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Wheeling and Dealing

Luke 16:1-15

We enjoy a good story. When we go to the movie theater we, really like one with a strange twist at the end. We will suspend moral judgment of the characters on the screen because we know that it is all make believe. We will set aside ethical standards for a good laugh. Remember how you enjoyed the movie The Sting, with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. We felt great delight when they outwitted the gangster who had gunned down their friend. Remember the movie, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels? Michael Cain and Steve Martin played two crooks who preyed on the generosity of gullible rich women. Finally, they were outwitted by a lovely but savvy con artist played by Glenne Headly. That's funny. We enjoy seeing the little guy put one over on the big guy. But we do not expect strange stories when we read the Bible.

Today's gospel lesson is a strange story. An employee goes to the boss and snitches on a fellow employee. He tells the boss that of the other managers has been cheating on the company. The boss calls the dishonest manager to his office and tells him that he has until the end of the day to clean out his desk and produce his records.

The account manager considers his options. He knows that he is too old to get another job that pays as well, EEO or not. But he is not old enough to take early retirement. Even the thought of manual labor brings blisters to his hands. Unemployment compensation will not pay all his bills and a lawyer will only tie things up for months. So, he arranges a lunch appointment at an expensive restaurant with his main accounts to do some wheeling and dealing.

During his last meal on the company's credit card, he discusses each client's accounts. He tells them that since they have been such good customers he is offering them a rebate on their previous purchases to be credited to their account. They sign the papers, shake hands, and return to their respective offices thinking that the account manager is a wonderful guy.

Later that afternoon, the account manager brings his books to his boss's office. Even a cursory review of the books reveals the account manager antics. But rather than yell and scream and threaten to have the man arrested or sued, the boss compliments him for his shrewdness.

What a strange story. How can Jesus commend unethical behavior? Maybe you are saying to yourself that perhaps the situation holds extending circumstances. Perhaps, the other employees unjustly maligned the account manager. Perhaps he has been set up. Or, maybe he was just writing off his commission. His boss did not loose any profit; the money was really coming from manager's future wages. Or, perhaps you are saying to yourself, this guy is a crook. First, he misuses company funds, then, even after he is caught, he continues to swindle the company. But rather than receive punishment for his crimes, he is complimented. What a strange twist of events.

We would expect Jesus to use parables to uphold the value of honor and ethical behavior in the workplace. We certainly do not expect Jesus to reward immorality! Yet, that is exactly how this parable ends. Jesus appears to praise the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.1

If you are having difficultly understanding this parable, be assured so did the theologians of the last two centuries and even Luke himself.2 We should remember that Luke heard these stories secondhand. The physician is a late convert. He did not follow Jesus throughout the countryside listening to him preach and teach. He probably never met Jesus. He acquired the stories many years after they took place and compiled them into a written record for someone named Theophilus, In Greek, the word means lover of God. Some scholars have speculated that Luke did not write his book but one person but anyone who considered themselves a lover of God. Throughout the gospel Luke rearranges the material to suit his own theological purposes.  The instructions that follow this parable do not follow a logical flow. They are disjointed. The other gospel writers attach them to other sayings of Jesus. Luke may have placed them at the end of this parable to explain its meaning. He may also, be listing the various interpretations that the NT community had for the story.

Allow me to briefly summarize them in reverse order. In verse 13, Luke records Jesus saying "you cannot serve God and money." Some translations use the word mammon. By mentioning these words, Luke is praising the manager because money is not his god. The teaching rests upon the assumption that the manager was not swindling his boss but trimming his commissions. He is willing to absorb the financial loss in hopes of regaining the good graces of his boss.

In verses 11, 12, Jesus admonishes the disciples to be careful with their worldly wealth. They must demonstrate that they will take advantage of little tasks before they will be given larger responsibilities. By including this instruction, Luke suggests that the parable teaches the disciples that they should manage their financial affairs to maximize their investment potential. The good disciple is among other things an astute businessperson.

William Barclay suggests that the parable could also be applied to our use of money and friendships. Generous disciples will use their money to help others thereby making lifelong friends. They will also further the kingdom of God with their gifts of charity. Barclay notes that many colleges and universities have benefited from the contributions of wealthy individuals.3

These three interpretations are very possible. We would do well to apply any of their applications. Each challenges a different dimension of our lifestyle. But each lessens the shock of the parable. Each minimizes its impact. They depend on assumptions that may or may not be true. So rather than search for a meaning, I would prefer to consider the simple, and most shocking message of the story.

The parable is simply about a man who knows he has done wrong. Faced with a terrible catastrophe, he quickly assesses the circumstances, makes a decision, and acts on it. Sound too simple? Perhaps, but let us consider the similarities between the manager and us.

Throughout the Scriptures, believers are referred to as stewards-managers who have been entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing another person's resources. Perhaps we are reluctant to consider the simple interpretation because we do not want to accept our responsibility and obligation as stewards. We are reluctant to assume that since we have to pay the mortgage, we, not God, are the real owners of our home. After all, God did not sacrifice anything for ten years to pay the down payment on our summer cottage. He will not be the one winterizing the swimming pool during the next few weeks. And His name is not on the bank account from which the lease payments on the new SUV are deducted. 

