September 22, 2013 - Luke 16.1-13

“The Taming of the Shrewd”

Luke 16:1-13

September 22, 2013

 

16 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.

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. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.”[1]

 

Something happened Thursday in Hopkins, Minnesota that has gotten a lot of attention.   A young man, Joey Prusak was appalled when he saw a customer at the suburban Minneapolis Dairy Queen store where he works pick up someone else's $20 bill and slip it into her purse.

So when the woman got up to the counter to order, Prusak refused to serve her unless she returned the money. When the woman refused, the 19-year-old store manager went a step further: He gave the visually impaired customer who hadn't realized he'd dropped the money $20 out of his own pocket.

"I was just doing what I thought was right," Prusak said Thursday as he recalled the incident from earlier this month. "I did it without even really thinking about it. ... Ninety-nine out of 100 people would've done the same thing as me."

Even so, Prusak has received loads of praise since a customer's email about him to Dairy Queen was posted online.

Now, people are calling the store, thanking Prusak and even offering him jobs. Customer traffic at the Hopkins Dairy Queen has doubled, and many people are leaving large tips -- money that Prusak says he will donate to charity.

Prusak said he even got a call Thursday from billionaire Warren Buffett, whose company owns Dairy Queen. "He called and thanked me for being a role model for all the other employees and people in general," Prusak said.

Prusak has worked at the Hopkins Dairy Queen since he was 14. He's trying to save money to go to school for business management and has managed the store since the spring.

The visually impaired customer who dropped the money during the Sept. 10 lunch rush was a regular. Prusak said he thought the woman who picked up the $20 bill would return it. Instead, she looked at the man, then put the cash in her purse.

"I was appalled," Prusak said. "I didn't know what to do or say."

What has surprised me about this story is not that the young man did what he did; he did what was right.  That should be expected.  Nor should it be surprising that someone tried to stole $20 from a blind man.  People have been taking advantage of others since God broke up the party in the Garden of Eden.

What surprises (and thrills) me is the profound amount of attention that this has garnered.  I imagine that this fascination with this story is really a product of our immediate social media.  This kind of thing has been happening all the time.

It is an example of the dual nature of humanity – the capacity for good and the capacity for bad.  We do them both.

Jesus’ parable often show this nature played out in the stories he tells.  The priest and Levite act badly and the Samaritan is good, for example.  But today we have a parable – a rare parable – where there does not seem to be anyone doing anything good at all.

 

Clarence Jordan has said that Jesus’ parables are often like Trojan Horses; they look really good on the outside, they sneak in, and then they unload on us a surprise attack.  Sometimes it is obvious what Jesus is saying, and sometimes it hurts us because we know we have failed.  Then there are parables like this: The parable of the “Shrewd Manager.”  Now in case you missed it, this is a difficult parable to interpret.  In fact, I am willing to bet, unless you have read through the book of Luke lately, you might be completely unfamiliar with this text.

Oh, we are quite familiar with the texts all around this one.  We know Luke 15 – lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal son, etc., and we feel we know Luke 16, with the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  But when was the last time you heard anything at all about this parable?  You won’t find it in Open Windows, or any devotional books.  Most Sunday School literature is going to skip over it; to by-pass it and preachers will avoid it.  Let me tell you why people like me, preachers and writers, stay away from this parable.  Nobody really knows what to do with it.  Commentators are stumped.  And the ones that say they are not stumped, all seem to be disagreeing with each other.

If you think you misunderstood what happened, you probably didn’t.  Yes, Jesus just told a story about a crooked manager, who was squandering his boss’ money, gets caught and fired.  The boss wants an audit and then tells him “You’re fired.” But before he gets put out, the steward falsifies the accounts for all of his boss’ renters – he “cooks the books” in other words – in order to be able to have some people “owe” him enough so that he will be able to provide for himself when he is put out on the street.

 

But not only that – lots of people in Jesus’ parables are rascals, so the steward is nothing new, really – what is really confusing about this parable is what happens when the Master finds out what the steward has done.  The master commends the steward on his actions, because “because he had acted shrewdly.”  WHAT?!?  Someone does something dishonest in Jesus’ story and they aren’t even told that what they did was wrong.  Wait one second.  Is there a part missing here?  Nope.  How in the world are we supposed to figure this thing out?  What exactly is it that we are being encouraged to go out and do?

Well, firstly, let’s not forget that it is more important to read the Bible first and wait on understanding later.  The Holy Spirit works on us.  Don’t lose hope.  Secondly, do not give up trying to understand a text when it stumps you, and resist the temptation to put something in the text that just isn’t there.

