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September 19, 2004
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Luke, chapter 16, and follow along as I read verses 1-9. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
1 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.
2 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.'
3 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.
4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.'
5 So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'
6 He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.'
7 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.'
8 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.
9 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.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Thou shalt commit adultery; Repeat: Thou shalt commit adultery. That is what the Bible says. You can look it up. Of course, you would have to look it up in the King James Version of 1631, in which the word “not” was accidentally omitted. This typo so infuriated King Charles that he commanded that all copies be destroyed, and he fined every printer who had anything to do with the scandalous edition. Because of the loss of a word, the King James Version of 1631 is known as “The Wicked Bible.”
Unfortunately, it appears that more and more people today are leaving the “nots” out of the Ten Commandments. The ninth commandment suffers the most in our contemporary culture: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16, KJV). This commandment demands that the truth be told, especially in a court of law, and it forbids anyone to tell a lie in order to gain an advantage over a neighbor.
To many people in our society, this seems like a quaint notion. Sometimes, it seems like our whole society behaves like a Liars’ Club. In his book The Cheating Culture, author David Callahan argues that cheating is no longer limited to the secretive, shady society of criminals, hucksters, and scoundrels. Now, he says, everyone is doing it; and because everyone sees everyone else doing it, they keep on doing it.
Is this an overstatement? Perhaps, there are still honest people among us, but consider the case assembled by Callahan. He says that the trouble begins in our competitive economic climate, which rewards bottom-line results and often allows winners to get away with unethical and even criminal behavior. Honesty might be a nice ideal, but it is not always true that honest folks finish first. Callahan argues that cheaters cheat because cheating can help a person to get ahead, especially as the chances of being caught continue to shrink, and especially as the severity of the punishments for getting caught continues to shrink. For many people, the benefits of a successful cheat far outweigh any potential punishment.
An example: In the Washington, D.C. area, several express lanes are reserved for carpoolers, and these lanes cut a great deal of time off a person’s daily commute. Solo drivers are prohibited from using these lanes, and they face a stiff fine if they are caught, but many people cheat the system every day, figuring that an occasional fine is simply the cost of doing business. They have no problem being in the Liar’s Club, as long as they reach their destination ahead of the competition.
The bottom line for Callahan is that upright folks are drawn into cheating, drawn by the fear that they will not be able to make it in modern society otherwise. “Thou shalt not drive solo in the carpool lane” is being twisted by our competitive climate into a wicked new commandment: “Thou shalt drive solo ... or else.”
Speaking of cheating, someone has described golf as a game where you shoot six, write down five, and yell “Fore!”
Or, did you hear the story about a lawyer named Mr. Strange who was shopping for a tombstone. After he had made his selection, the stonecutter asked him what inscription he would like on it.
“Here lies an honest man and a lawyer,” responded the lawyer.
“Sorry, but I can’t do that,” replied the stonecutter. “In this state, it’s against the law to bury two people in the same grave.”
Mr. Strange was not amused by the stonecutter’s attempt at humor and asked if he had another suggestion.
The stonecutter said, “I could write, ‘Here lies an honest lawyer.’”
The lawyer protested, “But that won’t tell people who it was.”
“It most certainly will,” retorted the stonecutter. “People will read, ‘Here lies an honest lawyer’ and exclaim, ‘That’s Strange!’”
David Callahan begins his book The Cheating Culture with an episode of dishonesty during a national tragedy. When chaos gripped Manhattan after 9/11, some members of a New York credit union discovered that, because of a computer error, they could withdraw unlimited amounts from cash machines.
Did the credit union rush to cut them off? No, it trusted its members to use their ATM cards responsibly, but this trust proved to be costly. Over a period of about two months, as many as 4,000 members overdrew their accounts, some by as much as $10,000. Some of the money was returned, but $15 million remained missing. Finally, deciding that trusting to people’s honesty was not going to work, the credit union called in the authorities to make arrests. During 9/11, we like to think that America was drawn together and returned to its ideals. Apparently honesty was not one of those ideals.
Again, one of baseball’s great players, a contender in the home-run record sweepstakes, the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, had hit over 500 career home runs when he broke his bat during a game on June 2, 2003. According to Sports Illustrated (June 10, 2003), the bat had been drilled out to make it lighter, and filled with cork to muffle the hollow sound when bat connected with ball. Sosa called the incident a misunderstanding, claiming that he had “accidentally” grabbed a corked bat, which he used during practice. The sad thing about this incident is that Sammy Sosa is a great hitter, but even he apparently was so pressured by our brutal culture that he felt he had to cheat a little to get that something extra.
God Versus Culture
In light of all this cheating, what is the message of the parable of the dishonest manager? At first glance, it seems to be an invitation to join the Liar’s Club and “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” (Luke 16:9), but a deeper examination reveals that this story is more about heavenly riches than it is about earthly wealth. The theme is on preparing for the next world, not getting ahead in this one.
From the start of the story, we know that the dishonest manager is a card-carrying member of the cheating culture. He is charged with squandering the property of his rich boss, and is immediately given his two-weeks’ notice. “You’re fired!” the boss bellows, sounding like a first-century Donald Trump.
“What will I do,” the shady steward says to himself, “now that my master is taking the position away from me?” (v. 3). He knows that he is not strong enough for manual labor, and he is ashamed to sit in the street with a beggar’s cup.
So he comes up with a plan. In order to guarantee that he will have a safe place to stay in the homes of his former clients, he summons the master’s debtors and gives them some wonderfully deep discounts. To the one who owes 100 jugs of olive oil, the manager says that the debt is now just 50. To the one who is in debt for 100 containers of wheat, the manager announces, “You’re in luck; your bill is now 80!”