On the morning of his 16th birthday Alan woke up the moment his alarm clock sounded. He sprung out of bed with the energy of a hyper-teenager. The day that he had been waiting for had finally arrived. He wondered what his parent's birthday present would be-a new car or a new sailboat. Alan's family was quite wealth and the purchase of either would not have placed a strain on the family budget. After breakfast, his Dad invited him to go for a drive. After a few turns, Alan knew that they were headed for the yacht club. His excitement began to build. He could almost envision his new skiff. As they were walking from the parking lot to the marina, he could see himself sailing along the Eastern seaboard, driven by a steady breeze with several beautiful girls sitting alongside him. When they go to the docks, his father took him to a slip in which a beautiful new boat was moored. It was more than he ever dreamed. But then, his father told him something that would forever change his life. His father said, "Son, now you have no reason not to tell every person in your school about Jesus Christ."4

Alan's father taught the young man a valuable lesson. The family wealth was merely a resource that God had entrusted to them. It was not their own. It was not to be used for the vain pursuit of personal gratification and selfish indulgence. They had a responsibility to use their money and possessions to tell others about the good news of Jesus Christ. Alan learned that lesson at an early age. He then continued to apply it throughout his life. He would later become a successful businessman but each Friday night he would open his home and hold a Bible study for young people. He also gave generously to his church and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary eventually serving on the Board of Directors. God used Alan to bring many people to Christ simply because the New England businessman learned that he was merely a steward of his wealth and not its owner.

John Calvin notes that most of us are neither as generous nor as frugal with our resources.

...there are so many ways of abusing the gifts of God, that some incur guilt in one way, and some in another.5

We can all think of times when we have squandered the opportunities before us or used our money and possessions for purely selfish motives. Too often times, we make decisions on the clothes we wear or, the cars we drive based on the pursuit of personal pleasures rather than considering the needs of the poor or the preservation of the environment. Whenever we have done so, we have squandered the resources entrusted to our care. Could we, as the dishonest manager, not also stand accused of squandering the wealth that God has entrusted to our care?

Once confronted by his master the steward assesses the situation, makes his plan, and acts. Jesus did not praise the manager for his unethical character but for his decisiveness. His lack of ethics is accepted as a given. Judgment toward the illegal conduct is suspended. Jesus is impressed with the man's response to the pending catastrophe. He does not become bogged down in guilt. 

We are praising President Bush for his decisiveness in responding to the attack on America. He is not spending time assigning blame for the glitch that occurred in our foreign intelligence. He is not whining about the unfairness of the situation. He is not pointing fingers at other countries. He has formulated a plan and is responding to the crises.

Throughout history, the Church has had a crippling preoccupation with guilt producing a deadly, entanglement with the past. As a pastor I have listened to many people, tell me the haunting memories of their past misdeeds. Guilt has immobilized them. The liberal theologians in the Church have overreacted to this excessive guilt and shame syndrome by translating the "I'm OK, you're OK," theme into religious jargon. However, in their attempt to relieve the burden the have produced a meaningless gospel. A friend of Richard John Neuhaus proposed a new formula, "I'm not OK, you're not OK, but that's OK!"6 His suggestion is not some trite cliché. It recognizes the fallenness of each of us. We stand accused and convicted before God. We have squandered his resources by the things we have done and the things we have left undone. But rather than wallow in guilt and self-pity, we accept our condition, confess our sin, and serve with a passionate freedom to rectify our misdeeds. 

During the summer of 1982, our nation was mired in a recession. Politicians used the economic crises to their own personal advantage. Both parties cast blame on the other. They were fixated on failures, shortcomings, and faults. Robert Schuller stated, "Everybody was fixing the blame but no one was fixing the problem!"7 So, the master mind of possibility thinking, wrote a book to offer an alternative to blame casting entitled, Tough Times Never Last But Tough People Do! He writes:

In difficult times, people too often lose the ability to face the future optimistically. They begin to think about their tomorrows negatively.

They forget that the tough time will pass. They concentrate on the problems of today rather than on the opportunities of tomorrow. In so doing, they not only lose the potential of today, they also throw away the beauty of tomorrow.8

The dishonest manager does not allow indecisiveness to prevent him from responding. The time comes for him to act. He takes what is available and implements his plan. He does not know if it will work. But what difference does it make. His master already has enough evidence to throw him in jail. What is the difference between 10 years or 15 years in purgatory? He is willing to wheel and deal to regain his job. He was willing to risk it all for the possibility of forgiveness.

1 William H. Willimon, "Wheeling and Dealing with an Eye toward the Future," Pulpit Resource, September 20, 1998, Vol. 26, no. 3, 47, 48.
2 Kenneth E. Bailey, Combined edition, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, Eerdmans Publishing, 1991, 86 states that the problems raise by the parable so complex that Bultmann consider them insoluable.
3 The Gospel of Luke, ed. William Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, electronic ed., Logos Library System;The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 2000, c1975).
4 The story was retold by Richard Norwood who first heard it during a Bible study for young people in the home of Alan Emery. 
5 John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries: The Harmony of the Gospels : Calvin's Commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke, electronic ed., Logos Library System; Calvin's Commentaries (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998)
6 Richard John Neuhas, Freedom for Ministry, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 22,23 
7 Robert H. Schuller, Tough Time Never Last, But Tough People Do! (Toronto: Bantum Books, 1983), 13.
8 Schuller, 185.

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