And he is in a position to put that cunning to work. If he is willing to take a risk. The kind of risk, where if things go badly, he could very well end up in prison, or, in the first century, dead. He gets busy living by getting busy being shrewd.

I drive a lot for my job and I often listen to satellite radio while I’m driving. I have heard many times during my drive these crazy commercials from companies that promise to help people with the massive credit card debt they may have accumulated. One company is National Debt Relief. The spokesperson is always yelling. Even if you turn the volume down you can tell he’s yelling. And he’s yelling, “Do you have huge credit card debt? Don’t let the credit card companies trick you into believing you have to pay it all back. You don’t! You have the right to settle your debt for pennies on the dollar. We can show you how. Call National Debt Relief.”

This suddenly shrewd manager all of a sudden becomes Mr. Parable Debt Relief. His master expects him to loan money out, and bring that money, and no doubt, interest, back in. The manager decides that in this situation it would make his situation better if he takes back in less than the master would expect. Less than the master is owed. Since the master has already fired him, since he’s already lost the master’s favor, perhaps he can incur favor with the people who have borrowed from the master. Knowing that these clients are also probably afraid of the rich man because of what they owe him, and knowing that they can’t afford to pay all that they owe him, and certainly not in the time the manager needs them to pay, he offers them a discount that the master had not authorized. That lack of authorization is what makes this maneuver dishonest. What he is doing will cost his master money!

Surely, doing this would help the master’s clients immensely. Imagine that if you had taken out a loan and were expected to pay back $100 and the bank said, “Just pay me 50 and we’ll call it good.” Pay back 50 cents on every dollar you owe, or even 80 cents back on every dollar you owe! Of course, you’d love that bank. Of course, the rich man’s clients would love that manager. But you know and I know that he’s not doing it out of love. He’s doing it out of cunning. He’s doing it out of self-interest. He is doing it so that these clients of the rich man will owe him. And owe him big. So, when the master fires him and he has no place to lay his head, these grateful clients will take him in and feed him. I don’t know if the manager is looking any better as a person, but he is certainly looking better as a manager.

If you can’t do good for goodness sake, do good for good business sake. Give good so good will come back to you. Plant good, so good will grow and feed you. If you can’t be nice, act nice and maybe nice will seek you out. It’s not what you deserve; it’s what you earn. The manager wants to earn gratitude. And he does. With somebody else’s money. How resourceful, how shrewd, how dishonest is that?!

By acting dishonestly, because he did not have permission to discount, to devalue the rich man’s business earning potential, he ends up winning for himself and the rich man. The rich man gets paid. Well, you say, not as much as he is owed! But he gets paid something else.

Respect. Appreciation. Social status. The kind of thing Nike or Apple have today. Nike is a master at this. That company gets people, especially young people, to love its shoes because someone like Michael Jordan loves their shoes. It’s not just about the shoes. We know that. It is about getting people to love the company, to admire and respect the company. The companies with this kind of admiration and respect have something even more valuable than profit, because it helps them generate even more profit; they have loyalty and trust. Think of Nike or Apple or Disney or Google or Fed Ex, Netflix, Starbucks, Microsoft, Amazon — those brands mean something because of the reputation behind those brands. How do you build such a reputation? How do you build such brand loyalty?

Well, in the first century, you tell people, “Hey, you owe me 100. Pay me 50. You owe me 100. Pay me 80.” That creates immediate joy on the part of the borrower and when he borrows next whom do you think he borrows from? From whom do you think he tells his neighbors to borrow? The rich man’s brand just shot up, and he knows it, and that is why he thanks his dishonest manager. That is because the manager, looking out for himself, makes it look like he and his boss are looking out for others. By the way he has handled the rich man’s wealth, he ends up using the resources of the world to change the world. For the better!

Is there a corollary for how we might use the gifts God has given us? I think there is. A spiritual corollary and a material one. Consider how we reach out to God’s people and get them to see the value in the Presbyterian brand, the Christian brand, the Jesus way of life. What do we tell people? Look, you are in the debt of sin. You owe God way more than you could ever pay. See what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna tell you how God sent Jesus as your eternal debt relief. Where the debt of sin is concerned, where you owe a gargantuan interest rate because even though you already knew you were a sinner, you doubled down like a sin addict and kept sinning more and more, even when you knew it was wrong, even when you knew you were in church, even when you knew you were with family, you couldn’t stop the shameful breaking of God’s expectations for you and your life. You owe God 100. But you know what? God is reducing what you owe to zero. God is not just discounting the debt. God is wiping the debt out.

Have we done that? Have we made friends of others by telling that story? If we haven’t, if we’ve held back that good news, then we are like the manager. We are squandering the resource God has given us. God is expecting more. Time to make a move. Like the steward in this parable. Time to recognize what we haven’t done. Time to get busy doing it.

Of course, it’s not just about sin. It’s about the stewardship of the lives of God’s people, of God’s world. There are a lot of folk who look at the church the way Jesus’ parable looked at the manager, as a steward who has squandered the resources God left in our charge. Are they right? Have we been lazily not looking after people who need looking after? Have we been incompetently not caring for communities that desperately need caring for? Have we been lazily and incompetently not caring for a creation that we have been commissioned by God to concern ourselves with, squandering the resource that God has bequeathed us? Well, Christ is coming again, and he’ll want to know what we’ve been doing with the commissions with which we have been commissioned. That should make us nervous like it made the manager nervous. So it’s time for either some flopping or time for some shrewd creativity. Jesus seems to think it is time for us to figure out how creatively to use the resources we have to lower the burdens of debt and injustice and hopelessness that people feel by changing the count against them. So many people have been counted out in this life. We have the resources to help them change the numbers, perform a recount in their favor. Think how such gracious behavior would change the way the church is viewed in our world today. Like the manager, we can use the resources of the world to change the world and the way the world views the church. If we act with the kind of creative cunning demonstrated by the manager.

“Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” Jesus says. Some people think all that means is that it is okay for us to have church bingo. It’s more than that. Much more than that. Use the resources of the world to change the world. But Jesus seems skeptical that his disciples will be up to the task. What does he say? “… for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” I think Jesus just threw shade at us. I think he just said that folks outside the church are smarter than the folks inside the church when it comes to understanding how the world works and how we should put the resources of the world to work for God’s people. In other words, the children of the world know how to use their assets to better effect than the children of the church know how to use theirs! Think about this. The lazy, incompetent, dishonest manager took what he had and made a hero out of himself and his boss, and at the same time made life more bearable for the folks who owed those massive loans. The manager had nothing, and yet he made himself, his boss, and his boss’s clients, something.

In the church we have much more than nothing. We have Christ. We have each other. We have massive spiritual and social and material capacity. This parable calls us to question what we are doing with all of it. Are we lowering the spiritual and material debt of people struggling in our world? Are we risking all we have to give hope and new possibility to those who have little or nothing? What are we doing with the wondrous resources that Christ has left in our care? Flopping? Or Figuring? I think Jesus tells this parable because he wants us to figure out a way to use what God has given us to make a difference.

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