This sounds pretty slippery, doesn’t it? On the surface, it appears to be unethical, and even criminal. Unfortunately for us, biblical scholars are unclear about the precise nature of these transactions, and so the scholars suggest a couple of possibilities.
According to the first option, the manager is a crook, plain and simple. He falsifies the records in order to gain the affection of the debtors. In this case, he is cheating his master by reducing the size of the debts, and he is running the risk of being thrown in the slammer for stealing. The problem with this interpretation is that it makes the master’s reaction sound rather odd. The parable tells us that the rich man commends—yes, commends—the dishonest manager because he has acted shrewdly, but this is an unlikely response from a man who has just lost 50 jugs of olive oil and 20 containers of wheat. It seems more likely that instead of commending him, the rich man would have had him strung up by his thumbs and flogged.
But there is another possible interpretation here. This interpretation sees the manager as a shrewd businessman who is willing to sacrifice short-term earnings for long-term security. Scholars point out that in that time the manager or steward worked on commission. He got a portion of every sale. In this way of interpreting the parable, the manager simply cuts his own commission out of the amount that the debtors owe. The 100 jugs of olive oil can be broken down into 50 for the master, and 50 for the manager, and in the same way, the 100 containers of wheat can be itemized as 80 for the master and 20 for the manager. When the manager calls the debtors to settle their accounts, he eliminates his own commission, knowing that he will benefit in the long term from having a place to stay once he is out of work.
In this case, he is not a liar. He is simply taking the long view. This second interpretation helps us to make sense of the master’s reaction. The rich man commends the manager for acting shrewdly, because he knows that there are times when it is beneficial to resist the lure of a quick buck and make a long-term investment. On top of this, the rich man knows that he has not lost anything himself. He will still get the olive oil and the wheat that the debtors owe him. What does he care if his former employee loses his commissions?
The point of the parable is given to us in v13. Jesus says, “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." So Jesus here is talking about commitment. You cannot maintain a dual focus on short-term profits and long-term security. You have to pick one or the other, and give it your undivided attention. As is true in the parable of the dishonest manager, there are times in which we have to sacrifice the commissions of this world so that we will have the eternal comforts of God’s world. Laying out our choice in a crystal-clear contrast, Jesus concludes saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (v. 13).
Our cheating culture encourages us to focus on earthly wealth, short-term profits and worldly commissions. It tempts us to cut corners in pursuit of financial success, and pushes us to twist the truth in order to beat the competition. And all that ultimately leads nowhere.
Kristin Hayes of Arlington, Virginia, took a look at the contents of the nonfat, nondairy creamer that she uses in her daily coffee. “Do you know what’s in that stuff?” she asks, in a Washington Post article (March 21, 2004). “Nothing, apparently. Zero percent of your daily fat, cholesterol, sugar or protein. It’s evidently puffed-up air.”
Thinking about nonfat, nondairy creamer, she is afraid that her life will end up like that. She says, “Maybe you fool some people; maybe some people even prefer you to the ‘real thing.’ But what if, when all is said and done, you give no real nutritional value, nothing of real substance? Just human Coffeemate.”
Kristin Hayes may be on to something there. If we live the way our culture says that we should live, if we cheat and lie and focus on money and worldly stuff, then we miss the whole point of life and we become, as she says, “human Coffeemate.”
Today’s Scripture challenges us to focus on a higher calling, and to be willing to sacrifice some of our earthly commissions in order to gain heavenly wealth. The parable is a call for us to practice Christian stewardship, and make sacrificial gifts in support of God’s work in the world. When we do this, we are following the example of the steward in the parable, a person who shrewdly trades short-term profits for long-term security.
In other words, Jesus urges us to trade the things of this world for the things of God. We ought always in every way to live for God. Thomas a Kempis said, “Would that I were able, were it but for one day, to serve thee worthily! Verily thou are worthy of all service, of all honor, and of eternal praise. Thou art truly my Lord , and I am thy poor servant, who am bound with all my strength to serve thee and ought never to grow weary of praising thee.” (Of the Imitation of Christ, III, 10). That is the attitude we should all cultivate—a desire to serve God right now with all that I am and all that I have. That is the only life that is worth living. That is what we were made for.
There is a song written back in 1896 by Judson W. Van DeVenter entitled, I Surrender All. The opening words go like this:
All to Jesus, I surrender;
All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
In His presence daily live.
The song gives us the same advice as Thomas A Kempis. We are to give all of our lives to Jesus and serve him every day and live in his presence every day.
And all means all. It means every aspect of our lives. We should consider ourselves as belonging to Jesus. That means that all our time belongs to Jesus, all our money belongs to Jesus, all our possessions belong to Jesus. Now I know that some people want to divide up with God. They want to say, well, I will give God a little offering on the Sabbath, but the rest of it belongs to me, and I will spend that however I like. And so they try to serve two masters, God and themselves. Some churches spend a lot to time preaching that everyone ought to give the tithe, that is, everyone ought to give ten percent of their income to the church. They would say that the tithe is the Lord’s money and the other ninety percent is your money. That is not a biblical perspective. The Bible teaches that it is all the Lord’s money. You belong to God, and all your possessions belong to God, and all your money belongs to God. That is the attitude we are to have as God’s people. In all our spending, and in all our living, we recognize that we are God’s people.
We have received an abundance from God. We have eternal promises. God is the living fountain from which we draw the water of life. God has given us his grace and love in Jesus Christ. God has promised to be with us and to help us and to take care of us. God hears our prayers now and calls us to heaven in the future.
It is foolish then for us to prefer a cheating, lying culture to the sweet presence of the living God. Thomas A Kempis says, “If you are truly wise, you will rejoice in [God] alone, you hope in [God] alone; for none is good but God only, who is to be praised above all things, and in all things to be blessed.” [Of the Imitation of Christ, III, 9]
To which we say, Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 12/06.04