Learning a Lesson from the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – 9/23/07 – Luke 16:1-9

This message comes with a two point preface. Number one: this is not a very ethical sermon. Or rather, the message you are about to hear contains some rather shady ethics, some questionable behavior you really shouldn’t try at home, or at work, or at school. The great idea of basing a worship service on such a topic did not come from me, but comes from the lectionary cycle of scriptures that we follow which has brought us now to Luke chapter 16 – A parable about a wealthy absentee businessman and his cheating Chief Financial Officer. What Jesus was thinking when he told this parable is not at all clear to the casual reader skimming through scripture looking for jewels of wisdom to live by. This parable has no Good Samaritan figure who comes along and puts bandages on all the wounds, no prodigal son who changes course and remorsefully comes back home, no seed on good soil that grows into a great harvest. This is down and dirty, every one for their own self, survival of the shrewdest. What Jesus might want us to learn from a story about a couple of scoundrels is the task in front of us this morning.

Point number two of the preface: you’re going to want to have your Bibles open for this one. Luke 16:1-9, Page 953 in the church Bibles.

When you think of all the parables Jesus must have had in his head it is rather impressive. Some people collect baseball cards, others collect coins or model cars. Jesus was a collector of parables. Everywhere he went he was on the lookout for ways that the world around him connected to the aliveness and goodness of God’s dream for the world, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. He walks through the countryside and sees farmers hard at work scattering seeds on different kinds of terrain, with the seeds growing at different rates of success, and he collects that image into a parable that he later tells. In the home in times of meal preparation he notices how a small amount of yeast works its way through the entire batch of dough, and he gathers that up as a parable, and lets it stay warm on the back burner of his mind to bring out and show to others at a proper time. In reading the gospels, especially Luke, it seems that Jesus has a parable for every occasion, able to see the fingerprints of God in just about all facets of creation. It makes me wonder how many parables I might be able to see each day if I were to keep my eyes open. One of Jesus’ underlying messages of all his parable–telling is “Hey, pay attention people. You never know when you may stumble across a collectible parable.”

It has been observed by Pastor John Rich, who just so happens to be Amy Rich’s husband, that parables often show up in places of work, and that parables, themselves, are work — hard work. It takes time and effort to investigate the original context in which they were spoken, to carefully interpret what’s being said, and to work to internalize the message and see the world in a new way.

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager is one of those that demands hard work. It’s difficult to understand, and, once you get the basics of what’s going on, it seems to be so counter to our moral sensibilities that it’s hard to figure out what in the world Jesus is trying to teach from this story – why he collected this one in the first place. But as John has also noted, The hard work of “interpreting Parables is part of our employment as disciples of Jesus the Rabbi, the Teacher” (John Rich sermon, “Management Parables,” 9/2/07). So let’s put in some time and go to work with this morning’s parable.

V. 1 of Luke chapter 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.”

The first thing to note is who Jesus is speaking to. In chapter 15, during the three lost and found parables, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees, who didn’t know they were lost and would have been challenged by these stories. The Pharisees haven’t really gone away as we learn later in chapter 16, but Luke would like us to know that what Jesus now has to say he is speaking to his disciples. If the Pharisees needed to hear the “lost and found” parables, what is it that the disciples need to hear?

The parable begins: “There was a rich man who had a manager.” Right away we are introduced to the two main characters of the story. The manager would have been a lead slave, probably born into the rich man’s household and now having top decision making authority over the financial affairs and business transactions of his master. The rate of land owner absenteeism was extremely high in Jesus’ time, so the rich man most likely lived a good distance away from this estate, a possibility made all the more likely by the fact that the report of this manager’s misconduct is brought to the master, prompting him to summon the manager to him. The accusation that this man was “squandering his property” connects with the previous parable of the youngest son “squandering” his share of his father’s property.

Although we may have the tendency to take sides right away, we shouldn’t be so quick to pre-determine which of these characters, if either, is the good guy. The manager could very likely be a shady figure, but so far this is just a charge that is brought against him. Maybe it’s a false charge. The rich man should not get our instant sympathy. Luke’s entire gospel is quite skeptical of the rich, and after this story Jesus will go on to tell of the rich man and poor Lazarus, with the rich man getting a harsh judgment. In a limited good society, it was believed that wealth was a zero sum game. The peasants would have scorned the rich because their extravagant wealth meant the desperate poverty of others. So after one verse, we’re not quite sure where each of these characters stands.

Verse two begins with the master summoning the manager and inquiring about the charge. Apparently, the master takes the rumor as fact. Before the manager can get in a line the master fires him, telling him to get the accounts in order for the slave who will succeed him and then hit the road. “Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot by my manager any longer.”

In response to this we get this interior monologue from the manager, a window inside his thoughts. “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…pause…I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” Since he doesn’t try and defend himself, we are left to conclude that he is, indeed, guilty as charged. He has squandered his master’s property. He has cooked the books, made dirty deals, and no doubt personally profited off his master’s wealth. The corporate scandal of first century Palestine has just been broken wide open and will soon be all over the papers.

The manager goes into survival mode. As soon as he gets these accounts in order he’s out on the street with no job and a lousy reputation. What is he going to do? Having had a desk job his whole life he’s pretty certain that he’s not strong enough to be make it in the manual labor line of work, and he’s been living the good life long enough that he knows he can’t stoop so low so as to join the begging industry. So he gets an idea in his head for how he can have plenty of friends who’ll be good to him once he loses his manager status.

