Thursday, September 19, 2013

Get Shrewd - Luke 16:1-13

New Testament Lesson                                                           Luke 16:1-13

16:1 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.

16:2 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.'

16:3 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.

16:4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.'

16:5 So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'

16:6 He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.'

16:7 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.'

16:8 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.

16:9 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.

16:10 "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.

16:11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?

16:12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

16:13 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."


I had a terrible experience this past week.

            I was on Facebook and there was a discussion on my high school’s alumni page.  Several people were posting what year they graduated from this little high school in this tiny little town in South Carolina.  One person, whose name I did not recognize, posted, “Class of 1972.”

            That’s my class.  Now there were only 52 people who graduated in that class in that little high school in that tiny little town in South Carolina – and I did not recognize her name.  Her first name was Jan, which is common enough, but I did not remember a Jan in our clas.  I looked at her Facebook page and she had some photos of herself including one with her in a high school graduation gown– and I saw that photo of her as a young person, that’s when I realized, this was my old girl friend.  Back then she went by the name Janet, and she went by her maiden name.  But her current photos were also there – she now has grey hair.  Her formerly youthful, soft skin now has the look of tough leather.  She has all these deep, deep wrinkles.

            She was a painful reminder that time is marching on.

            Now I suppose that if she looked at my Facebook page she would wonder what happened to that slim, trim boy she used to know – and what’s with the grey hair in my beard and the reverse yarmulke in the back of my scalp. 

            Time marches on! 

            Every person here is running out of time.  Each of us is a fleeting breath.  We are flickering candles that could be blown out at any moment.  We are, as Isaiah put it in the Old Testament, flourishing like a flower of the field, and then the wind passes over the flower, and it is gone.

            Now before you take this as a reason for despair, don’t!

            That time is marching on is not a reason to be depressed about the shortness of our lives, but to instead embrace the reality of the brevity of our lives and to feel the same sense of urgency that this man in the New Testament felt.
            This man – this “dishonest manager” in the New Testament lesson is a man whose time is short and he suddenly embraces the reality of urgency.

            He has been given notice by his boss!  He is about to lose his job because of mismanagement and dishonesty and he figures out a way to save his neck.  He does not become the model employee, but rather he does what he has always done – he acts dishonestly.  He acts in his own self interest.  And Jesus tells his disciples, we have to be more like this man.

            Oh really?  We have to be like this dishonest man? 

            This is a difficult parable, and a tough one for us to understand.

            The parable of the “Unjust Manager” is the all-too-familiar story of corporate greed and crime.  The CEO of a corporation discovers a trusted employee who has been charged with being a manager, but who has been negligent, dishonest, cooking the books, taking money under the table – you name it, this man has done it.  And he is caught and called on the carpet.

            The CEO comes in and says, “What is this I hear about you?  You’ve squandered and pilfered resources of the company.  You are giving us a bad name.  Get out of here!  You’re fired!  Security will escort you out of the building after they watch you clean out your desk.”

            The man in the parable goes into a full-scale crisis mode.  He is in a state of panic.  “I’ve run out of time!  What am I going to do now?  I’ve lost my job.  I have no other skills.  I’m not going to get a reference from my last job.  I’m too old and weak to dig ditches or work in manual labor.  I’m not about to go begging on the street.”

            He worries, he stresses, he agonizes.

            He’s gotta do something and he’s gotta do it now!

            And then he comes to a great solution. 

            It’s not a Christian, saintly solution.  But it is a savvy solution.

            He gets the lead out and begins to contact each and every one of the company’s clients.  He reduces their accounts payable. 

            “How much do you owe us,” he asks.  “You’ve been a good customer.  I tell you what I’m going to do.  I’m going to cut your payment in HALF.  And by the way, if anything should happen to me, don’t forget we had this little deal.   I scratch your back, you scratch mine.”

            In other words, he is using every bit of his energy, intelligence, and creativity to find a way to survive.

            This is a difficult parable.  It is hard to understand why Jesus is lifting up this crook as a model by which Christians should follow. 

            But understand, Jesus is not talking here to the world at large.  He is in a staff meeting.