 

For instance, one commentator I read insists that the steward was simply cutting out his commission from each bill, and was no longer dishonest.  Sounds like a good idea, but it’s just not in the Bible.  To read that into it defeats the point of reading the parable.  Lots of the commentaries I read on this text kept trying to do things that just weren’t there.

So what happened here?  How are we to understand this story?  It always helps me to understand parables when I focus on the relationships in them.  The Master has a relationship to the Steward, and is typical in Jesus’ parables; the Master – who is most often associated with God the Father – shows an unexpected amount of love.  He did not punish the Steward further.  He seems to kind of chuckle and congratulate the steward for his creativity.  Why?

 

It reminds me of the story when the father went to Spank his son.  “Go to your room and think about what you have done until I get there,” he says.  When the father gets there he finds his 5 year old son wearing 14 pairs of underwear, 2 pairs of pants and has his teddy bear stuffed into the back of his breeches.  Now some fathers might not put up with that, but if this parable would be followed, the father would chuckle, spank the boy – cushions and all.

Clearly, what happens with the Steward is a lot like happens with the prodigal son in the previous chapter.  He realizes just how badly he has messed up, he realizes that he has done grievous wrong, so he tries to do what he can to secure his future.  The debts that he relieves from these people are not small potatoes.  They are significant amounts of their harvests, and would amount to large quantities of money.  He puts people in his debt so that he can have a future.  Plus, it is not at all contradictory to Jesus’ view of money to use it to liberate people.  In fact, that seems to be at the very heart of this parable.  Jesus’ is not above using money to set people free, even if it costs someone else their savings.

 

Now the parable ends at verse 8, and Jesus begins his commentary in verse 9.  He says, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth. Since we all have money, how can we best use it? The entirety of Luke 16 is about money, and in Lk.16:9 the lesson is that material possessions should be used to cement the friendships wherein the real and permanent value of life lies.  Jesus is offering us a commentary on how we are to act as stewards of what God has given us.  Just as God is the Master in this parable, we are the steward.  And have we not squandered what God has given us?  All money is dirty money in some way, Jesus is telling us what to do with it.  This is a foreshadowing of what happens with Lazarus and Dimes, the rich man, in the latter part of this chapter.

 

Jesus makes it clear that we are to handle material things so as to secure heaven and the future, not here and now.  In other words, unrighteous mammon, i.e. money, is filthy lucre, but since we all have to deal with it, it is best used to do something eternal with itIf we can’t handle our earthly wealth, then how in the world can God trust us with God’s riches?

I am reminded of a young man that was a youth in my ministry at a former church.  He had joined the army because he wanted to drive tanks.  He wrote to his mother during basic training and complained about how strict the army was about folding his socks and underwear.  He didn’t see the logic in whether or not his socks were folded right and what that had to do with anything.

His mother told him, “Son, how in the world can the army trust you to drive a tank worth a million dollars if you can’t even fold your socks?”

Same thing with God.

 

But we have been given much more than money.  We have all squandered our time, this earth, we all eat too much, we rest easy when others are trying to scratch out a living with no job and no prospects, we promise ourselves that we will get around to it, and we don’t.  What will be larger this year; Our Christmas shopping bills or Our Christmas Missions Offering? Aren’t we the steward in this parable?  Haven’t we been caught squandering what God has given us?  If you cannot see yourself in this, I can see myself all too clearly.

 

The Rabbis had a saying, "The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come." Ambrose, commenting on the rich fool who built bigger barns to store his goods, said, "The bosoms of the poor, the houses of widows, the mouths of children are the barns which last forever."  It was a Jewish belief that charity given to poor people would stand to a man's credit in the world to come.  A man's true wealth would consist not in what he kept, but in what he gave away.[2]

 

We are often faced with our failure, and we try to overcorrect ourselves by promising ourselves that starting tomorrow, I will be Mother Teresa or Saint Francis.  I will pray 3 hours a day, and do lots of good works.  The first day we pray for a little over one hour and fall asleep.  By the end of the week, we have failed, again.

No, what we can do is to try and live as Jesus says, to be faithful in the little things.  As Fred Craddock writes,

Most of us this week will not christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a Queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake.  More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday School class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat.[3]

 

Is God furious at us for our lame attempts at charity and good works?  Maybe, but it is not our works that save us.  Not at all.  I think that God probably looks at our feeble attempts at good works the way that a father looks at the drawing of a three year old – all squiggly and outside the lines – but there are no bad drawings here.  God loves us even though our works are nothing to be proud of.

 

What is the predicament that you are in?  Have you really been honest with yourself about who you are and what you’ve done?  All of us have not done enough.  All of us have a bunch of good works around our necks that don’t amount to anything when compared to what we could do and should have done.  How will you respond to God?

 

[1]The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

[2] William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, Luke, Ligouri Faithware.

[3] Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox, 1990) 192.

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