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The Commendable Scoundrel – Luke 16: 1-13

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost  [Pr. 20], September 17/18, 2016

Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA  -  The Rev. Roy Almquist

 

I am about to say something that I do not believe I have ever said from the pulpit.  As a result I think it might be fair to say that you are about to hear something you have never heard a preacher say.

I do not know what today’s Gospel lesson means!

 

Now the problem is not that I lack familiarity with the passage.  I know it well.  It comes up every three years, as a preaching text.  I have read the commentaries and I have looked at sermons by eminent preachers.  Through the years I have preached on the Dishonest Steward with variable degrees of brilliance!

 

Nevertheless, as I have pondered upon the text this week, I have found that nothing works for me.  I feel a duty to give you a clear explanation of our Scripture readings.  That is what you have a right to expect.  But I cannot tell you with certainty that I know what this parable means.

 

Now some of you might find my statement comforting.  Many people often find themselves confused by what they read in the Bible.  Their rational minds are drawn to inconsistencies and challenges.  So this morning you are not alone … you are in good company.

 

The story Jesus told his disciples was not complicated.  There was a rich man who had a manager, a steward, Jesus called him.   No doubt an absentee landlord, this rich man was told by a friend or some sort of first-century auditor that this particular manager was a bit of a thief, in that he was squandering the rich man’s possessions.  And so the master summoned the manager and said to him: I have received a rather disturbing report about your behavior.  I want you to give me a final accounting of your financial records … you can no longer remain in my employ.

 

Now this weasel of a manager, faced with this serious career disruption, said to himself:

What shall I do, since my master is taking this cushy job away from me?  I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg.  I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management, people will welcome me into their homes.

 

Here was a shady character who clearly understood the importance of a strategic plan!  One by one, he summoned his master’s debtors and he quickly cooked the books to their advantage.  He reduced the debt of each of his master’s creditors in a significant manner, so that they could not have been other than appreciative.  The less you have to pay the more profit you have … Economics 101!  You do not need a Wharton MBA to figure that out.

 

Now nothing surprises us when it comes to lying, cheating and fraud … it is all over the first section of the Philadelphia Inquirer every morning.  Where this story gets a little strange is the way it ends.  When the master of this dishonest steward found out what his manager had done, the master praised this scurrilous character because he had acted shrewdly.

 

In some ways Jesus is telling us a 21st century parable.  Our Lord offers us a barrel full of rascals:  the stealing manager, the crooked debtors, and the rich master who delights in an outrageous cheat … even at his expense!  This story is filled with the kind of unscrupulous characters that make up our most popular television shows.  I never cease to be impressed by how there is no correlation between public adoration and a commitment to truth and honesty!

 

Nevertheless, Jesus told this story, so we have every right to ask … what is the point?  In the sentences that follow the parable Our Lord gives us some indication of what he was trying to teach his disciples.  Critical to our making any sense of this parable are the concluding words Jesus used: … the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light   [Luke 16: 10].

 

Let me venture, with fear and trembling, a few comments on our Gospel lesson:

First of all, I can think of few things that obsess us more than wealth … the lack of it, the desire to gain it, the fear of losing it.  Much of our waking thoughts are focused on economic concerns … how will we pay the bills this month … the tuition is due … can we afford to buy a car or should we fix the old one … will I have enough to retire … on and on it goes.  This is not evil thinking … it is realistic.  We are all called to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us.  We wonder if we have and will have enough.

Financial security is a great blessing, but it is also a responsibility.  Our Lord was clear:  To whomever much is given, much shall be required.

The expression has become a cliché, but I find eternal wisdom in clichés:  We have been blessed in order that we may be a blessing.  What is more central to our faith as Christians than this?  While I have a problem with finding “good” in the shrewd steward of our Gospel lesson, he did understand that money was like manure … it can do good only if it is spread around.

Every time we gather for worship we are given an opportunity to do something outrageous and counter-culture … we call it an offering.  In a world where so many are trying to acquire wealth for their own good and only part with it if they can gain value from the transaction, Christians give voluntarily, joyfully, often sacrificially.

Shannon and I write a check to Washington Memorial Chapel in excess of $100 every weekend … simply to express our appreciation for all that God has done for us … and to make a statement that we own our financial resources … they do not own us.  We are determined to worship God and not succumb to some hollow form of worshipping Mammon, what our Lord defines as the greedy pursuit of wealth and financial gain.

Finally, I think our Lord would seek to remind us today that wealth – along with prestige, beauty, health, and privilege – is fleeting.  Like the figure in our parable, we can have our sense of control and security drastically changed … through our own failures or from circumstances beyond our control.

The global financial meltdown of 2008 is a harsh reminder of how quickly our lives can be changed through no fault of our own.  We cannot control what happens tomorrow … but we can be sustained by the God who controls all our tomorrows and promises us that nothing will ever take us out of his loving care.

 

So let us not forget, dear friends, that we have been placed here in this world to love and care for one another.  We have been placed here to reach out to those who are lost and caught in the bramble bushes of life.

 

St. Augustine of Hippo once said:

God gave us people to love and things to use; original sin manifests itself in our penchant to confuse those two, loving things and using people.

I think the 4th century African bishop got it right.  This is our great challenge.  Most of us truly believe that our faith is in God, and yet we spend so much of our time and our nervous energy focused on wealth, property, and possessions … the great idol that would seek to erode and topple our faith.

 

Today Jesus speaks to us through a perverse little parable and he gives us a choice.  We can embrace the way of the world with all its subtle encouragements to compromise, to cheat, and to pursue only those activities that are self-serving.  Or we can embrace the gracious gift of God’s love and do our best to live into the promises associated with our Baptism.