            Luke 15, the chapter that comes immediately BEFORE today’s New Testament lesson, begins this way…
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”   Then Jesus told them this parable…”  He tells THEM, meaning the Pharisees and teachers who are the outsiders.  And to THEM, he tells the loving parable of the 100 sheep.  One little lamb is lost, so the shepherd leaves the 99 and finds the one lost lamb and rejoices. 
And then Jesus tells THEM – meaning the outsiders – the parable of the lost coin. 
And then Jesus tells THEM – those same outsiders, the parable of the lost son.
And then Jesus, at the beginning of our New Testament lesson, turns from the outsiders and begins to have a private staff meeting.  The doors are closed and Jesus addresses the few, the noble, the twelve disciples.  And the New Testament lesson for today starts this way:
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions.”
And then Jesus tells them about this dishonest manager. 
Now if you think the parable is going to end with the master not only firing the dishonest manager, but also having him thrown in jail, think again. 
            When Jesus concludes this parable, he says, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”

            Jesus, in speaking privately to his disciples, are telling them, and us, that we should show the same energy, intelligence, and creativity in being good as the dishonest manager showed in being evil. 

            Jesus is no longer talking to THEM – those outsiders.  He is talking to the inner circle and he is telling them – we’ve got to be more like THEM.  The worldly unchristian people use every bit of energy, creativity and imagination, and they are doing these things with the sense of urgency as if they are running out of time  – and you need to be like them.

            Jesus calls them “shrewd,” and there is nothing wrong with being shrewd.  In the Greek language, this word appears several times in the Gospels and is translated in a variety of ways.  “Prudent.”  “Intelligent.”  “Wise.”  “Savvy.”

            Jesus is telling us, we need to be like that.

            Jesus tells us we can’t serve two masters – so we need to be very devoted to the ONE master, God Almighty.  And we need to serve our master in a way that is shrewd, prudent, intelligence, wise, savvy.  We need to use the sort of energy that this dishonest manager used.

            Jesus sounds discouraged when he makes the observation, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”

            Some of you are probably unaware that prior to entering the ministry, I worked in the South Carolina Department of Corrections.  One day, one of our coworkers locked her keys in her car.  Several of us tried to help.  We all gathered around with a bent up old coat hanger and each of us impatiently saying, “let me try, I can open that door.”  And each of us tried and each of us said, “I’ve almost got it, I’ve almost got it.”  But of course, none of us were able to open it.

            And then it dawned on me.  We are at a state prison.  All we have to do is go look in the files and pick someone who was incarcerated for grand theft auto.  We picked one.  Brought him to the parking lot under the watchful eye of a corrections officer. 

            Two seconds.

            This man was an artist.  He opened that door with such ease it was amazing.

            It was then that I began to revise my view of the inmates.  Where I once looked at them as poorly educated, I now realized that they were highly trained.  They may not know who wrote Moby Dick, but they knew how to break into a home.  Where I once looked at them as lazy, I now understood that they were hard working at their craft.  It took time and energy to plan an embezzlement.

            Jesus is saying that all of that time and energy and skill that inmates put into their criminal activities, we need to put that time and energy and skill into our godly activities.  Jesus is saying that the kind of energy that the evil manager put into his self centered and devious form of preservation, we need to put into loving our neighbors.


            We need to act as if there is a sense of urgency.

            Because time is passing.  Opportunities to serve God NOW, might not be with us next week or even in the next hour.

            There is an opportunity to volunteer to be a mentor at school.  The opportunity is now.  But unlike the dishonest manager who wisely, shrewdly and prudently rushes to strike while the fire is hot, we sit back and casually think, “I’ll do that later.  When I retire.  Or next year when the kids are out of school.-”

            There is an opportunity to volunteer with the youth in our church.  The opportunity is now.  But we wait.  Maybe later.

            There is an opportunity now to teach in Sunday School, assist in worship, call on the sick or the lonely.  But we think later is better than today because there is no urgency.

            In the parable for today, Jesus said, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”

            Wouldn’t it be great if we turned the tables on that? 

            Wouldn’t it be great if we began to serve the Lord with that same sense of urgency?  Same energy?  Same creativity?

            In the Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah’s voice is so sad.  It is so desperate.

            My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick… Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”

That phrase, “a balm in Gilead,” was part of the African American hymn that we sang a few minutes ago.  It is an old hymn, and one that was quoted in Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, THE RAVEN -

"Is there – is there balm in Gilead? – tell me – tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore".

            But the Raven was wrong.  Christ is that comfort to us, and we in turn are to be the comfort to the world.  Whenever joy is gone, as in Jeremiah’s time, and grief is upon the people, that is when the church should respond.

            And we need to do that with creativity, intelligence, wisdom and urgency!

            NOW is the time to serve the Lord.