This is about the time we would expect a change of heart on the part of the manager. He realizes his wrong doing, he recognizes his own weakness and need for God, and repents, thus providing us with a nice model of the repentant sinner, that squandering prodigal who comes back home to start all over.

But, alas, this is not the case. As was mentioned earlier, this is not a very ethical story. Now in verse five, it’s the manager who does the summoning. This time all of the master’s debtors are asked to show up for a short one-on-one meeting with the lame duck manager. While he still has control of managing this estate he’s going to carry out an investment that will be as good as gold for his personal retirement plans. He calls in each person who owes money to his master and we get two brief examples of what those conversations were like. Both debtors owed large, commercial size sums. Both debtors, without explanation from the manager, receive significant debt reduction – 50% and 20%. The urgency of the situation is highlighted in the words to the first debtor who owes 100 jugs – about 900 gallons – of olive oil. “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.”

By reducing their debts to his master, the manager has skillfully and shrewdly created a debt of goodwill toward himself. All of the debtors of this rich man are now relieved of a great portion of their burden, all thanks to this kind and generous manager. No matter what anybody else says about him, this manager will no doubt always be welcome in their homes and at their table. The manager has gained a whole slew of friends, ready to help him out with favors and has thus secured his future. A brilliant move. The parable ends with a response from the boss we may not have expected. After discovering what the manager has done, the master “commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”

Over the centuries a number of commentators have tried to make this into an ethical ending, searching for signs of a changed heart in the manager. Perhaps, some have suggested, the money that the manager discounted from the debts was actually his personal commission. He was being selfless in forgoing his personal profit and having them pay only what was really the master’s money, thus he is commended by his master. Or perhaps, others have suggested, he is docking off the interest that had accrued over the years, allowing debtors to revert back to paying only the principle. Both manager and master come out looking good here for their just, generous agreement of how to relate to the debtors. These are creative suggestions, but go against the real spirit of the parable.

One of the best illustrations I can think of that parallels the ending of this parable comes from the movie “Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels.” To put it in a nutshell, the film is a story of two con artists who end up being conned themselves by a woman who they were trying to trick into giving them $50,000. When they find out they’ve been conned out of $50,000 by this woman, one’s response is to go into a rant about how lousy and deceitful and dishonest this woman was to them, making them believe she was an innocent victim of their trickery. The other’s response, however, is to affectionately praise the genius of this woman for her conning skills, even though he was her victim. This latter response is the one the master took in this parable. The rich man had become rich because of his shrewdness and, even though he has been duped by his manager, he recognizes a kindred spirit when he sees it and congratulates him on his shrewdness. So ends this parable of Jesus. Does anyone feel morally edified yet?

Why, we might ask again, does Jesus choose to tell this parable to the disciples? What can be gained from this window into a day in the life of a couple of scoundrels, manager and master? What should we be looking for when confronted with situations oozing with unethical behavior?

In light of Jesus’ comments after this story, it would appear that we should be looking for…one thing. Jesus is strangely silent on the character flaws and trickery in the parable. He doesn’t condemn anything. But he does speak to the one redeemable quality of these children of this age. The one thing Jesus hones in on here is something the manager and master do even better than the disciples — their shrewdness. Shrewdness, which can also be translated “prudence”, “clever wisdom” — this we may remember, is a quality Jesus taught the disciples to have. “Be shrewd as serpents, innocent as doves.” So here we have those serpents modeling that creative, sharp wisdom Jesus would like his disciples to have.

Here’s Eugene Peterson’s extremely loose translation of Jesus’ comments after the parable, vv. 8 and 9. “Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people and smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right. Using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior” (The Message).

Looking for angles, clever wisdom, using our wits for creative expressions of God’s love. So begins the hard work of digesting parable truth and letting it energize our minds and bodies in new ways. One example of such creativity in this congregation this past summer was the yard sale that raised nearly $2000 for the Free to Breathe project. Where some might have just seen the burden of a house full of stuff that we need to get rid of so we can get new renters inside, some of you shrewdly saw the opportunity to raise money for the health clinic in El Salvador that is helping children with respiratory problems. So you summoned volunteers and went about the good work of offering furniture and household goods to our neighbors in Cincinnati so that we can offer respirators and health care goods to our neighbors in El Salvador.

How else might we continue to grow in the kind of clever wisdom we are being called to here?

Stepping back a bit from the shrewdness theme…I take this parable as a sign that every situation, no matter how warped, twisted, or quagmired it may be, has some redeemable element in it. We disciples who can become so concerned about ethics, and who can easily condemn unfairness, injustice, fiscal irresponsibility, and general scoundrel-like behavior, might not always be looking in the place Jesus would have us look. In this particular story, given the opportunity to either condemn the 99% of the behavior that was unethical, or to highlight the 1% of the behavior that was redeemable, Jesus goes after that one percent, gathers it up, and holds it in the light for the disciples to see. In this way, this parable is not so different from the ones just before — the shepherd in the field and the woman in the house who are on the lookout for that one item, and when they find that one item, in this case, that one redeemable quality of these scoundrel’s behavior, shrewdness/cleverness…when that is found –you make a big deal over it and show it to all your friends and neighbors.

So once again, Jesus is teaching us blind disciples, how to see the world. What to pay attention to, where to look, where God’s mustard seed size presence has the potential to grow into a large tree where all the birds come and rest. God, who is alive in our world not as one who condemns, but one who redeems.