 

Be shrewd now in your choice.  Our decisions shape our destiny.  AMEN.

 

The Commendable Scoundrel - Luke 16: 1-13

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Pr. 20], September 17/18, 2016

Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA – The Rev. Roy Almquist

I am about to say something that I do not believe I have ever said from the pulpit. As a result I think it might be fair to say that you are about to hear something you have never heard a preacher say.

I do not know what today’s Gospel lesson means!

Now the problem is not that I lack familiarity with the passage. I know it well. It comes up every three years, as a preaching text. I have read the commentaries and I have looked at sermons by eminent preachers. Through the years I have preached on the Dishonest Steward with variable degrees of brilliance!

Nevertheless, as I have pondered upon the text this week, I have found that nothing works for me. I feel a duty to give you a clear explanation of our Scripture readings. That is what you have a right to expect. But I cannot tell you with certainty that I know what this parable means.

Now some of you might find my statement comforting. Many people often find themselves confused by what they read in the Bible. Their rational minds are drawn to inconsistencies and challenges. So this morning you are not alone … you are in good company.

The story Jesus told his disciples was not complicated. There was a rich man who had a manager, a steward, Jesus called him. No doubt an absentee landlord, this rich man was told by a friend or some sort of first-century auditor that this particular manager was a bit of a thief, in that he was squandering the rich man’s possessions.  And so the master summoned the manager and said to him: I have received a rather disturbing report about your behavior. I want you to give me a final accounting of your financial records … you can no longer remain in my employ.

Now this weasel of a manager, faced with this serious career disruption, said to himself:

What shall I do, since my master is taking this cushy job away from me?  I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg.  I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management, people will welcome me into their homes.

Here was a shady character who clearly understood the importance of a strategic plan! One by one, he summoned his master’s debtors and he quickly cooked the books to their advantage. He reduced the debt of each of his master’s creditors in a significant manner, so that they could not have been other than appreciative. The less you have to pay the more profit you have … Economics 101! You do not need a Wharton MBA to figure that out.

Now nothing surprises us when it comes to lying, cheating and fraud … it is all over the first section of the Philadelphia Inquirer every morning. Where this story gets a little strange is the way it ends. When the master of this dishonest steward found out what his manager had done, the master praised this scurrilous character because he had acted shrewdly.

In some ways Jesus is telling us a 21st century parable. Our Lord offers us a barrel full of rascals: the stealing manager, the crooked debtors, and the rich master who delights in an outrageous cheat … even at his expense! This story is filled with the kind of unscrupulous characters that make up our most popular television shows. I never cease to be impressed by how there is no correlation between public adoration and a commitment to truth and honesty!

Nevertheless, Jesus told this story, so we have every right to ask … what is the point? In the sentences that follow the parable Our Lord gives us some indication of what he was trying to teach his disciples. Critical to our making any sense of this parable are the concluding words Jesus used: … the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light [Luke 16: 10].

Let me venture, with fear and trembling, a few comments on our Gospel lesson:

  • First of all, I can think of few things that obsess us more than wealth … the lack of it, the desire to gain it, the fear of losing it. Much of our waking thoughts are focused on economic concerns … how will we pay the bills this month … the tuition is due … can we afford to buy a car or should we fix the old one … will I have enough to retire … on and on it goes. This is not evil thinking … it is realistic. We are all called to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us. We wonder if we have and will have enough.

  • Financial security is a great blessing, but it is also a responsibility. Our Lord was clear: To whomever much is given, much shall be required.

The expression has become a cliché, but I find eternal wisdom in clichés: We have been blessed in order that we may be a blessing. What is more central to our faith as Christians than this? While I have a problem with finding “good” in the shrewd steward of our Gospel lesson, he did understand that money was like manure … it can do good only if it is spread around.

Every time we gather for worship we are given an opportunity to do something outrageous and counter-culture … we call it an offering. In a world where so many are trying to acquire wealth for their own good and only part with it if they can gain value from the transaction, Christians give voluntarily, joyfully, often sacrificially.

Shannon and I write a check to Washington Memorial Chapel in excess of $100 every weekend … simply to express our appreciation for all that God has done for us … and to make a statement that we own our financial resources … they do not own us. We are determined to worship God and not succumb to some hollow form of worshipping Mammon, what our Lord defines as the greedy pursuit of wealth and financial gain.

  • Finally, I think our Lord would seek to remind us today that wealth – along with prestige, beauty, health, and privilege – is fleeting. Like the figure in our parable, we can have our sense of control and security drastically changed … through our own failures or from circumstances beyond our control.

The global financial meltdown of 2008 is a harsh reminder of how quickly our lives can be changed through no fault of our own. We cannot control what happens tomorrow … but we can be sustained by the God who controls all our tomorrows and promises us that nothing will ever take us out of his loving care.

So let us not forget, dear friends, that we have been placed here in this world to love and care for one another. We have been placed here to reach out to those who are lost and caught in the bramble bushes of life.

St. Augustine of Hippo once said:

God gave us people to love and things to use; original sin manifests itself in our penchant to confuse those two, loving things and using people.

I think the 4th century African bishop got it right. This is our great challenge. Most of us truly believe that our faith is in God, and yet we spend so much of our time and our nervous energy focused on wealth, property, and possessions … the great idol that would seek to erode and topple our faith.

Today Jesus speaks to us through a perverse little parable and he gives us a choice. We can embrace the way of the world with all its subtle encouragements to compromise, to cheat, and to pursue only those activities that are self-serving. Or we can embrace the gracious gift of God’s love and do our best to live into the promises associated with our Baptism.

Be shrewd now in your choice. Our decisions shape our destiny. AMEN.